We have a new ministerial post in Britain: the minister of loneliness. Tracey Crouch was recently appointed to continue the work of Jo Cox and following the recommendations of a cross-party report. This is a positive move to address a problem that is embedded within a society that has championed individualism at others’ cost, a rat-race, and a ‘me-first’ model of economics (The Guardian editorial, 20th Jan, 2018). Happiness does not emerge from such a context, instead isolation for many, with very real effects upon health.
Of course this approach is not just evident in the marketplace and the workplace. It has been encouraged in schools where grades are the measure of success, and being better than everybody else is a driver. The reality is that no-one is better than anyone else, and on continually feeling that they must look a certain way, be on a certain social media channel, have certain material things and strive to be better than the others, the pressure builds. This is one of the main reasons for the ever-growing issue of childhood and teen ill-health. Loneliness is almost certainly in the mix. How lonely must it be to always be thinking about oneself?
“You are no better than anyone else and no one is better than you
~ John Wooden
Yet this is a society of our making. We must all wake up to this and build structures that promote collectivism and connection in line with our design to co-operate. It will not be enough to try and minimise suffering downstream by picking up the pieces. We need top down change in attitudes and beliefs, because what we are doing at the moment is not working. The next generation needs this desperately. They need to be prepared for the modern world: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration — the 4Cs.
Suffering is part of life. How we address our suffering and support others who suffer determine what it is actually like. Suffering affords opportunities to learn and transform experiences. To try and wrap people up in cotton wool will not work. Giving them practical tools to roll with life’s ups and downs together with know-how, creating opportunities to pursue a purpose, to master chosen skills and feel a sense of autonomy are all part of a healthy, evolving society.
Those who are familiar with the scientific literature on loneliness know about the biological effects. There are several key points to consider. Firstly, it is the perception of loneliness that is the governing factor. Secondly, in the case of perceived loneliness, we switch at a gene level to being inflammatory. This makes sense because being isolated means that if we are bitten by the sabre-tooth tiger, our healing responses are ready to go. That’s basic biology at play. If we perceive ourselves to be part of a community and connected, we are pro-viral because we are more likely to pass viruses to on another. Great system, but being pro-inflammatory for a prolonged period has health consequences: e.g./ chronic pain, depression–the two largest global health burdens.
Tracey Crouch has a job of huge importance. This is not just about people who live alone. This is about how society functions to enable people to connect with purpose, to support and trust each other and to share a planet. Now that’s a job worth doing well!
A brief note on loneliness and pain
Chronic pain is often described to me as being a cause of loneliness for several reasons. Firstly because of the limits that the pain can seem to impose until the person learns skills and has tools to change his or her experience, and secondly because no-one else can actually feel that pain.
Pain is a shared experience however. Each person will suffer their own pain of course, and for different reasons, yet it is a conscious phenomena that most will feel. Being that it is unavoidable, it becomes essential that people understand pain so that they can address their needs with effect.
One of many actions that can be chosen and committed to, is that of making connections and ensuring meaningful interactions as often as possible. These practices and others can easily be interwoven into life as a means to address the effects of loneliness.