Dutch take practical approach to reduce loneliness
Don't worry if you have no soulmate, age is no barrier to making new friends and meaningful social involvement works best to combat loneliness, according to the combined wisdom of two organisations in the Netherlands which are collaborating to fight loneliness.
Lowering your own expectations is the first step.
Around 30 per cent of Dutch nationals are lonely and 10 per cent suffer from severe loneliness.
The voluntary organization, De Zonnebloem (The Sunflower), made loneliness the main theme of its Zonnebloem week starting September 3 and ending on the Zonnebloem Day of the Sick September 9 in a bid to raise public awareness of the needs of the sick and elderly.
The Zonnebloem was founded in 1945 to fight social isolation among sick, elderly or handicapped people. Today, the organisation has 600,000 members who enjoy the attention and friendship of 40,000 volunteers.
The volunteers take the Zonnebloem members to the theatre, play chess with them or drop by for a cup of coffee.
"Our organisation is undergoing dramatic changes," R Rijkers told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
"We have long been regarded as an organisation of elderly volunteers for elderly clients. This is no longer true. Loneliness and the need for social interaction affects all ages."
Last year, the Zonnebloem founded a special department for young clients and volunteers.
"It's very successful," says Rijkers, adding, "We want to expand our activities and attract more young people, both as volunteers and as clients."
Meaningful social involvement is the best way of combating loneliness, says sociology professor Jenny De Jong during a recent Loneliness Symposium.
The symposium, organized by the Zonnebloem, was held in Amersfoort, a city in the central Netherlands.
"Joining a sports club will not make you feel less lonely. However volunteering at the Zonnebloem to help others fight loneliness, will also make your own loneliness disappear," she added.
De Jong and her colleague, gerontology professor Theo van Tilburg, both affiliated with Amsterdam's Christian Vrije Universiteit, have been doing research about loneliness since 1965 and have interviewed tens of thousands of people.
What initially began as a national research project has meanwhile grown into an ongoing international study on loneliness conducted in 26 countries by local researchers.
At the symposium in Amersfoort, the two presented some interesting findings to an audience of 200 professionals in health care and social services.
Loneliness thresholds differ across countries
Among others, they asked the audience who was likely to be lonelier - a mother in cold Finland or a mother in warm Italy.
The audience overwhelmingly said Finnish mothers would be lonelier arguing Italy's stronger family life and the climate would improve people's social life.
"The contrary is true," De Jong told her audience. "Loneliness is caused by a discrepancy between personal expectations and reality.
In Italy, the expected norm is that children visit their parents regularly. If the adult son skips one visit, his mother immediately feels lonely.
By contrast, the Finnish mother knows half the country is snowed in for several months of the year. She also knows geographical distances are vast. As she does not expect weekly visits, she will not be lonely if her son drops by only twice per year."
Distinguishing between the ‘emotional’ and ‘social’
The researchers distinguish between ‘emotional’ and ‘social’ loneliness. Emotional loneliness results from a lack of a ‘meaningful’ friendship, while social loneliness indicates a lack of a broader social network.
Most people have between nine to 14 people in their social network; the more people one has, the less lonely one feels. People with more than 70 friends in their network are the least lonely, the researchers found.
As expected, married people are generally less lonely than single people. The difference is not caused by smaller social networks. The social networks of single people are comparable to those of married people.
In other words - single people do not suffer from social loneliness in larger numbers than married people. The problem is emotional loneliness - the lack of a meaningful relationship. In this respect, singles score very high.
"That does not mean that only a romantic relationship can bring people happiness," the researchers added.
"Singles, who fill the gap by forging close friendships with relatives or friends, are comparable with married people when it comes to emotional loneliness."
De Jong said: "The good news is that people can overcome loneliness at all ages by forging new friendships. Contrary to common belief, expanding your social network is possible at all ages, included very advanced ages."
But Van Tilburg warned: "There are no simple solutions. The best way to solve loneliness is to draft a working plan containing a number of activities."
Lowering your own expectations is the first step. Too many people are too focused on finding their soulmate. When they discover someone does not meet their expectations, they become disappointed and feel lonely."
"Forging several new friendships without expecting anything, will often make you realise over the years that one of them has become your close friend," De Jong added.
The researchers also gave the Zonnebloem professionals and volunteers at the symposium tools to help their clients.
Joining a club not the answer
"Don't advise someone to join a club. Someone who is socially isolated will feel lost once thrown into a group," De Jong said.
"It is better to sit down with someone and think of an activity where the person himself can play a meaningful role in other people's lives. Let him join an organisation like De Zonnebloem where he deals directly with other people in a socially meaningful way.”
13 September 2007
[Copyright DPA 2007]