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Lead academic: Fred Cooper (Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health)

Loneliness and Society: Building connection, belonging and community

COVID-19 update

Due to COVID-19, Grand Challenges will not be able to go ahead in its usual face to face format. Instead, we have launched an online programme similar to Grand Challenges called Challenges Online, running 22nd-26th June 2020. Please go to the Challenges Online website for more information and to sign up.

Grand Challenges will return in its usual format in 2021. 

Challenge overview

The toll that loneliness can take on our mental and physical health is just beginning to be understood. The question of how, why, when and where people become lonely is also yet to be conclusively answered; we need to know more about what it feels like to be lonely, how it affects our behaviour and relationships, our perception of ourselves and the world, and what we can do to prevent or relieve it.

This challenge offers the opportunity to confront one of the biggest emerging threats to health and happiness today. Although Britain has been dubbed ‘the loneliness capital of Europe’, this is a worldwide problem with global repercussions. It is also highly complex, and requires the combined knowledge and insight of students from multiple disciplines to comprehend.

Working together in small groups, you will design projects on a particular aspect of the problem of loneliness, decided by you. We very much hope that these will have a life after Grand Challenges is over. To provide inspiration and ideas, you will hear from experts, practitioners, and people with lived experience of loneliness; academics working on the subject from a range of perspectives will also be on hand to support you as you go through the week.

By taking part in this challenge, you will develop your understanding of how people connect with one another, the importance of kindness and friendship, and the things that can get in the way. We hope you’ll join us!

Enquiry groups

Enquiry groups are the subtopic of the challenge that students focus on for Grand Challenges Week. These are the enquiry groups that are running in 2020.

New evidence from the past few years has shown that teenagers and young adults are just as likely as older people to experience serious loneliness. Because loneliness has previously been most often associated with ageing populations, this problem has received comparatively little attention. We know, though, that young people often feel loneliness more keenly. It intersects with growing rates of reported mental ill-health among the young, and seems to be lasting longer and longer into adult life.  Young people, of course, are not just one group – the experience of becoming a student and moving away from home, for example, is very different from that of going to school or finding work in a town with nothing much to do. Each pose their particular challenges, and are complicated further by all kinds of other factors. This enquiry group will focus on the specific difficulties of loneliness in adolescence and early adulthood, and will think about the barriers to belonging that young people face, and how they can be overcome.

One of the biggest predictors for loneliness is the feeling that you don’t ‘fit in’ with a seemingly ‘normal’ group, even though this group is almost always either imaginary or outnumbered. There are all kinds of complicated reasons why some people can find it harder to access supportive and nurturing friendships and communities. All too often, these are the direct result of social exclusion, stigma, inequality, and structural systems of prejudice and oppression. This group will look at how identity and life history affects loneliness and belonging, whether in positive or negative ways. You will consider how loneliness can be a political problem – for example, in refugees, people of colour, or LGBTQ+ people – and think constructively about their specific experiences and needs, in the context of cultures and environments which can be alienating, othering, and hostile.

Loneliness has a complicated three-way relationship with mental and physical health. On the one hand, loneliness can be an important route into serious long-term problems such as depression; it can also lead to various negative physical outcomes, including increasing the risk of heart disease. On the other, we know that it can result from different types of illness and experience too. Experiences of chronic diseases – and some disabilities – can be profoundly lonely, especially when the right arrangements to accommodate divergent needs haven’t been made. The widespread assumption that healthy and able bodies are the norm leads to all kinds of structural barriers. Feelings of loneliness can also be a big part of depression or psychosis, and social anxiety can make it harder to form and keep necessary relationships. In this enquiry group, you will consider loneliness, health, and illness, exploring the connections between them and thinking critically about potential solutions to the problems you identify.