Minister of Loneliness
Anyone who ever watched John Cleese perform his Ministry of Silly Walks skit might suspect that in Great Britain, there’s a minister to oversee every aspect of life. Just today, in fact, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a “Minister of Loneliness,” a post certainly without peer in the White House.1 But the position is no Monty Python joke.
“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones -- people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with,” the Prime Minister said.
Whether or not appointing a ministry dedicated to alleviating loneliness is an effective intervention, there’s no doubt that loneliness is a major public health problem, and one that becomes more problematic by the year. We’ve written before about how loneliness can be contagious, how it seems to pass from one lonely person to the next, and how it undermines the immune system. Continuing research adds dimension to the scope of the issue.
According to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy (under President Obama), “It turns out that loneliness is associated with a reduction in your lifespan that is as severe as the lifespan you see with smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”2 Murthy notes that 40 percent of Americans report feeling lonely, a sharp increase over previous numbers. If this is the case, and you consider that only 15 percent of Americans now smoke, it logically follows that loneliness represents a far more significant public health problem than smoking in the US at this point.3 And in fact, two new meta-studies just presented at an American Psychological Association meeting this past summer show that loneliness ups chances of early death by far more than previously thought. The first, which analyzed 148 previous studies involving over 300,000 participants, found that loneliness increases chances of early death by about 50 percent!4 The other, which compiled results of 70 earlier studies involving 3.4 million people globally, found that loneliness increases risk of dying young as much as does obesity.
Some experts say the loneliness epidemic results from geographic mobility combined with reduced extended-family living, extended lifespan, and the commonly held idea that individuality is a positive. Dr. Murthy also blames our reliance on technology—in other words, spending time on Facebook and the like instead of going out with friends. He explains that we humans are programmed to function as part of a pack for survival. Historically, humans have depended on the community for protection, for providing food, and so on. Without that connection to community, he says, we can’t help but experience stress, although the degree of that stress depends somewhat on the individual.
We’ve written before about the fact that loneliness doesn’t always correspond to the degree of social isolation. Some people do seem able to be alone without experiencing constant loneliness, while others feel lonely even when surrounded by friends. As we reported in a previous blog, “[In a 2009 study of 5000 participants] …those who said they never felt lonely typically saw four social contacts weekly, while those who felt lonely five or more days every week had social interaction with an average of 3.4 people -- only slightly fewer than the non-lonely subjects.”
It seems, then, there are two types of loneliness: loneliness that comes from being alone and isolated, and loneliness that’s independent of social contact. Of the former, there’s no doubt that increasing numbers of us are living truly isolated lives. According to government research in Great Britain, for instance, over 200,000 people surveyed reported that they hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or relative for over a month. The resulting loneliness is particularly dangerous because those who live in isolation tend to have poorer health behaviors, drinking more, eating more junk foods, exercising less, and so on.
Those who see others during the week but still feel lonely may suffer from stunted relationships. Perhaps one effect of social media is that even when friends interact in person, the level of intimacy expressed isn’t adequate to foster a true sense of connection. Years ago, I attended a salon on the subject of friendship, and Joey, the guy running it, said that his definition of a friend was someone who would empty your bedpan for you if you got sick. The characterization seemed wildly exaggerated to most in attendance, who by and large agreed that such duties should fall to family and caregivers.
But in a culture where so many have moved away from family, friends become the extended tribe, and if no family members are around, Joey’s point becomes significant. Who will empty the bedpan? Who do you turn to for love, support, and physical caring when times get really difficult? Perhaps because social media encourages superficial interactions such as reporting on our activities, expressing our views, and wishing each other well on special days—and also perhaps because we haven’t faced the reality that without family nearby we need to rely on friends for survival--we find we don’t have true intimacy with anyone. Or, at least some of us come to that pass, given that so many of us feel lonely in spite of having social lives. It’s also interesting that studies find loneliness is most acute and widespread in those under the age of 65, and particularly pronounced in teens and young adults.5
What, then, can a Minister of Loneliness accomplish? What government level interventions are possible? Certainly, programs can be put in place to make sure those living alone have contact and companionship, which may be a boon to the elderly and isolated. Such programs might have a significant impact on the form of loneliness that comes from true isolation. But for the form of loneliness that grows even in an active social environment, the solution is less clear. Former Surgeon General Murthy suggests instituting workplace programs that require colleagues to get to know each other better. It’s not a bad idea, but most likely the issue goes a lot deeper and requires more research about what’s igniting loneliness on such a widespread scale and what can be done about it. Then again, perhaps, as Paul Simon said, it simply comes down to the fact that many people choose loneliness over the risk of being hurt—and if that’s the case, what can any government program do to help?
- 1. “Britain now has a government minister for loneliness.” 18 January 2018. CBS News. 19 January 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/britain-loneliness-minister-tracey-crouch-jo-cox-uk-parliament/
- 2. “Former surgeon general sounds the alarm on the loneliness epidemic.” 19 October 2017. CBS News. 19 January 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/loneliness-epidemic-former-surgeon-general-dr-vivek-murthy/
- 3. “Smoking and Tobacco Use.” Centers for Disease Control. 19 January 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/adult_data/cig_smoking/index.htm
- 4. Werber, Cassie. “People in rich countries are dying of loneliness.” 8 August 2017. Quartz. 19 January 2018. https://qz.com/1048847/people-in-rich-countries-are-dying-of-loneliness-an-effect-on-par-with-obesity/
- 5. Brody, Jane E. “The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Health.” 11 December 2017. The New York Times. 19 January 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/11/well/mind/how-loneliness-affects-our-health.html