British Prime Minister Theresa May recently appointed a minister of loneliness. Her announcement last month represented a watershed moment in raising public awareness on an emotional pain that most of us have felt but few of us admit to.
“For far too many, loneliness is a sad reality of modern life. I want us all to confront this and take action to address loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, those who have lost loved ones — those with no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with,” May tweeted.
Conservative MP Tracey Crouch will tackle the problem by working with businesses and charities to increase awareness about loneliness and create a government strategy to combat it. She’ll build on the legacy of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in June 2016 as she made her way to a constituency meeting.
Before she was killed, Cox had said that she wanted to “turbo-charge” the government’s response to loneliness. “I will not live in a country where thousands of people are living lonely lives forgotten by the rest of us,” she said.
In Canada, the UK’s move has prompted questions about whether our federal, provincial and territorial governments should take similar steps to address what has been called “a greater public health hazard than obesity.”
While definitions vary, loneliness is generally understood to be unpleasant and distressing feelings about unwanted discrepancies between existing and preferred relationships. It’s a subjective phenomenon, meaning it’s based on the lonely person’s own perceptions of his or her social situation. They feel a mismatch between their actual relationships and those they wish they had.
This subjective aspect of loneliness distinguishes it from social isolation, which has more to do with someone’s actual number of social contacts. In other words, loneliness is about the quality of relationships; isolation is about the quantity. Thus, a person can be alone without being lonely while someone surrounded by others can suffer from loneliness.
Loneliness is a normal human emotion. Everyone feels lonely from time to time. For most, the experience is fleeting. We may feel a pang of loneliness after moving to a new city or when travelling alone. We may also feel lonely after losing a spouse, outliving close friends or residing far from family.
At first blush, it’s reasonable to conclude that governments shouldn’t get involved in such a ubiquitously private matter. But for some people, loneliness is not just a passing blight. As novelist Ethel Mannin wrote in 1966, it is a “hidden fox gnawing at the vitals.”
In its chronic form, loneliness can be as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. While the causal relationship is not clear-cut, loneliness has been associated with heart disease and stroke; depression and alcoholism; obesity and diabetes; and dementia. It has also been linked to suicide.
Loneliness can affect anyone. “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate,” Cox said. As University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo and his colleagues point out, humans are social animals and the need to connect is present across the lifespan.
While loneliness can strike anyone, its age distribution is typically found to be U-shaped. Studies show that loneliness tends to peak among adolescents and young adults, and then again among seniors aged 80 and over. Indeed, the National Seniors Council of Canada reports that approximately 50 percent of people aged 80 and older feel lonely, and that men over age 80 have one of the highest suicide rates of all age groups.
These numbers make a compelling case to appoint a loneliness minister. But if such a position is to be more than a symbolic gesture, the government response must tackle the difficult cases. That requires investing in interventions that address the faulty social decision-making associated with chronic loneliness. Simply telling people to volunteer and keep busy is not enough.
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According to Cacioppo and other evolutionary psychologists, chronically lonely people can behave in paradoxically self-defeating ways — they simultaneously desire and reject social contact. They crave social connection but unwittingly push people away. This behaviour often elicits negative responses from others. Friends and family may stop calling. Health and social workers may give up offering services. Neighbours may stop checking in.
These reactions are understandable, but as Cacioppo explains, they confirm the lonely person’s pessimistic expectations of others. They expect to be rejected, and they are.
Stopping this vicious cycle of loneliness is not easy. For the loneliness sufferer, studies show that it often takes cognitive behavioural approaches that challenge and modify the person’s automatic negative thoughts, including the expectation that others will reject them.
Existing loneliness interventions rarely target this entrenched thinking. Instead, programs often tout volunteering or other social activities as a loneliness remedy.
But such socializing is not a universal antidote. It may work for some, but as loneliness researcher Robert Weiss observed in 1973, only the nonlonely suppose that loneliness can be cured by “random sociability.” Author and former lawyer Emily White made a similar point in 2011. Volunteering can leave some “feeling doubly alone,” she wrote.
To have the most meaningful impact, government responses should address the underlying cognitive dynamic linked to chronic loneliness that results in sufferers continually desiring and then rejecting social contact. This could be achieved by identifying and funding evidence-based approaches, such as cognitive behavioural-based programs. Otherwise, those suffering from the most intense and prolonged loneliness may remain stuck in a negative feedback loop, never lifting out of their invisible suffering.
To be sure, it can be a challenge to convince a chronically lonely person to participate in therapy or other programs that target such maladaptive thinking.
As I explored in my master of laws thesis, the problem can be compounded in the case of lonely older men, who may be especially prone to rejecting offers of support. This may be driven in part by men’s general tendency to resist reaching out for help, as though it’s a sign of weakness. If an older man has the legal capacity to refuse, the current state of Anglo-Canadian law essentially says that we must let him “rot with his rights on.” The law is likely to look past the cognitive forces of loneliness as he pushes people away, and assume that his resistance is a freely made choice.
Chronic loneliness can be a perpetual downward cascade. May’s appointment of a loneliness minister has brought much-needed attention to the problem; it’s also prompted Canadians to ask whether governments in this country should do the same.
If officials are prepared to address the difficult cases of chronic loneliness, appointing loneliness ministers holds real promise. If not, we’re missing a major opportunity to extend a helping hand to those who are suffering in silence.
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