It’s six months now since Tracey Crouch was appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness in the UK, but it still feels a bit strange. The idea of stopping people feeling lonely feels utopian, like something a state shouldn’t be meddling with and yet society is failing so badly that an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff has become necessary. In Britain it’s been found that over nine million people often or always feel lonely, but it’s not just a UK problem; I have begun collecting data and am receiving reports of worrying levels of loneliness in countries all over the world. Fresh from a meeting on the subject with Danish and Norwegian ministers, Crouch told Huffpost UK,
“A lot of people have come to see me. Canada, UEA, Sweden, Japan, Iceland – I cannot think of a region in the world that didn’t follow this up. Germany has been massively interested. We expected Europe, but a significant number of African countries are reporting on it as well. New Zealand said ‘we are watching what you do’, so no pressure there then!”
What is loneliness? Psychologist-researchers, Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy B. Smith have pinpointed loneliness as the discrepancy between the number and quality of the relationships that you desire and those you actually have. If your network of friends and family give you all you want socially, even if they are very few or you see these people rarely, you won’t be lonely.
My mother, for example is 97. She lives in a retirement village and walks with difficulty and pain. Dad died ten years ago and she spends a great deal of time alone but says she is never lonely. I know that in her situation I would be lonely but she’s not. Apparently there’s a loneliness gene which affects how distressed you feel from social disconnection. I suspect I have it – but not from Mum.
Unfortunately, more and more people find themselves lacking the number and quality of relationships they desire and we are daily learning more about the effects of loneliness on health. Loneliness raises our levels of stress hormones and inflammation, which can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, type II diabetes, dementia and lead to depression and suicide. Loneliness disrupts sleep, damages your immune system and your brain. It can also increase your risk of dying prematurely as much as smoking – and more than obesity.
The health effects are so serious and the problem is happening on such a scale that one of the major reasons for setting up the Ministry for Loneliness was the fear of a National Health Service blowout. Scientists are now looking at which sectors of a population are most seriously affected and what can be done to reduce the risks.
So loneliness is a health issue – physical and mental. But to look at it purely in terms of personal health would be a big mistake because it ignores the active role played by our societies in engendering and exacerbating the problem. Ongoing solutions to loneliness try to help sufferers find a sense of belonging in their lives. Furnished with this. much of their problem will disappear. But if we don’t examine modern society and understand its tendency to treat belonging as if it didn’t exist, certainly not in relation to ‘the bottom line’ or ‘the end of the day’, we’ll never solve the problem of loneliness, nor of its fellow traveller, alienation.
To tackle loneliness effectively we need to take a deep look at society and see how belonging is under attack – and has been under attack for years. This is really the thrust of my book, Not For Ourselves Alone and I’ll look at the issue in more depth in a future blog.
Since Jo Cox, who was brutally murdered in 2016, and her colleague Seema Kennedy, set up a cross-party Loneliness Commission in the UK, many organisations have come together to reveal the level of loneliness across society. Charities, local businesses and local authorities are exploring innovative ways in which to tackle loneliness, to educate people about it and to engender strategy and action at government level.
Crouch will outline her first answers to the problems in a new strategy to be published later this year. She has hinted that one solution would be to change the physical make-up of British towns and cities – an encouraging sign that she understands the interactive nature of society and belonging.
Loneliness is contagious and here’s how to beat it. For more on belonging and its importance in society, check out Not For Ourselves Alone