Minister of loneliness for ‘broken society’

Dinner for one: Edward Hopper’s Automat — much of his work explores the theme of loneliness.

Can the state stop loneliness? Yesterday Britain appointed a government minister to tackle the “epidemic” blighting millions of lives — an issue dubbed the “giant evil” of our times.

It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who first described humans as “social animals”. But something about modern society is sending people into dangerous spirals of isolation. Now the British government wants to do something about it and the prime minister, Theresa May, has appointed a government minister to lead the effort.

Mrs May claimed that “For too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life”. Tracey Crouch, the new loneliness minister, described it as a “generational issue” harming both young and old.

Research shows that loneliness is as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and can be more deadly than obesity. It also fuels mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and paranoia.

The young are particularly at risk. In one survey 32% of those aged 16-24 said they feel lonely often or all the time — almost three times the proportion of people aged over 65 who say the same (11%).

The government now aims to tackle loneliness with a multi-million pound fund to develop community groups, and finance research into the issue.

But some think the problem runs much deeper than the reach of these initiatives.

Anthropologist Richard Dunbar claims that humans are genetically hardwired to have a “social brain”. This is the result of early humans forming social groups to hunt and survive in a pre-civilised world.

Other scientists have observed twin babies gesturing to each other in the womb months before they are born — evidence of the “social pre-wiring” of the human mind.

But according to psychologist Jay Watts the culture of “individualism” at the centre of modern society is suffocating this natural sociability. Watts particularly blames our “neoliberal” political system, which is based on an aggressive form of capitalism that encourages individuals to compete rather than co-operate.

So can politicians really cure our loneliness?

Knowing me, knowing me

The whole system is broken, some say. The state does not care about communities — as proved by the hundreds of libraries which have been shut down, condemning countless people to isolation. What is more, humanity is continuing its relentless march into the digital age, with social media displacing vital face-to-face interactions. Politicians tinkering around the edges of society will solve nothing.

This intervention can make a difference, others respond. The scientific consensus on the devastating effects of loneliness is solid, and this announcement proves the government is serious about fixing the issue. Furthermore, citizens must start taking responsibility. As Crouch says, a huge difference can be made with “simple acts of companionship”. Her appointment is an example to us all.

You Decide

  1. Is the modern world a lonely place?
  2. Is it always bad to be lonely?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to Theresa May suggesting ways you think the government could tackle loneliness in society. Remember to use as much descriptive and persuasive language as possible.
  2. Watch the short video Six types of loneliness under Become An Expert. Do you recognise any of those feelings yourself? For each type, what could be done to help stop those feelings of isolation?

Some People Say...

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

Mother Teresa

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to a 2017 study by Relate, 65% of people aged 16-24 claim to feel lonely at least some of the time. Among adults 13% said that they have no close friends, and 45% reported feeling lonely at least some of the time.
What do we not know?
The official government announcement promised a dedicated fund to “stimulate innovative solutions to loneliness”, and to help communities to “come together to develop activities which enable people to connect”. However, it is not clear how much money will be made available, and what specific community projects will receive funding.

Word Watch

Aristotle
Living from 384 to 322BC, his work in philosophy and science had a profound impact on the Arab world and then the Renaissance in Europe.
15 cigarettes
A widely cited statistic attributed to the work of Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Dr Tim Smith.
Obesity
According to research presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, lead by Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad.
Survey
According to a 2017 report released by Relate, a counselling organisation.
Scientists
According to the research paper: Wired to Be Social: The Ontogeny of Human Interaction, by Umberto Castiello.
Neoliberal
According to The Handbook of Neoliberalism the term refers to the “extension of competitive markets into all areas of life, including the economy, politics and society”. In the UK the ideology is particularly associated with former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Hundreds of libraries
A 2016 investigation by BBC News found that 343 libraries had been closed in the preceding six years resulting in the loss of almost 8,000 jobs.

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