Loneliness in Hong Kong: don’t let it kill you – how to reach out to others and enrich your life and theirs

With some of the longest working hours in the developed world, it can be difficult to form or sustain relationships in Hong Kong. Given studies show loneliness is as bad for you as heavy smoking or obesity, here’s how to avoid it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 8:47pm

Loneliness is an unpleasant feeling. Just ask Shum Si-ki, who founded Hong Kong Volunteers a decade ago. Then 50 years old and working as a financial consultant, Shum says that the feelings of disconnection and isolation he experienced were, at times, overwhelming.

“Working alone in my office all day, my life felt like it needed something more,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t feel satisfied with my situation. It was lonely as hell and that sense of loneliness eventually became too much to bear.

“I decided that volunteering might help me get out and meet new people who shared the same interests, and at the same time, give me the chance to connect with my community in bigger ways. And that’s how Hong Kong Volunteers was born.”

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Today, more than 8,700 people have joined the group, which organises events and programmes to help the community, from visits to senior citizens who live alone in run-down neighbourhoods, to gardening work for cancer centres and food preparation for the underprivileged.

It didn’t take long for Shum – and those around him – to notice the positive changes volunteering had on him. “I felt a greater sense of peace, fulfilment and motivation, and my physical health benefited, too. I lost weight because I was moving around a lot more, I was sleeping better at night, and people told me that I looked healthier.”

Shum might be on to something. With loneliness thought to be more hazardous to human health than heavy smoking or obesity, getting involved in community work and connecting with people on a deeper, more meaningful level might just be the secret to living a longer, healthier life.

Loneliness is a growing problem in rapidly developing cities all over the world. It is difficult to gauge how many people in Hong Kong suffer from chronic loneliness, but a UBS survey last year put the city at the top of the list for the longest working hours – more than 50 a week. It is difficult for the overworked to develop quality relationships. As a result, we may feel isolated or disconnected from the rest of society.

Everywhere we go ... people are on their phones or tablets. We’re so caught up in our virtual worlds, it’s little wonder we’re becoming more isolated
Joyce Chao

“Defining loneliness is important,” says Joyce Chao, a clinical psychologist at Dimensions Centre in the city’s Central business district. “Living in Hong Kong we’re surrounded by people all the time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t feel lonely. Conversely, we can live alone yet feel a strong sense of belonging within our community.

“It’s also important to understand the difference between loneliness as a brief emotional state and loneliness as a chronic condition. It’s one thing to feel alone for a short period of time because you don’t have anyone to talk to or spend time with; but when that sense of loneliness becomes persistent, it’s a psychological condition.”

Chronic loneliness is a cause for concern because of its negative health consequences. A US study, published in March 2012 in the journal Social Science & Medicine, revealed that feelings of loneliness are a risk factor for morbidity and mortality. The study was carried out over six years, on 2,101 adults aged 50 years and older.

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Another study, published in March 2010 in the journal Psychology and ageing, found that feeling lonely can increase one’s blood pressure by up to 14 points – and the longer the loneliness persists, the greater the increase.

Two more recent meta-analyses found that loneliness was so strongly linked to an increased risk of premature death that one could compare its health effects to those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.

These meta-analyses were presented at the 2017 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

“Loneliness is not merely a psychological problem, it’s a medical one, too,” says Chao. “What happens to your mind can sometimes affect your physical state, and those studies that show a correlation between feelings of loneliness and a higher risk of premature death are good examples of this ‘mind-body connection’.”

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But how exactly does a psychological issue like loneliness affect the body? Chao says that loneliness is strongly associated with depression, stress and poor life satisfaction levels.

Studies show that these may result in a “cascade effect”, with depression having physical effects like insomnia or erratic sleep patterns, loss of appetite, fatigue, and muscle aches and pains. Such problems may, in turn, weaken the immune system and cause inflammation in the body, increasing our susceptibility to serious conditions such as heart disease and dementia.

Since loneliness is associated with fatigue, it’s possible that people who suffer from loneliness are not as physically active as those who don’t feel lonely. This lack of physical activity can lead to weight gain, which has also been shown to increase one’s risk of illness and premature death.

Loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of. Chao says that one of the best ways to overcome the condition is to make stronger and more meaningful connections with others.

“That’s what’s missing from our modern culture,” she says. “Everywhere we go, from trains to restaurants and even in our own homes, people are on their phones or tablets. We’re so caught up in our virtual worlds, it’s little wonder we’re becoming more isolated. Even at family gatherings, people would rather look at their screens than talk to one another.

“Humans are social beings, so if we cut ourselves off from others, then we’re not doing what we were built to do, which is create quality relationships with those around us and form support networks.”

In addition to talking to people around you (yes, even strangers you come across on the train or while shopping), you can connect with people by joining groups that cater to your interests – for example, a hiking club or a wine-tasting group; organising regular outings with relatives and friends; or scheduling dinner with the family in which you actually make it a point to talk and interact with one another.

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“Even simple acts, like smiling at people who pass you on the street and thanking someone who’s held the door open for you, can strengthen that sense of connection with others and make you feel good inside,” Chao adds.

If you do suffer from loneliness, you might feel less lonely after reaching out to people in the same situation, such as old people who are living alone and feel isolated because they have no support network.

When she was a child, fundraising manager Rosina Shing says her mother would invite single, elderly people to dine with her family. And “sharing happiness” is something that Shing has continued to do to this day, as an adult in her late 40s.

“I volunteer regularly for a non-government organisation called Hong Kong Unison, and I must say that helping others has given me a greater sense of purpose,” she says. “It’s made me more sociable, and now I really feel like I’m a part of my community. I know that it’s helped my health, too.

“Sometimes my volunteer work takes me outdoors and requires me to be physically active. Less stress means that I’m happier – and healthier.”