Mental Health Week

  • Monday 9th May 2022

Loneliness: thinking about it existentially


What is loneliness?

As a relatively new term, emerging alongside the rise of individualism in the eighteenth century, loneliness is now very much part of daily life and language. It is represented culturally in all forms of the arts, is recognized in clinical settings and is measured by governments.

Loneliness has been described as ‘a conscious cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others; an emotional lack that concerns a person’s place in the world’ (Bound Alberti 2019). It is different from being alone.


The stats

The Office for National statistics reports that:

  • In 2016 to 2017, there were 5% of adults in England who reported feeling lonely “often” or “always”.
  • Younger adults aged 16 to 24 years reported feeling lonely more often than those in older age groups.
  • Women reported feeling lonely more often than men.
  • Those single or widowed were at particular risk of experiencing loneliness more often.
  • People in poor health or who have conditions they describe as “limiting” were also at particular risk of feeling lonely more often.
  • Renters reported feeling lonely more often than homeowners.
  • People who feel that they belong less strongly to their neighbourhood reported feeling lonely more often.
  • People who have little trust of others in their local area reported feeling lonely more often.


What underlies these stats? Is loneliness part of life, something we all experience as part of being human?  Or is it something more concerning – a problem to be managed?

Well loneliness can be both. It is part of being human. We all make choices, have freedoms, take on responsibilities. Ultimately, these are ours to own and manage. At times for some people this can make us feel lonely and stressed and at other times, or perhaps concurrently, it can be liberating and creative.   


But loneliness for others can be a debilitating combination of emotions including anger, fear, sadness and other very individual emotions which can feel completely overwhelming and persistent, so becoming a mental health issue.  Loneliness has also been shown to be linked to poor physical health. It is something which is felt in the whole body, it is somatic.  


Structural and economic factors contribute to peoples’ sense of loneliness and have adverse effects on communities.  So loneliness has become an issue of increasing interest to policy-makers at local and national levels. For example, in 2018 a Minister for Loneliness was appointed

#and after the murder of Jo Cox MP the  Jo Cox Foundation[EY1]  was established.



Thinking about loneliness existentially

As we begin Mental Health Awareness week, it is a good time to think about loneliness from an existential perspective.  Existential practitioners can help us to think about our freedom to choose, how to embrace uncertainty and paradox, how to live more authentically (but also embrace our inauthenticity), how to trust others and what is most meaningful to us.

An existential approach is all about supporting people to think about life philosophically, and to use this to understand their sense of being, both on their own and with others. Understanding loneliness existentially is a useful frame for helping people work out what loneliness means for them and what life choices they have.


To find out more about how to think existentially about loneliness and to explore ways to support others who are lonely contact the NSPC admissions team and ask about the courses on Existential and Humanist Pastoral Care and/or check out the short courses at The Existential Academy

Written by Elizabeth young - Course Leader for the Pastoral Care