“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.
Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
― Stephen Fry
Three months ago we read that loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults.
Now we learn that it is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50, and is rising with astonishing speed.
Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.
Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.
British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses – more than a fifth say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed.
We have changed our language to reflect this shift. Our most cutting insult is loser. We no longer talk about people. Now we call them individuals.
One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people report that the one-eyed god is their principal company.
We asked psychologist Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier and Smarter, to explain the benefits of living in a community of about 150 people, the average population of traditional villages throughout history around the world:
Not all types of social ties are created equal. Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar posits 150 as the maximum number of meaningful relationships that the human brain can manage. We know from our own lives there are only so many people that you can invest in that way, that you can call and invite to dinner or check in on when sick.
When you think of most villages, there is a central square, a public area where everyone converges or passes by going to the grocer or the post office or city hall or sit at a cafe. And so these ties develop naturally through frequent in-person contact.
These are different from the weak contacts that you might have in your online social networks. You could walk by some of these online contacts on the street without even recognizing them. These weak contacts are great if you need a recommendation for a restaurant in a strange city, for instance, or [are] looking for a cleaning lady or other types of information. But in terms of social ties, it's the difference between your mother's lasagna or homemade chicken soup compared with fast food.
We need to recognize that digital connections should enhance but never replace the real-life connections. I don't think we all should throw out digital devices and move back to the village. I'm not romanticizing village life but using it as a metaphor as what is disappearing: deep social ties and the in-person contact we all need to survive.