Monday 4 May 2015

We're more connected today, but more lonely and atomised too

Published 01/03/2014 | 02:30

Research has found that loneliness is bad for our health. Photo: Getty Images.
Research has found that loneliness is bad for our health. Photo: Getty Images.

Have you ever been lonely? Who hasn't? And now the boffins at the University of Chicago have concluded that loneliness can lead to ill-health – that you're more likely to die prematurely if you're lonely, more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, stress, the common cold and even HIV.

Being lonely is as bad for your health as being chronically obese. Loneliness may soon be compared to cigarette smoking for its deplorable impact on health. And at least you could say this for fags – the habit was companionable.

When the Catholic organisation, Opus Dei, was founded in 1936, a priest was deliberately selected to smoke cigarettes alongside working men. Unless a cleric smoked, he could never be part of ordinary life, it was deemed. They probably coughed a lot, but they weren't lonely.

Is loneliness – or the more country-and-western version, lonesomeness – a modern affliction? When you see pictures of how overcrowded folk used to be in Dublin tenements, loneliness must have been unusual. Getting some time to yourself would have been more of a problem.

According to my family's lore, although there was loneliness in the Irish countryside, there was also congeniality, with regular neighbourly and kinship visiting and the frequent "come-all-ye".

We're more connected today through electronic media, but more atomised too.

But here's a question the Chicago neuroscientists – led by Professor John Cacioppo, the world's expert on the effects of loneliness – haven't addressed: if we suffer from loneliness, is it our own fault?

If someone chooses to be single, do they foresee the day when they might feel lonely? Do they factor loneliness into the break-up of a relationship or a marriage?

Loneliness can come through loss as well as through lifestyle choice. People get widowed. Death robs us of companions. Friends move away.

You can be lonely in a crowd, too, when you feel you have nothing in common with the people surrounding you. I've felt that kind of loneliness; separated, by circumstance, from those I regard as my peers, or those with whom I have a natural affinity.

And if loneliness is now identified as a source of ill-health, should lessons against loneliness be included in health education?

Traditionally, the agony aunts' prescription for the lonely of heart was practical. Join a club. Go to night school. Acquire a new skill.

"Lonely hearts" of romantic yearnings now connect through the internet, many successfully. But if we're talking about being in touch with more people in general, joining a club, a society, or acquiring a new skill still seems eminently helpful.

Because no form of electronic communication can replace a human presence, or the satisfaction of sharing activities with those who share your interests.

If "loneliness education" were to be absorbed into health lessons, that's what they should put on the curriculum. Do not scorn stamp collecting. Do not sneer at golf as being "a good walk wasted". Do not turn up your nose at knitting circles.

Everyone – apart from the unusual natural hermit – needs a fellowship. And surely such fellowships work best when there is a common object, rather than as a non- specific gathering.

The local pub and the church community were both a focus for fellowship once. Both have seen decline, for different reasons. And where there is decline, the question follows: "What are you going to put in its place?"

Education for loneliness should probably include some instructions for thinking ahead. You almost certainly will be lonely in old age unless you take some affirmative action.

And there can scarcely be a better prophylactic than Dr Johnson's famous adage: "A man should keep his friendship in constant repair". All human relationships need nurturing.

The age of electronic connection – through emails, Facebook and other social media – is in many ways a terrific boon. It is like having lots of penfriends at once.

I love all that web-based communication. Yet I feel that many of our relationships now – or at least, many of mine – are friendly and cordial, but superficial.

You exchange all kinds of interesting information with people, who may even sign their messages with "lots of love" without ever experiencing a sense of intimacy ("Lots of love" is thrown around far too promiscuously anyway: consider the austere French alternative – "Bien affectueusement").

And then the busy people are too busy, while the lonely people may become more socially withdrawn.

So is it our own fault when we're lonesome? Sometimes, maybe. But not always. When a 30-year-old finds that her best friends have emigrated, when a 40-year-old singleton realises that the peer group have all paired off and settled down, when a woman is suddenly and devastatingly widowed or left – that is not down to a lifestyle choice.

But I think the first remedy may be in seeking a fellowship where common interests are shared, rather than hoping to strike up new friendships out of the blue.

And the Chicago experts say that getting strangers to "befriend" the lonely doesn't always help, because the lonely one feels they're the object of a social care project. Being proactive, oneself, is always better.

But if loneliness is bad for your heart, causes high blood pressure and possibly even affects your auto-immune system, then it is as important to know about this as it is to be aware that obesity, smoking and sexually transmitted diseases are health hazards.

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