WE ALL have days when we feel slightly alone. Our friends are busy, the children are away, nobody’s responding to texts or calls. But this is very different to feeling deeply, inconsolably lonely.

Loneliness is a growing problem, in a modern society that spreads people further and further from their family roots and sees us interacting more and more with technology rather than real people.

A new report shows that more than five million older people in the UK are affected by loneliness. But recent research by the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness to be a greater concern among young people, with 18 to 34-year-olds more likely than the over-55s to feel lonely and depressed because of loneliness.

Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found Britain to be the loneliness capital of Europe – we Brits are less likely to have strong friendships or know our neighbours than people anywhere else in the EU. Even worse, many Britons said they have nobody to rely on in a crisis.

And yet another new report, from relationship support group Relate, reveals that one in 10 of us does not have a single close friend.

Friends of the Elderly have just published a new report, The Future of Loneliness, which suggests that by 2030, 40 per cent of older people in the UK will be lonely. That’s a particularly significant figure when you consider that loneliness is said to be as life-threatening to the elderly as obesity and poverty.

It’s not all without hope though. Friends of the Elderly are now running a Be A Friend campaign – for details go to beafriendtoday.org.uk – encouraging people to get to know their older neighbours and look out for each other where they can.

Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, says the mental health charity is there to help anyone battling feelings of isolation. “Loneliness can have a significant impact on mental health, contributing to problems such as anxiety and depression,” she says. While people often feel lonely because of personal circumstances – such as bereavement, relationship breakdown, retirement, moving to a new area, discrimination, being a carer and not being able to get out – sometimes loneliness is a deeper, more constant feeling that comes from within, Beth explains. “That feeling that doesn’t disappear, no matter how many friends you have,” she says, adding that the key to tackling loneliness is learning to make the best of being alone.

Yes, it’s easier said than done, but Beth has some suggestions.

“Learn yoga or meditation, to refocus and calm your mind, keep a journal to share your thoughts in and, where circumstances allow, how about getting a pet?” she suggests.

She also encourages people to get out and do something they enjoy, be it visiting a tourist attraction or cooking, and focus on the pleasure it gives, rather than the fact that you’re doing it by yourself. “Turn being alone into a positive, empowering thing, not a burden,” she says. “Wherever and whenever you can, also take steps, however small, to become more connected with the world:

  • make contact with people you know on the phone, by text or email
  • in a group situation, make a special effort to join in the conversation – you never know where it might lead
  • make the most of opportunities for social contact, however fleeting, by starting a conversation or even just saying hello
  • ask people about themselves and what they’re interested in – people always like talking about themselves
  • join a social group connected to something that interests you, like gardening, walking or sport
  • connect with people through the internet, but do think carefully about what information you share. And remember, it’s not the same as seeing someone face-to-face.