Last weekend was Diwali. The house was filled with light, colourful decorations and loads of food. What was missing was sound, the sound of chatter, of laughter and of kids playing around. We tried to make up for the absence of friends and family through video calls and social media messages, but it still felt lonely. In fact, loneliness or a sense of emptiness seems to be a common theme that most people spoke of during my recent interactions.
In the past, we used to have large joint families, with the elders caring for the kids and later being cared for, in their old age. There were neighbours with roots and family ties going back generations. People used to live nearby, if not in the same towns at least in the same state. Essentially, we were surrounded by kith and kin, so we had a social support system and the chances of having meaningful interactions were higher. More importantly, we had the time and an attitude to actually have those physical interactions.
In the last few decades, the world has shrunk figuratively, as people moved away from tightly knit clusters to individualistic nuclear families, mostly at distant locations. Kids grow up in pockets of immediate family with mostly one or sometimes no siblings at all. They see Grandparents and relatives, at best annually and rarely stay with them for long. The pressures of a hectic work schedule and a struggle for existence in a competitive world takes its toll on our social life.
Although our fast-paced lifestyle is suitable for the current requirements, it also results in very few people developing roots, both for person and place. Once the kids fly the nest, for studies and then for working in faraway cities or even abroad, the tightly knit unit breaks, with rarely any fallback option. It leaves parents struggling to cope with the solitude of an empty and quiet nest and the kids having to start all over again, this time alone. Even retirement and lack of a busy daily schedule can initiate a feeling of loneliness, especially if there is no alternative social life.
In addition to this, while technology has driven us closer in terms of accessibility and reachability, it tends to replace actual physical interaction. Afterall texting a friend does not give us the same happiness as a hug.
All these factors, individually or combined, can lead to mental and physical loneliness. Usually, it is associated with older people but in actuality, it can affect anyone, at any age. An active octogenarian with a lively friend circle and social life could be perfectly fine, even though they may miss their family. Whereas young outgoing adults, working and living alone in a city can be lonely, if they have no real friends or meaningful interaction with the people around. Just being surrounded by people is not enough.
Loneliness is not just physical solitude, although it is a major contributing factor, it can be a state of mind too. In fact, chronic loneliness is characterised by a feeling of being alone or isolated from people, inability to meaningfully connect or socialize, deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy, poor self-esteem, self-loathing and a reduced capacity to concentrate and take decisions.
Loneliness is one of the biggest public health challenges of recent times with evidence showing that loneliness can be just as bad as obesity or smoking. Chronic loneliness can result in an increase of the hormone Cortisol which in turn can lead to other issues like weight gain. If this persists over a period of time, it can lead to mental health issues like depression, sleeping disorders and even substance abuse. Subsequently, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart diseases and can result in reducing the lifespan of people.
In the UK, a survey conducted a couple of years back concluded that up to a fifth of all UK adults feel lonely most or all the time. Unsurprisingly, the numbers are similar across the world.
This has been exacerbated by the pandemic. As COVID-19 affects our physical health we have lockdowns or restrictions which in turn impact the finances of the individual and the nation. However, it also impacts the mental health of the nation, with loneliness being a leading issue. People can go for days, weeks or even months without seeing a single soul. Even the usual banter with the postman or the shopkeepers, which meant some form of human interaction, now seem a distant dream. Most of us call or shop online with everything delivered to our doorsteps, with zero personal interaction, to minimise risk.
The important question is do we acknowledge this issue? Without acceptance of a problem, we cannot move towards a solution.
On the positive side, this can be overcome with awareness and some socially coordinated effort. If you are lonely or know someone who could be, reach out. Most people will welcome it. Try joining a regular activity like volunteering, a hobby club, walking group etc. These will help boost your self-esteem and provide a satisfying and safe way to connect with others. They can even help elevate endorphins and serotonin levels, the happy hormones. If there is a deeper issue like substance abuse or loss of loved ones, joining or building a support group would enable in getting help and encouragement, to ease the loneliness. In the case of deep-rooted issues, a mental health professional can help but this is required for extreme cases only.
In 2018, the then Prime Minister of UK, Theresa May, based on a report recommendation, created a ministerial lead for loneliness, popularly known as “Minister for Loneliness”. The “strategy sets out a powerful vision for addressing this generational challenge” with steps like “incorporating loneliness into ongoing policy decisions”, “embedding loneliness into relationships education classes so children in primary and secondary schools can learn about loneliness and the value of social relationships” and even accessing the impact of technology on loneliness. Some UK doctors practice “‘social prescribing” which entails working with a community worker to tailor a social interaction plan for improving one’s health and wellbeing, rather than defaulting to medicines.
Maybe all nations across the world need a Minister for loneliness too, who can look after the mental health of the population, rather than just the physical aspect. This is applicable to the current state of affairs in our society and is even more imperative during the pandemic. It’s time for us to acknowledge this silent killer.
Meanwhile, if you want to check that your friend, family or even neighbour are doing fine, go ring that doorbell to see for yourself. Don’t just go by what they message you, tell you or when they smile for you while looking at the camera on their phone. The physical reality can be different from the virtual pretensions and an actual hug can work wonders. If you can’t go meet them during this pandemic, then request a friend or neighbour to drop by for a cup of tea, if required maintaining the 2meters distance, so they can get some company and you can get some peace of mind.
We may not have a Minister for Loneliness yet, but loneliness is a reality many people live with. If we can help alleviate it, even a tiny bit, it’s worth our while.