Over the summer, we were treated to ‘the biggest neighbourhood celebrations since the Jubilee street parties’. The organisers eagerly ‘inviting people to get together with their neighbours’ and attend a ‘street party or a shared barbecue, a picnic or a bake off’. But this time around we were urged, all too pointedly, to ‘celebrate all that we hold in common’. ‘Inspired’ by the murder of MP Jo Cox, the feel-good factor was notable by its absence; and in its place were some darker assumptions about the divided, nastier society the organisers imagined we have become.
One of the four areas of work undertaken by the recently established Jo Cox Foundation is to address what it describes as the ‘growing crisis of loneliness’. ‘It can affect people of all ages and from all backgrounds – from the bullied school child, to the new mother, to the pensioner who has outlived her friends and immediate family’, we are informed. The Foundation wants to ‘try to get people talking at all levels’ whether it’s ‘chatting to a neighbour, visiting an old friend, or just making time for the people they meet’. And, ironically enough, the Foundation is not on its own with this initiative. Loneliness is all the rage.
Until quite recently, unfashionable charities organised befriending initiatives for older people left behind by family or deceased partners, or house-bound by disability. But today the category of ‘the lonely’ has widened. Whether it’s social media isolating rather than connecting the young, and intensifying a (quite literal) status-envy; or the plight of relatively young singletons living on their own out of choice or lone-parents with only screaming children for company; or even those leaving behind those elderly relatives to immerse themselves in study or work, and consequently experiencing loneliness themselves.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, has generated a number of alarm-filled headlines recently. She was presenting to the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, what one commentator described as the ‘biggest ever review into the problem’. She described not only an increase in loneliness in the U.S., but also concluded from a number of large scale international studies, that social isolation, loneliness and living alone are leading to premature death around the world. Its impact is worse than obesity, she said. Not only does Holt-Lunstad say we have a big disease-like problem. She also claims that if only certain interventions were made, ‘social connectedness’ could flourish and lives could be saved: whether by training kids in social skills at school or getting GPs to screen their patients for signs of loneliness.
It is this diseasing of loneliness – both in the way it is described and the impact on people’s health it supposedly has; and the exaggeration of its extent that is most striking today. It triggers a stress hormone, increasing blood-clotting ‘in anticipation of injury’ raising blood-pressure and clogging up arteries, says one researcher. It can ‘dampen a person’s immune system’, says another. It causes depression, says one campaigner; and cancer, insists another. So, as if being lonely isn’t bad enough, it also has (if we are to believe what we are told) quite literally deadly implications.
According to a Leader in New Scientist, ‘Curing loneliness might just be the most cost effective public health intervention available’. In truth, we can’t ‘cure loneliness’ anymore than we can cure sadness (whatever the pretences of advocates of the happiness agenda). And we shouldn’t try to either. Indeed there is much to recommend the explanation which says social isolation can mean people’s deterioration in health goes unnoticed. It is also the case, despite what campaigners say, that the old and already unwell are still the most likely to experience loneliness. Still, there are a lot of lonely people out there. The question, as Paul McCartney sang, is: ‘Where do they all come from?’
It is not altogether a surprise to discover that loneliness is a big problem today. The progressive decline of social institutions over a period of decades is well known: from the family to the pub, the trade union to the working men’s club. In the absence of those institutions, the individual increasingly stands alone, turned in on themselves, albeit deemed vulnerable and ‘at risk’ and looking to the state or experts for ‘support’ and protection. But there is nothing inevitable about the way being with others has been turned into an ordeal of etiquettes and hazards as is increasingly the case: from gaining consent on campus and avoiding commitment in relationships to anxiously keeping the kids away from strangers.
Feeling lonely is normal. It is not a disease. You can’t teach children how not to be lonely. It is a feature of our interior lives, it is intangible and subjective. And it is not particularly receptive to policy interventions however well meaning. But, while we can’t solve the problem of loneliness as such, we can do something to make our communities feel less isolating and less conducive to feelings of loneliness. The state can play a positive role in sometimes quite literally bringing people closer together – improving transport and communications and making it more affordable for people to get around. But the obsession with congestion charges and cycle paths over building more roads and airports, and with the supposed dangers of surfing the internet over improving dodgy wifi connections; shows how little interest policy-makers have in genuinely bringing people closer together on a scale that would make any real difference.
But it would be better, in other areas, if the state could do a lot less. It could stop the unnecessary checks on volunteers and care workers that can put people off helping others and stoke anxieties about abuse. It could revoke the illiberal powers it has granted local busybodies that so contribute to the inhibiting of public life – from confiscating alcohol to banning skateboarding, from banishing buskers to demonising smokers. For here too, far from fostering a social environment that frees us up and connects us with each other, the political class’s enthusiasm for regulating people’s everyday lives and relationships only helps isolate and alienate us further.
The obsession with loneliness has not just sprung from nowhere. There has been a therapeutic turn in policy-making and in society more broadly; and, post-Brexit, a uncomprehending elite reaction to a society they imagine to be somehow less friendly than it was a year or so ago. Instead of delivering concrete policy interventions to solve discrete social problems we have initiatives that will supposedly make people feel better about themselves, improve their ‘wellbeing’ and encourage some fellow-feeling. The political class projecting their own alienation and dark thoughts about what we’re like onto us, and already consumed by anxieties about their own isolation and disconnectedness, have little interest in building infrastructure or in letting go their grip on people’s everyday lives. The truth is they just can’t leave us alone.
First Published in Huffington Post