All by myself: is loneliness a social problem?

Saturday 28 October, 16:0017:15, Pit TheatreThe politics of the personal

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Loneliness seems to be a growing problem in the modern West. Wider social trends, like the decline of the traditional family and institutions such as churches and social clubs, are experienced all too personally by individuals who find themselves with no close family or friends, especially in older age. In the UK, there is even a Campaign to End Loneliness, which seeks to highlight and confront the problem. The campaign surveyed GPs in 2013 and found 75 per cent saw up to five patients a day whose main reason for making an appointment was simply loneliness. In 2015, the Office for National Statistics reported particularly high levels of loneliness among those over 79, but also significant levels among the general population. It concluded that the UK has some of the highest levels of loneliness in Europe.

A recent study for Public Health England (PHE) suggested that when this kind of subjective loneliness data is combined with more objective statistics related to social isolation, there is a robust case that loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions. Moreover, PHE argued that loneliness and social isolation are strongly associated with a series of negative health outcomes including anxiety, insomnia and depression. Some studies claim that as a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity, and even that it is a bigger killer than cancer or heart disease. So is it time to take loneliness seriously as a social problem, and to find ways to reach out and offer support to those who are suffering? If so, how?

Commentators suggest that responding to recent economic, ideological and even technological changes is a priority. Sue Bourne, who made the documentary Age of Loneliness, says ‘losing your job or constantly having to move for work makes you rootless’. Others point to the rise of competitive self-interest and consumer-oriented individualism, arguing instead for renewed focus on wellbeing. Even technological shifts that might have offered a route out of isolation are considered problematic. Online ‘friends’ disguise that more of us now live alone and merely trap us behind screens rather than draw us closer together. Others argue that by ramping up a quest for social standing through accumulating followers and friends, social media is divisive and ends up isolating us further.

Sceptics argue that an individual’s perception of loneliness is inherently subjective: they propose that whilst it is certainly true that loneliness can generate powerful, painful and sometimes overwhelming emotions, it is far from clear this it does any lasting damage to either individuals or society. Indeed, people can feel lonely even when surrounded by others. In her popular and multi award winning The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, author Olivia Laing paints a portrait of loneliness as ‘a populated place: a city in itself’: ‘Loneliness is collective’ she says, ‘we are in this together’. Indeed, as many a poet and writer has observed, human creativity requires a measure of solitude, and many people relish alone time for its own sake.

So does the very idea of reframing loneliness as a social problem detract from the intensely personal nature of the phenomenon? Can government or charity-led initiatives ever take the place of neighbours spontaneously checking in on one another? Or is the real issue less loneliness as such than reduced opportunities for social interaction? Should we focus on shoring up civil society and leave it to individuals to join in or keep themselves to themselves? Ultimately, is the experience of loneliness necessarily negative? Do different groups experience loneliness in different ways? And if it is true that we face an epidemic of loneliness, what, if anything, might be done about it? And by whom?