Home » Being lonely for 3m Britons is as bad as heart disease. But our guide proves you CAN beat loneliness

Being lonely for 3m Britons is as bad as heart disease. But our guide proves you CAN beat loneliness

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The widower who found love in an ethics discussion group. The man who got over grief and a relationship breakdown by joining a club that nurtured his passion for playing the guitar. And the women who found lifelong friendship wild swimming with strangers.

As diverse as they are, all of these people have one thing in common: until a few years ago they were desperately lonely but took the plunge to join new activities that would connect them with others and boost their health.

Thousands are doing it, via social-media platforms or websites such as Meetup, in a bid to tackle a curse that affects growing numbers of Britons. Loneliness – the feeling we get when our need for human contact and relationships is unmet – is reaching epidemic proportions.

The number of people who report feeling chronically lonely has increased by 25 per cent since the pandemic. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggests 3.3 million adults – one in 17 – feel lonely nearly all the time, compared with 2.6 million in early 2020.

It affects all ages and all circumstances. Some have lost loved ones or are elderly and living alone, isolated from their families and communities.

But teenagers, surprisingly, are some of the worst affected, despite being surrounded by their peers at school and glued to smartphones that connect them to anyone at the touch of a button. In fact, research suggests – paradoxically – that they have become more lonely since mobile use became widespread.

And those in mid-life, busy with jobs, children and friends, can also be lonely.

Classically trained percussionist and folk enthusiast Ruairí Glasheen, right with one of his group’s members, was four when he first picked up a bodhran and was instantly hooked

Working from home, shopping online and living further from families have all affected the number of genuine connections we make in a day. It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that this can have a negative impact on your health.

Feeling disconnected and alone, whatever your circumstances, can be as bad for you as chronic health conditions, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP). It has been associated with depression, anxiety, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and dementia and, overall, increases the risk of early death by 50 per cent compared with people who have good social connections.

That makes loneliness as bad for your health as obesity, the RCGP points out.

But while it can feel like an insurmountable problem, it doesn’t have to be.

Experts say the best way to begin is by building connections back into your daily life. That might mean something as simple as shopping locally and using a manned till rather than a self-service checkout, or taking a regular walk in a local park so you begin to see the same faces.

Robin Hewings, from the Campaign To End Loneliness, says: ‘It’s not a miracle cure, but these things can really start to make a difference.’

But there’s more: across the country, community groups and initiatives are bringing people together, often in surprising ways.

CONNECTION: Aura Enache, far left, and Stephanie Dunleavy met on an Alpha Course

CONNECTION: Aura Enache, far left, and Stephanie Dunleavy met on an Alpha Course

From drumming circles to ukulele bands, hiking to horse-hugging, choirs to Christian discussions, there are groups to cater to every interest and passion.

All are a great and healthy way to get out and meet like-minded people. Often they are cheap or free to join. Joining one might feel daunting – but most people there will have been in the same boat.

Over these pages The Mail on Sunday has selected just a few to inspire you. There are thousands more online, on Facebook or MeetUp.com, or those run by the University of the Third Age, which has branches everywhere.

We’ve also teamed up with Age UK in its drive to find 1,000 volunteers for its pioneering Telephone Friendship Service – an initiative that aims to alleviate the loneliness felt by older people. Recruits are asked to commit to giving a lonely older person at least one 20- to 30-minute phone call every week for a year.

And by signing up to any one of these groups, or the many thousands of others out there, you too could be one of those reaping the benefits – not just for your social life, but for your health.

I had no friends, I was in a dark place. Joining a guitar group saved my life

Groups for music lovers

Whether you’re playing it, dancing to it or simply listening to it, music has been found to boost levels of endorphins – happy hormones – released by the brain, as well as improve heart rate, focus, self-esteem and even the immune system.

You needn’t have experience: from choirs to guitar groups and drumming workshops, all of them welcome absolute beginners.

Voice like a rusty Hinge? you’re welcome at this choir

What is it?

Tuneless Choirs can be found across the country and are for those who love singing but lack the ability – or confidence – to do it in front of others.

