My wife died over two years ago and her loss was truly devastating. As a result, I now suffer from insomnia, and eating on my own when at home makes me sad beyond belief and has seriously affected my intake of food. Recently, I read that eating meals alone is the biggest cause of unhappiness after mental illness, a study has found.

A quarter of adults eat alone most of the time, often because of hectic life styles or social isolation and this seems to make us more unhappy than financial problems or physical disabilities, the researchers discovered. For the study more than 8,000 people were asked questions that measured happiness, satisfaction, self-worth and anxiety on a well-being scale from zero to one hundred, called the Living Well Index.

Those who always ate alone scored almost 8 points lower on average than those who never did. Nearly a fifth of those who live by themselves said they eat alone all of the time, particularly those who are single or overworked. Most retired people, however, said they never or occasionally eat alone and unsatisfactory sex lives, sleep deprivation or feeling time-pressured were also significant causes of unhappiness.

Chris Sherwood, head of the relationship counselling service, Relate said: ‘We know that good quality relationships with friends and family are essential to our well-being so it’s good to see the power of face-to-face interaction coming through so strongly on the Living Well Index. Eating together more often is a simple way of enhancing your connection with others, so why not give it a try?’

The study, published by Sainsbury’s and carried out by Oxford Economics and the Centre for Social Research, states: ‘While this analysis suggests that eating alone may be detrimental to people’s well-being, the barriers to sitting down to eat in groups more regularly are many and complex. For some, a failure to do so may be driven largely by social isolation and a lack of personal connections. For others, the key barrier could be spending time in their otherwise hectic life-styles.’

The study found six in ten single people eat alone, compared to only one in eight of those in relationships. With more people living by themselves, or divorcing later in life, there are concerns that traditional cooked family meals are in decline. Some thirty per cent of people who work more than 60 hours a week ate alone or most of the time, compared to twenty-two per cent of the general working population. The Well-Being Index found childless people in Generation X aged 35-54 are the least socially connected, while young families are the most well connected. Baby Boomers, meanwhile, were found to benefit from close relationships with neighbours. The average figure for well-being came in at 60.7 out of 100, with almost half of that deficit of happiness attributed to four factors: those who were eating alone, having a poor sex life, lack of sleep or time pressure.

Eating alone lowered a person’s score on average by 7.9 points below the 60.7 figure with a mental health condition lowering it by 8.5 points. It comes after Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, called for GPs to be able to refer patients to social activities for combating loneliness and commencing a national publicity campaign to highlight the problem.

Councillor Izzi Seccombe of the Local Government Association’s Community Well-Being Board said: ‘There needs to be greater public awareness of loneliness as a serious illness. We all need to be on the look-out for each other.’

My own problem, as I mentioned at the outset, was triggered off by the loss of my beloved wife of 60 years. The pain of that loss manifests itself in many ways and hopefully only the passage of time and my special memories of that union will eventually remedy my present travails.

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