We are suffering from an epidemic of loneliness in Britain today. Everyone experiences loneliness – it is part of the human condition – but this is something more. More than 9 million people in the UK say that they always or often feel lonely – people of all ages and in every walk of life. Not only is loneliness bad for our emotional and mental wellbeing, it takes a physical toll too: social isolation can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
For the past year, I have had the great honour of serving as co-chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, alongside Conservative MP Seema Kennedy. One of the great opportunities presented by the commission was to think more deeply about what is happening beneath the surface in communities up and down Britain.
We are a more disconnected society, with the average person spending more time alone today than 10 years ago. The way our economy and public services work often contribute to this. Many of the institutions that once would bring people together – trade unions, churches, the local pub and the workplace – have become marginal or changed beyond all recognition.
Many changes in society over the past half-century or more have brought greater freedom and opportunity, but they also sometimes serve to distance us from one another and leave us without the support networks previous generations enjoyed. Families are often separated by distance, and people who divorce or lose a partner are left without anyone to share their grief. We live longer lives but far too many of us die alone among strangers, whether in a care home or a hospital. The welfare state is there to support us but people’s experience of it can be alienating and isolating.
The modern economy may have generated immense wealth but it has also brought with it communities fractured by globalisation, increasingly transactional interpersonal relationships, great inequalities of wealth and status, and a consumer culture offering instant gratification which cannot satisfy our emotional needs. Social media, smartphones and the internet often exacerbate these problems.
I think that profound loneliness in a society is a warning sign – that we need to change how we live together. But how can we even begin to address such a deep malaise?
We should consider the way our welfare state works. It is frequently experienced as top-down and target-driven, meaning that the very institutions designed to support people often feel disempowering to those who need them most. Teachers, social workers and other public servants are weighed down by serving the requirements of systems and prevented from doing the thing that they want to do: helping people and establishing real human connections. One of the greatest challenges for any government will be to reshape the welfare state. We should think of it as a convenor which brings people together to help themselves, where the transformative power of relationships is absolutely central to the process.
I have outlined three further strategies for fostering a more connected society. First, we need to think about culture, and especially nostalgia. Nostalgia is a much misunderstood feeling. For young people moving far from home or for those entering old age, nostalgia is a powerful way of thwarting loneliness. When we are processing change and loss, it can help us focus on what our lives mean and remember that we are valued people with meaningful lives. Popular culture is full of nostalgia, but sometimes we feel like a society focused on moving forwards, not leaving enough time to reflect. Research has shown that, in fact, the people best able to deal with loneliness are those able to use nostalgia to restore their social connections and preserve their mental wellbeing.
Second, we should consider character. It is in our earliest years that we develop much of the personal resilience that we need to draw on later in life. The children who flourish most and cope best when things get tough are those who have formed secure attachments and know they are worthy of love from an early age. Investment in early years is one of the most important things we can do if we are to ensure children grow up with the ability to communicate their needs and build healthy relationships.
Finally, we need a community strategy, focused on building the institutions, services and organisations that are able to connect people. There are countless fantastic community-led projects combating loneliness which deserve our support – whether that’s by connecting lonely and vulnerable people, bringing parents and their children together, or providing activities where young and old spend time together. Businesses and universities also have a role to play in this.
Loneliness needs to be a priority for local and central government. But it is not only a challenge. Isolated people also represent untapped potential, which can benefit everyone. For instance, we could focus not just on getting bright young people into teaching, but also on a programme to bring older people’s experience and knowledge into classrooms: Teach First but also Teach Last.
Our society can be richer for allowing everyone to contribute. My hope – and that of the commission – is that we can all live a life less lonely.