Tell me more

All-comers are welcome, but particularly anyone ‘with a voice like a rusty hinge’. There are no auditions, no rehearsals or performances – basically ‘no pressure and no judgment’, according to Angela Knapp, 69, who runs the Oxford branch.

Choirs are held weekly and sessions last about an hour. Angela adds: ‘We all get things wrong, and we all laugh.’

The songbook ranges from The Beatles and Nancy Sinatra to Abba, Queen and Oasis.

Nottingham member Helen Cook adds: ‘We have people with spinal-cord injuries and people with dementia. Two of us have had breast cancer. There’s all sorts going on for people, but we all come together and we all sing and we have a lot of fun.’

Sign me up!

Visit tunelesschoir.com and search for your local group – there are more than 30, and even a virtual one on Zoom. The first session costs £10, then it’s £8 a session or £36 for six.

Our fun way to drum up new experiences

What is it?

Bodhran Explorers, drumming workshops for the Irish bodhran – a circular hand-held drum that forms the backbone of traditional Irish music – which meet regularly at the London Irish Centre, Camden, with one-off events nationwide.

Tell me more

Classically trained percussionist and folk enthusiast Ruairí Glasheen, above right with one of his group’s members, was four when he first picked up a bodhran and was instantly hooked.

Now, as well as playing in a variety of ensembles, the Royal College of Music graduate runs weekly workshops for bodhran beginners.

Participants discover the history of the instrument and learn a range of technical skills. ‘People come to learn an instrument, but they stay for the community and the fun and the shared experience,’ says Ruairí. ‘Maybe you’ve never played before, maybe you were put off music as a child after being scolded for being too loud, or too terrible – this is about making it fun again and not worrying about making mistakes.’

The group is as energetic as it is diverse, with everyone from music students to pensioners taking part.

‘We love it,’ says Maggie Boucher, 77, who lives on her own in London. ‘There’s a lady who was a librarian for 30 years, another who’s a professional singer. But we’re all secret performers, really.’

Ruairí adds: ‘I’ve realised it’s therapeutic for some people. It’s an opportunity to disengage with some of the more challenging things we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.’

Sign me up!

Workshops are £15 to attend. Visit ruairiglasheen.net/beginnerbodhran.

 

THE HEALING POWER OF HAVING A ROCKING GOOD TIME

What is it?

Manchester, Didsbury and Oldham Guitar Group, where music-lovers meet in the organiser’s living room to rock out on the guitar. Beginners are welcome and instruments are provided.

Tell me more

On Tuesday evenings, Suborno Ghosh welcomes members into his house. ‘People are going through a lot in their lives – job losses, divorces – and they get two hours to just forget about that and make music. It’s like therapy,’ says Ghosh, a careers and life coach.

One fan is 43-year-old Dave Beckett, who says the group has transformed his life.

Earlier this year Dave, who lives in Oldham, was at his lowest ebb. In just 12 months he had lost his business, split from his partner and lost his father. He says: ‘I was in a dark place. I had no friends, no life at all.’

Dave joined the guitar group on a whim. ‘The last time I performed, for a music exam, I had so much stage fright I passed out four times,’ he says. ‘But the group made me feel so relaxed and comfortable that I was able to forget about everything else and just focus on something I loved doing – playing the guitar.’

Sign me up!

Visit meetup.com/manchester-didsbury-oldham-guitargroup.

A CHANCE TO REALLY GET BACK IN THE SWING

What is it?

The Bristol University of the Third Age Band brings together retirees for swing music sessions. Events run fortnightly on Tuesday mornings at Factory Studios on Maze Street.

Tell me more

With a guiding hand from experienced musicians, this amateur swing band is open to anyone who has ever played a musical instrument. Alan Nye, 77, from Bristol, was a keen guitarist and singer in his youth. About six years ago, thanks to the group, he picked up an instrument for the first time in 40 years.

Today, he is a skilled player of the cajon – a Peruvian drum.

‘When I joined, I was living on my own and wanted a reason to get out of the house,’ says Alan, whose wife died 19 years ago.

