We were never meant to be on our own

Creature comforts: Pets at Home says it is currently seeing “exceptional levels of demand”. © Mariah Mobley

Is loneliness the real pandemic? As the virus forces us to keep our distance from others, those who live by themselves are exposed to a host of ailments. A new dog might not be enough.

Before 1800, the word “loneliness” was seldom used.

But in the last 200 years, social and cultural changes have meant that people have often put themselves before their community, seeking out their own careers, homes, and lives.

While such individualism can be freeing, taken to an extreme it also proves dangerous.

The late journalist Deborah Orr described it as “an ideological machine for creating loneliness, a wrong turn from the progress of humanity”.

In Britain, 76% of GPs say they see at least one patient a day whose visit is “driven primarily by loneliness”.

A study in 2009 showed that loneliness had the same impact on lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The elderly – cut off from social and public life – suffer the most, but one poll found that 22% of millennials recorded having no friends.

If loneliness was already a looming disaster, the coronavirus pandemic – which relies on social distancing and isolation – will only make matters worse.

But why is loneliness so bad for you?

The root cause appears to be evolutionary. In the past, if you lost your tribe of fellow humans, then your body would put you into a state of stress and action, forcing you to find your social ‘home’.

During the present crisis, many are turning to animals to fill that gap left by absent others in their lives.

Animals can trigger some of the feelings normally reserved for those people we love.

So, is loneliness the real pandemic?

Monkey solo

Yes. When a monkey in a cage loses a partner, it goes mad. Loneliness is misery – we are hard-wired to need other people around us. The Covid-19 outbreak is reminding us just how true that is.

No. The virus is our common enemy right now. We must follow the social distancing rules and make sure that we have a functioning society once this is all over.

You Decide

  1. If you have a pet, have you become more fond for it? If you do not, do you now want one more?

Activities

  1. Think about someone you know who might be suffering from loneliness. Write them a letter or message of at least 300 words.

Some People Say...

“Solitude is a beautiful thing, but there has to be someone to tell you that solitude is a beautiful thing.”

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), French novelist and playwright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The British historian Fay Bound Alberti defines loneliness as “a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others”. Neuroscientists identify loneliness as a state of anxiety and vigilance whose origins lie among our primate ancestors and our hunter-gatherer past. GP Ann Robinson says, “We now understand that healthy social bonds can play a key role in mental health; without them, we become lonely, depressed and physically unwell.”
What do we not know?
We do not know exactly how to treat loneliness in an age where, as American Sociologist Eric Klinenberg says, “For the first time [...], great numbers of people [...] have begun settling down as singletons.” The former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, wrote a recent book on the topic of loneliness, describing the difficulty in addressing the issue. “I was never trained,” he says, “to assess or address loneliness and now, when confronted with it, I didn’t know where to start.”

Word Watch

Seldom
Rarely; the opposite of often.
Individualism
The idea that people can be self-reliant and do not need to rely on others or the government. Also a theory of society favouring freedom for individuals over the collective good.
Ideological
Based on a system of ideas and ideals, especially concerning economic or political theory and policy. Its use hints at something dogmatic (enforced decisions, such as those of aggressive political interests or authorities).
Millennials
A loosely defined word, usually used to describe those born between 1980 and 1995 (or thereabouts). The generation of people who grew up into the digital age, but weren’t born into a world dominated by the internet.
Evolutionary
Something that has adapted over time to ensure the survival of those who display it. Eyes evolved so that animals with eyes could navigate their surroundings. People who react negatively to loneliness are less likely to stay on their own.
Hard-wired
Made to have behaviour or beliefs that seem normal or instinctive.

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