At a couple of events recently I’ve asked the question: ‘what is the opposite of loneliness?’ I ask the question because, in our disconnection in a connected age — in which we so often prioritise what’s efficient over what’s important, and how to save time rather than how to spend it by being with people — the question elicits rich and emotive responses. Is it friendship, community or connection? Happiness, homeliness or familiarity? Even love?
In our work at The Cares Family, which brings older and younger people together to reduce loneliness in rapidly changing cities, we’ve recently been mining thousands of data points to try to better understand why so many people tell us they feel ‘part of something bigger than themselves’ as a result of being involved in our activities. It’s a knotty issue, because loneliness is a subjective feeling, an emotion as well as a public health crisis, and one that’s not easy to track through traditional academic measures.
But in the context of that rapidly changing world, in which layered trends of globalisation, gentrification, digitisation, transience, housing bubbles and professionalisation can leave us all feeling left out or left behind — and in which politics, press and power can leave people divided and driven apart — for me the opposite of loneliness is togetherness.
Because our current loneliness crisis is more than an individual heartbreak multiplied millions of times. It’s a sign of a wider malaise, linked to our addiction crisis and in turn our polarisation and even extremism. Just as Brexit is a symptom of a wider trauma in our communities and our economy, rather than in itself a cause of it, a national loneliness epidemic is an indicator of something else gone wrong: a lack of understanding, of compassion — and of nationhood.
In the new UnLtd podcast “How do you solve a problem like loneliness”, I explore these trends in more depth, arguing that our collective national loneliness requires a collective national response cutting across economics, systems, infrastructure, politics, health, welfare and business. It requires people to feel they have control over their lives and agency in the lives of others; resilience in communities and not merely on an individual level.
And I argue that, in the midst of division, not helped by British equanimity which leads to an almost identical proportion of people believing that community is of fundamental importance to our wellbeing as who don’t themselves participate, we can all take the responsibility to do something to contribute to that togetherness — without waiting for big business, big government or big charities to do something on our behalf.
Ultimately, we can each do that by re-raising the qualities that make us human in the first place: our sense of humour, our joy; our playfulness, kindness and empathy. We can help ourselves and one another to feel visible through our relationships with others; to feel meaning through our connection to place and the heritage that makes that place special; to share stories with one another one-to-one, in groups and in communities — stories that help us all to feel a depth of association, and part of our changing world, rather than left behind by it.
The new UnLtd podcast, “How do you solve a problem like loneliness?” is out now.