‘I realised I had time to pursue music again after being distracted by kids and mortgages and work.’

Seven years ago, attending another group on ethics, he met his new partner, 74-year-old Alexandra Pickford, a former ballet dancer.

The couple have just bought a house together.

‘Meeting Alex has been transformative,’ Alan says. ‘I’ve met all sorts of other people as well, so loneliness is not on my agenda at the moment.’

Sign me up!

Visit u3a.org.uk/join or email [email protected] Membership varies by location, but costs between £15 and £20 a year – which gives unlimited access to all local groups.

HOW YOU CAN JAZZ UP YOUR SOCIAL LIFE 

What is it?

Live Music & Socialising organises group trips to music events in and around Cardiff.

Tell me more

From the Belgian National Orchestra to Sunday jazz sessions, this meetup.com page shares information on upcoming gigs. There’s also a monthly social event to discuss future gigs. ‘People are sometimes reluctant to meet strangers,’ says one of the organisers, 41-year-old engineer Henrique Vilhena. ‘But music is a powerful way to connect.’

Sign me up!

Visit meetup.com/live-music-bantz-south-wales.

My search for God found me a soulmate

What is it?

Alpha Course discussion groups exploring the Christian faith are available at more than 7,000 churches, as well as virtually on Zoom. They’re open to anyone, regardless of beliefs.

Tell me more

The meetings ‘give people a chance to ask the big questions of life and explore the Christian faith in a fun, non-pressurised environment,’ according to the Alpha Course website.

But for Stephanie Dunleavy, 34, it also offered friendship. ‘The group had someone who was a Buddhist, and another who identified as atheist,’ says the Brighton-based mother-of-two, who runs jewellery business Soul Analyse.

‘It’s a really nice chance to gain connections again with different people and have a conversation that isn’t about work or stress, but life’s deeper meanings.’

Stephanie met Aura Enache, 40, on the course and they shared a room together on a weekend Alpha Course retreat in Eastbourne where they enjoyed early-morning swims in the sea.

‘It was lovely. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I’ve definitely gained a friend in Aura.’

Sign me up!

Alpha Course events are free to attend. To find your nearest, visit alpha.org.uk.

LEARN TO PLAY LADY GAGA ON THE UKULELE 

What is it?

Belfast Ukulele Jam, where you can learn to play the instrument or just listen. Beginners and experienced players meet on Wednesday evenings in the Deer’s Head pub.

Tell me more

Bring your own ukulele, if you want lessons in how to play it. Otherwise feel free to sit and listen to the rest of the group learn the chords for songs by Johnny Cash, Lady Gaga, Queen or The Beatles.

For single mum-of-two Frances Mulvenna, 37, it’s been instrumental, too, for her social life. ‘I’ve got such a big circle of friends through this,’ Frances says. ‘We love inviting each other to dinner parties and we all bring our ukuleles along to play together after eating.’

Sign me up!

facebook.com/belfastukejam or email [email protected]

Research shows religious involvement and spirituality are linked to positive health outcomes, including greater longevity, better coping skills, and quality of life – even during terminal illness – and less anxiety and depression. These groups should help you find meaning and companionship too.

SUPPORT FOR CHRISTIAN MUMS AND THEIR BABIES

What is it?

Baby Life Group, a weekly meeting of Christian mums and their young children organised by the Christian Life Church in Shipley, West Yorkshire.

Tell me more

While there is a scriptural element to the meetings, with videos and discussion, it’s the children who often take centre stage.

And what has emerged from this is a real solidarity.

It’s ‘a beautiful community’, says primary school teacher Hannah Clifford, who attends with her 14-month-old son Micah.

‘We are there for each other in the hard moments and celebrate the breakthroughs,’ Hannah, 34, says.

‘There’s no fear of judgment here as we get to the heart of how we feel.

‘What is also wonderful is the wide range of mums, maybe from different economic or cultural backgrounds to yours.’

Sign me up!

The one-and-a-half-hour Baby Life Group meetings take place at 9.30am every Monday and are free to attend. For more information, visit clcshipley.com.

WOMEN SPREAD PEACE AS FAITHS COME TOGETHER

What is it?

