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Loneliness study: Help! I need somebody
The Guardian, Saturday 29 May 2010
Everyone knows that a crowd can be the loneliest place. We're next to other people but feel absent and disconnected. We can talk, smile and respond, yet we are somewhere else. Loneliness can be acute, overwhelming and devastating, and we can experience it when we're with others or by ourselves.
A report from the Mental Health Foundation, published this week, argues that our modern market-driven society has led to an increase of human solitude. As isolated agents competing for goods and services in the marketplace, we have forgotten the value of relationships. Policy-makers must recognise this vital aspect of our lives and divert resources to combat the erosion of social networks. Better relationships mean better lives.
Who could deny that relationships matter, protecting us from the dog-eat-dog world of our working lives? Love and friendship act as buffers to the horror of human competition. Doctors, philosophers and sociologists have been pointing to the clash between capitalism and the human spirit for more than 150 years. They have made the same points about the spread of loneliness and the dehumanising effects of the market. They have shown how social and emotional isolation break down both body and soul. So what has changed today?
Something crucial. Loneliness, the report tells us, is bad for us because it makes it harder to control our "habits and behaviours". Genes may be responsible, and loneliness, we are told, may be hereditary. Teenagers are lonely because of incomplete brain development, which makes them unable to read social cues correctly.
Studies of cancer patients, cited in the report, show that sufferers without close friends were much more likely to die than those with lots of friends. Clearly, the report tells us, relationships are "worth investing in". Relationships and love are good for us. Why? Because they strengthen our immune systems and improve our cardiovascular function. Face-to-face conversations are good too. Why? Because of the "chemical processes" stimulated in the process, such as oxytocin production.
People with plenty of pals can "reap health benefits", the report tells us. So get on the internet or down to the pub and see how many days you can add to your life! Or not. The internet, we learn, both isolates us and connects us. It makes us spend less time with our family, and so makes us lonelier. But it also links us to new communities. No one can deny that people meet through the net, just as some use their screen to avoid face-to-face encounters.
What is so different in this discourse from that of the older studies is very simple. The classic studies of society and loneliness set up an opposition between the marketplace and the human spirit, and argued that consumer society posed a threat to our deeper selves and the ties that bind us to each other. Now the spirit, and the bonds between individuals, have themselves become commodities. We are instructed to "invest in relationships" as we would in the stockmarket. We must acquire them as we would material objects. And we have to do this since relationships "keep us healthy for longer".
Relationships, in this report, have become like any other product on the marketplace. Business values no longer clash with human relationships, but have absorbed them. Relationships have become things: things that make you live longer, that offer health benefits.
But why should we aim to live longer? The early 20th-century studies of loneliness and health by pioneers including Helen Flanders Dunbar spoke of meaningful lives, not just longer lives. Yet today the aim of life is just … to live longer. We should munch broccoli to avoid cancer, swill pomegranate juice to avoid heart disease, go to the gym to improve health. We are advised to use all our time to get more time.
For some philosophers, loneliness was the experience of being mortal, which meant it had to be embraced and confronted rather than avoided. Which is not to say that meaningful relationships with others are not essential.
But the new ideology of health imposes life on us whether we like it or not. The imperative is to live longer, to be healthier, so that death almost becomes a mistake to be avoided. The report, which blames contemporary loneliness on rampant individualism, is thus an example of exactly what it purports to criticise: we must be social so that we can avoid loneliness. Why? So that we can live longer and have more of the commodity that is life.
Furthermore, this latest report suggests overcoming loneliness can be a simple matter of choice – as something an individual can do with sheer volition. Make some friends, get out more! In fact, our families and personal relationships are far more complex than such consumerist language allows. In her book Choice, Renata Salecl, a law professor at the London School of Economics, argues that when emotions, love and attachments to others become perceived as a matter of choice, people increasingly feel inadequate and guilty when things don't work out as they had hoped. Salecl points out that the type of advice people get on how to form loving relationships often prevents them from opening up to each other.
Human life is increasingly seen as a set of skills to be learned, so that we could form new relationships if only we were prepared to make the effort. Yet we can't just form bonds because we're told it's healthy to do so. The realities of human relationships are simply more complicated than the ideology of choice can allow. Going through the motions of communicating isn't the same thing as relating. The more time we spend on the mobile or computer doesn't mean that we are genuinely in touch with other people, and how they feel.
We see this emphasis on superficial signs in today's schools and nurseries. Children are photographed, sometimes on a daily basis, to provide parents with evidence that they are happy. But a cheery smile doesn't necessarily denote a happy person, as Mind's recent campaign on mental health at work, with its numerous examples of miserable workers "putting on a brave face", amply demonstrated. Turning loneliness into a new pathology doesn't help. As Del Loewenthal, professor of psychotherapy at Roehampton University, points out: "It's a mistake to turn loneliness into an illness. What matters are people's individual meanings." Rather than commodifying loneliness, and creating measuring scales, it is dialogue and the sense of connectedness that matter.
However well-intentioned it may be, the pseudoscientific discourse adopted by the Mental Health Foundation, which diagnoses loneliness, actually helps to create it. In this mindset, if you tick more than five out of 10 boxes, you're lonely. But it is only through dialogue, through genuine human engagement, that one can really understand what a lonely person's condition really is. Is it because they miss someone they have lost or some other factor?
In the film Castaway, Tom Hanks plays a Fedex worker stranded on a desert island with a package. Completely alone, he draws a face on a basketball. After he is rescued he sets out to deliver the package, and we realise that even though he talked to the basketball, the package has been his real support. It gave him an identity, a social role, and he is only truly lonely once it is gone.
Researchers have shown that some people cope well with being alone when they know that they have a role in life. When asked what mattered most to them, elderly people said it was less the presence of their family that mattered, more the fact they knew that their lives had value. Losing one's symbolic place in a family or other community can have devastating effects. It can turn a bearable isolation into a nightmare of loneliness.
Having someone to talk to can help. Yet people realise quickly if they are talking to a person or a basketball. A well-meaning interlocutor is not always enough to make a real dialogue, and it is telling that isolated people in one London project made it clear that they didn't want to receive help for free. Instead, they introduced a system of tokens, so they were "buying" the time of their helpers.
Many of the charities cited in the report do excellent work here, supporting elderly and isolated people. Human networks are, of course, invaluable and must be encouraged. The danger is that those battling social isolation buy into the same discourse that contributed to it. Helping others does not have to be justified with pseudoscience and the aim of life does not have to be simply to stay alive. Relationships are not like plasters to apply to a wound and they do not have to be turned into commodities. Hope lies precisely in seeing the difference between things and people.
The need to win has resulted in athletes going to great extents in order to enhance their performance. Since drug testing was introduced by select sports federations in 1966, dangerously large numbers of athletes have been discovered as having taken steroids to enhance their performance in their arenas.
Athletes have also suffered from the side effects of these drugs, which include liver cancer, infertility and in the worst cases, death. This begs the question, is the need to win really that much more important than sportsmanship that one would risk his life for a medal?
I am probably a good person but I haven't taken the time to fill out my profile, so you'll never know!