Debate of the WEEK: Do we need to relearn the art of hanging out?
IN THE NEWS: Loneliness is being described as the “modern leprosy”, a debilitating personal and social problem. But what is so hard to solve about being alone?
Loneliness can feel like a universal, and ubiquitous, emotion. Almost 50% of adults report feeling lonely at least some of the time in the UK, with 3.3 million describing themselves as “chronically lonely”.
But loneliness is far from just an individual feeling. In fact, it is a huge and costly public health crisis which we have made little progress in curing.
Researchers have found links between loneliness and premature death from a range of causes. Some have even estimated that it is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day — and it is thought to be more dangerous than obesity.
But we are also finding that rates of loneliness are rising rapidly, and that for the first time loneliness among young adults is surpassing that of the elderly and retired.
Like any epidemic, isolation comes at a huge economic cost: an estimated £2.5 billion in the United Kingdom alone, which has been described as “the loneliness capital of Europe”.
Neuroscientists think that loneliness is evolutionary. Primates, and therefore our fifty-two million year old ancestors, need to belong to a social group in order to survive. Becoming separated from others triggers a fight-or-flight response, a sense of dread, vulnerability and anxiety.
Others suggest that the modern loneliness epidemic has been driven by factors like urbanisation, declining birth rates, a rising divorce rate, the coronavirus pandemic, new technologies and an increasing number of single-person households.
There is only one real answer to loneliness: learning to find joy in the company of others again. We should seek out opportunities not only to be with our friends but also to make new friends.
Loneliness is clearly not just about how many friends you have, or how much time you spend socialising. It is driven by the society we live in.
Individual solutions will not solve the problem. Psychologists report that lonely people are less likely to seek out the company of others. We need systemic change and to treat loneliness as the public health issue it is.
Ubiquitous- Everywhere. Chronically Something negative that lasts for a long time (such as an illness). Premature-Too soon. Obesity The medical condition of being very overweight. There are many ways of measuring this, including a BMI of 30 or more. (You can work out your BMI by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared.) Neuroscientists-A scientist who studies the brain and the nervous system. Primates-The order of mammals that includes humans, alongside apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Ancestors-The people related to us who lived a long time ago. Urbanisation-The increase in the proportion of people living in towns and cities. It is predicted that by 2050 three billion people will live in cities.