Nisa-Nashim, which brings together Jewish and Muslim women. There are 24 groups spread across the UK, including in Peterborough, the West Midlands, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, and a number in London.

Tell me more

The organisation invites women from different backgrounds, but especially Jewish and Muslim women, to come together to debate and forge connections.

Groups visit synagogues and mosques, celebrate festivals such as Ramadan and the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana.

There are also ‘days of social action’ when they attend protests and book clubs – so something for everyone.

Mandy Ross, 59, the Jewish co-chairman of the West Midlands branch, says of the group: ‘We have become such firm friends that we visit each other’s homes.

‘My life has been enriched by these women I’ve come to know and my world has grown through these connections.’

How to sign up

Annual membership costs £30. Visit nisanashim.com.

FIND YOUR ZEN WITH A MEDITATION GROUP

What is it?

West Wales Buddhist Group, a community in Aberystwyth which runs meetings for Buddhists and anyone who’s simply looking to de-stress.

Tell me more

There are several meetings a week which explore meditation and the Buddhist way of life, but they can also be a way to make friends.

‘The group also runs a women’s retreat on the Welsh border with Shropshire. This is also open to anyone, and includes a programme of meditation, workshops and group discussion. Buddhist teacher Maitrisiddhi, 48, says: ‘Everyone is welcome, whether you’re Buddhist or you’re just having a lonely or stressful time. What everyone says is they’re so relieved to be among people with a similar outlook.’

Sign me up!

Free meetings take place on Mondays at the Quaker Meeting House, Aberystwyth and online. The retreats have a minimum booking fee from £60 to £90. Visit westwalesbuddhistgroup.co.uk.

Wild swimming helped us forge new friendships and ended our lockdown woes

We’re a nation of animal-lovers, but the appeal isn’t just in their cuteness. Studies show that simply being in the company of a pet can trigger the release of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, leading to feelings of relaxation, calm and, of course, companionship. But if you don’t have a pet, or would struggle to own one, there are ways of reaping the benefits through a variety of animal-mad groups.

HOW BONDING WITH A HORSE CAN GEE UP YOUR MOOD AND SENSE OF WELLBEING

What is it?

Thrive With The Herd involves an increasingly popular equine therapy – spending time with horses in a bid to boost mood. These sessions involve groups of six women and take place at a stables near Winchester.

Tell me more

Therapeutic activities include stroking, grooming and feeding the animals. This allows women to form bonds with the horses – said to be among the most empathetic of animals. But most beneficial, says founder Anna Pell, are the relationships built between the women.

‘Whatever their reasons for coming – loneliness or an interest in horses – the women connect with each other,’ says Anna. ‘Some usually stay behind to help out afterwards and continue chatting, or paint the stables with me in their free time. It has started to form a community.’

Sign me up!

Visit thrivewiththeherd.co.uk or email [email protected] herd.co.uk.

SHEEP SLEEPOVERS DOWN ON THE FARM 

What is it?

Brook Farm Animal Sanctuary, a charity in Raunds, Northamptonshire, which rescues farm animals, pets and wildlife. It relies on volunteers to look after the animals, raise funds and for maintenance.

Tell me more

The sanctuary is home to about 200 animals, including horses, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, cats and dogs, and is staffed by just 30 volunteers, meaning friendships form quickly. In fact, the founder of the charity, Clive Richardson, 56, met his wife on site when she volunteered in 2007.

The daily tasks are divided up via a rota system, so you can do as much or little as you want, and there are plenty of extra-curricular activities. Recently, the charity hosted a ‘sheepover’ in which volunteers and members of the public slept in a field alongside the farm’s friendly sheep.

‘The passion for animals bonds people,’ says Clive. ‘Volunteers get very close and meet up often.’

Sign me up!

Visit bfas.org.uk or contact [email protected] and ask for an application form.

Walks to set your tail wagging

LET GLEN AND IDRIS TAKE THE LEAD…

What is it?

Cariad Pet Therapy, long dog walks with pets who offer mental health support in Barry Sidings Country Park, just outside Pontypridd, South Wales.

