We are forgetting that we are basically social animals and need to feel that we “belong” to others and feel connected to one another.
The world is experiencing a severe loneliness epidemic, and it is frightening because it is not restricted to only the elderly, but the young are also affected. Few high school and university students feel like they don’t fit in, they don’t have friends, so they spend days in relative remoteness with not much to do but school/college deadlines and digital devices for companionship and support.
It is becoming growingly difficult these days for people to nourish their relationships with spouse, siblings, parents, associates, neighbours, peers, bosses, classmates … why? We fail at love every time, despite trying so hard, why? I suppose slowly we all are forgetting what love is. We are not prepared to let go, compromise, get ready for the unconditional love. We are becoming inept to invest in feelings, patience, emotions to make a relationship work. Feelings and emotions don’t come easy and we want our relationships to tick easily. Our esteems and egos have grown so fragile that we quit from relationships so easily one after the other. All it takes is a single cause to make us crumble to our feet. We don’t let our love grow; we let go before time.
So, why are we getting lonelier? The modern society is transformed. Everyone wants his/her space. We prefer to live in nuclear family units; we rather like to maintain distance from our extended family and friends. Instead of our reliance on people, we depend more on technological gadgets. In addition, we rely on social media rather than face-to-face interaction; the social fabric itself is jumbled, which makes us feel more isolated. We feel less connected to others and our relationships are becoming more superficial and not gratifying.
We are forgetting that we are basically social animals and need to feel that we “belong” to others and feel connected to one another. One of the glaring reality is that social pain is the same as physical pain sensation; researchers have shown that loneliness and rejection activate the same parts of the brain as physical pain does. We are not designed to be solitary creatures. From the beginning of mankind, we have progressed living in groups; the need to interact is deeply ingrained in our genetic code. John Cacioppo (the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor, and the founder and director of the Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago) said that the absence of social connection generates primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst and physical pain. Loneliness is that serious.
Loneliness affects all of us at some point in our lives. Moving to a new house, school, locality and job is a painful experience because you lose your friends, associates, mentor … somebody to whom we feel belonged to. Research suggests that this experience of loneliness is useful to us as it motivates us to reconnect with others and to seek out new friendships to reduce the social pain. But for some, when reconnection is not easy or not possible, he/she gets socially isolated; people can remain in this uncomfortable loneliness state for a number of years. Reports vary, but typically the number of people experiencing loneliness in this prolonged way ranges from 3% to 30%.
And for those who experience loneliness for a prolonged period, it impacts their health seriously. Loneliness has been linked to poor mental health, obesity, addiction such as drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. In a research conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, more than a third of the people surveyed had felt depressed as a result of feeling lonely.
A sense of connection to other human beings is vital. Without it, we can feel trapped in an unending and unwanted state of loneliness. Like love, loneliness is a complex combination of emotions; it is a blend of anxiety, fear and nostalgia with a base note of sadness. If love is a positive emotion, loneliness is classically a negative experience.
How to tackle loneliness problem? Governments play a central role in spreading the message of importance of social connections. The UK, the Netherlands, New Zealand, France, Ireland and Sweden are seriously taking corrective actions to spread messages among their citizens about the role of friendship and well-being. In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom. Parents, friends, siblings, children, romantic partners all these come first.
It is worth high accolades that the UK government appointed Tracey Crouch as the minister for loneliness. This appointment comes as a result of a government report on social isolation. Among other gloomy statistics, the report suggests that around 200,000 older people hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. Crouch has been asked to produce a strategy to tackle what has become a reality of modern life for many people.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has declared a dedicated fund which will see government working with charitable trusts, foundations and others to stimulate innovative solutions to loneliness across all ages, backgrounds and communities, provide seed fund for communities to come together to develop activities which enable people to connect, scale-up and spread existing work, offering practical and emotional support to help lonely individuals reconnect with their communities.
The government has created pocket parks programme, which has transformed unused spaces into new green areas, giving lonely people the chance to join volunteering groups and interact with neighbours.
For far too many people, loneliness is the poignant reality of modern life; mindfulness helps positively to see things clearly and connect more fully. One needs to increase the mindfulness.
By: Vidya Hattangadi
Management thinker and blogger