Tell me more

Most days, border collie Gwen and labradoodle Idris, pictured with walkers, bring cheer to hospices and schools. But every Thursday morning, anyone suffering loneliness or mental health struggles can join them alongside a small group of locals for a long walk around the park.

Idris’s owner Louise Franklin, 58, says: ‘People say they’re much happier after going out with the dogs. Some of them would never be able to own their own pet, so this is their chance to really get to spend time with one, and meet new people too.’

Sign me up!

Email [email protected] or call 01437 766164.

NEW PALS FOR BOTH YOU AND YOUR POOCH

What is it?

Penwortham Barks helps organise group dog walks for owners looking to meet new friends in Penwortham, on the outskirts of Preston, Lancs.

Tell me more

Puppy trainer Meera Jethwa launched a Facebook community in 2021 after moving back in with her parents with rescue dog Theo in tow. It now spans 800 members.

‘My old friends in Penwortham either had families and kids or had moved on,’ says Meera, 35.

‘I realised I didn’t know anyone and I’d never owned a dog when I lived there as a child, so I had no idea where to walk Theo or which venues would accept him. I was like a tourist in my own home.’

Today, Meera organises walks every week, which usually involve stopping at a dog-friendly coffee shop. ‘Some members now meet every week at a local park,’ says Meera. ‘And their dogs have a new group of dog friends, too.’

Sign me up!

Visit facebook.com/groups/penworthambarks for information on upcoming walks.

the feelgood factor of a feline friend

What is it?

Feline Friends, a cat rescue charity based in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear. Uses volunteers to fundraise, help with administration and foster cats.

Tell me more

The charity was set up by accountant Gillian Connor to rescue stray cats and kittens and help find them new homes. She relies on local volunteers to look after the cats and run the day-to-day operation.

The voluntary team also runs regular fundraising events, such as stalls at animal shows, or music and comedy nights.

‘You become friends for life,’ says Gillian, who has six cats. ‘We’ve had people who’ve been housebound, and just spending time with us has enabled them to get their confidence back.’

Sign me up!

Visit felinefriendscharity.co.uk or email [email protected]

HEALTH experts increasingly recommend outdoor activities for all sorts of ills – from stress to chronic pain and even high blood pressure. And what better way to do what you love, be it hiking, swimming or bird-watching, than with a group of like-minded people?

Taking the plunge into lakes, rivers and cake!

WET AND WILD: Professor Joyce Harper, centre, with fellow swimmers

WET AND WILD: Professor Joyce Harper, centre, with fellow swimmers

What is it?

The Bluetits, a group of swimmers of all ages who take to the rivers and lakes of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough throughout the year.

Tell me more

Run by one of the UK’s top experts in women’s health, Professor Joyce Harper, this group has more than 2,000 members on Facebook.

There are swims at dawn, midday plunges and night-time dips, which draw attendees from all over the world.

For Prof Harper, the group was instrumental in helping her overcome isolation during the pandemic. ‘It saved me from my loneliness,’ she says. ‘I’m a single mother to three teenage boys and I got fed up of walking around my Suffolk village.

‘Joining the group, there was instant camaraderie. You get this weird euphoria from getting in the water, this exhilaration from the shared experience.’

She has even visited festivals with the women in her group – and finds similar swimming communities across the globe when she travels for conferences.

Afterwards, the swimmers huddle together and chat over cake.

‘You come away with the biggest smile on your face. You really do feel the love,’ says Prof Harper.

‘Men put on Lycra and get on their bikes. Women jump into the water.’

Sign me up!

Visit thebluetits.co.

WEIGHTS, SQUATS, SPRINTS… AND A G&T!

What is it?

Wolf Approach Fitness, a twice-weekly outdoor exercise boot camp for women. They meet at a park in St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Tell me more

Many of the women at this camp have been through divorce, illness, menopause or have moved into the area, and find support from others at a similar life stage.

While the group is about building fitness – via weightlifting, squatting and sprinting – its leader, Kirsten Whitehouse, 47, focuses equally on creating a community.

‘Women come to the group to be outdoors and to get the physical benefits of training, but they keep coming back because they meet like-minded, fun people,’ she says.

‘And there’s always someone who can give advice.’ A group of women often stay behind afterwards for a gin and tonic on a park bench.

Sign me up!

Visit www.wolfapproachfitness.com or email [email protected]

Go on, Take a hike… it’ll do you good

What is it?

Adventure Solos hiking and camping groups suitable for all ages and abilities.

Tell me more

Activities include anything from weekend camping trips for beginners to intensive, all-day treks. Most guests book a trip by themselves, which means that almost everyone is meeting for the first time.

The initiative was set up by 40- year-old Lancastrian Chris Bone, who tells of members who have credited the trips for getting them through a difficult divorce, and others who say they help their mental health problems.

Sign me up!

Visit adventuresolos.com.

IN A FLAP? CALM DOWN WITH SOME TWITCHING

What is it?

Glamorgan Bird Club combines walks with bird-watching around the harbours, moorlands and valleys of South Wales.

Tell me more

Twice a week this group explores the countryside while keeping an eye out for rare breeds. Experienced bird-watchers teach beginners about the wildlife.

‘Lots of people come on our walks because they’re lonely and are looking for conversation and to be a part of something,’ says group chairman Jean Haslam, 72. ‘I’ve met a huge number of people from all walks of life. Twitchers aren’t just men hanging round with binoculars.’

Sign me up!

Visit glamorganbirds.org.uk.

FITNESS, FRIENDSHIP AND LIFTING BRANCHES

What is it?

Wildstrong – gentle exercise and chit-chat in woodlands for women of all ages. There are three groups, in Fife, Pangbourne in Berkshire and Enfield in North London.

Tell me more

Members meet once or twice a week and use the environment to improve their fitness. That includes balancing on fallen trees and lifting heavy branches. ‘It’s really people who like hanging out in the woods,’ says Gillian Erskine, who founded the group. ‘Our members come to chat or catch up with people and will end up getting stronger and fitter as a result.’

Sign me up!

Visit wildstrong.co or email [email protected]

ENJOY A RAMBLING TOUR OF BELFAST’S HILLS

A swallow swooping over the species-rich grassland at the existing Slievenacloy Nature Reserve in the Belfast Hills

A swallow swooping over the species-rich grassland at the existing Slievenacloy Nature Reserve in the Belfast Hills 

What is it?

Belfast Hills Walking Dynamos – group walks of between 25 and 30 people to surrounding beauty spots.

Tell me more

Excursions last no longer than a few hours and are suitable for dawdlers and dogs. Annual membership is £20, plus £1 per walk.

‘One guy joined whose daughter had died and his marriage broke up. He got together with a woman in the group,’ says founder Andrea McKernon. ‘Some of us have now taken holidays together.’

Sign me up!

Visit meetup.com/belfasthillstours-com to find out more.

Additional reporting: Moira Petty

You can join the war on loneliness with one phone call a week

The Mail on Sunday is backing Age UK’s drive to recruit 1,000 new volunteers to its Telephone Friendship Service – a simple initiative that aims to alleviate the loneliness felt by older people across the country.

And joining couldn’t be easier. Recruits will be interviewed and undergo a quick online training course, before being matched with someone who would benefit from a 30-minute chat once a week.

In general, people are matched because they share common ground. ‘That could be hobbies, life experiences or just someone who grew up locally to them,’ explains Alasdair Stewart, Age UK’s director of national services. ‘Our service has helped to create thousands of new friendships.’

Calls are routed through a switchboard, no contact details are exchanged and only first names are used.

The calls are the highlight of the week for Susan, 71, from Somerset. She was matched with Nick, who is retired and decided to volunteer after seeing the difference regular phone calls made to his own parents. ‘It’s a lovely friendship,’ says Susan. ‘He has become like family to me.’

Nick says: ‘Susan is a lovely lady. Half an hour, once a week, is not a lot, and the rewards on both sides are great.’

Sign up for Age UK’s Telephone Friendship Service by visiting ageuk.org.uk/friend

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