When I was an undergrad at DDIAE I had a lecturer whose research was in loneliness. No, I'm not talking about the inherent loneliness of academic life—this teacher literally studied loneliness in people's lives. At the time, it seemed ... sweet ... quirky?
Loneliness is a topic that's rarely discussed in polite company—at least not as a personal concern. Perhaps it sounds silly to tell someone whose presence you are literally in at that moment that you are lonely. It's almost rude; basically telling someone to their face that they aren't cutting it.
But I suspect there's more to the discomfort of talking with someone about your loneliness than the simple, seeming incongruity of it. Underlying the embarrassment of admitting to being lonely is a feeling that acknowledging loneliness shows that you are weak. It's a sign that you haven't got the capacity to connect with others in a world where interconnection is ubiquitous and practically unavoidable. In a world full of people and quasi-magical technology that can join us together almost effortlessly across space and time, loneliness is surely a personal failing, a character flaw.
And yet, understanding and addressing the undeniable pain of loneliness won't be helped by adding the similarly stinging hurt of shame.
I'm going to suggest here that loneliness is an important issue that we need to address, meaningfully. I'm mostly basing this proposition on two recent articles I read. The first is the May 2023 feature essay in The Monthly—Sarah Krasnostein's extraordinary analysis of the tragedy that unfolded in Wieambilla in December 2022 entitled The Train family murders. The second is a guest essay by the United States Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, in the New York Times, called We have become a lonely nation. It's time to fix that.
In his article, Dr Murthy describes the damaging effects of loneliness, noting that it is "more than just a bad feeling." For people individually, being lonely increases their risk of anxiety and depression, as well as their risk of:
- heart disease (29 percent)
- dementia (50 percent), and
- stroke (32 percent).
For communities, the social disconnection that manifests as loneliness is associated with:
- reduced productivity in the workplace
- worse performance in school, and
- diminished civic engagement.
In Dr Murthy's account, the individual health effects are comparable to daily smoking and may be greater than the risks associated with obesity, while the community effects make us less able to solve challenges that we can't solve alone—challenges like climate change, economic inequality, and future pandemics.
In this assessment, he is supported by the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA issued a press release agreeing with Dr Murthy, noting that "Being socially connected to others is a basic human need—crucial to both well-being and survival".
The Surgeon General argues that the extraordinary costs of loneliness make rebuilding social connection "a top public health priority" for the United States and has issued a formal advisory to that effect. He says that doing this "will require reorienting ourselves, our communities, and our institutions to prioritize human connection and healthy relationships." Daunting as this sounds, he assures us that we know how to do it.
Broadly, the three-part process for rebuilding social connection that he outlines begins with strengthening the social infrastructure, "the programs, policies and structures that help with the development of healthy relationships." Second, we need to renegotiate our relationship with technology. Finally, we need to take steps in our personal lives to rebuild our connection to one another.
Those of us not living in the United States might dismiss this as just another peculiarity of that sometimes quite peculiar country. But this would be a mistake. In 2021, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) published a detailed report on the rate and risks of loneliness in Australia and the picture it paints is similarly dire. Professional services firm KPMG Australia backs this up in Connection Matters, a 2022 pro bono report they produced together with the Groundswell Foundation, in which they put the economic cost of loneliness in Australia at $2.7 billion.
Sarah Krasnostein's harrowing account of the Wieambilla murders is a heart-rending contrast to the dispassionate, public health approach to understanding the importance of loneliness that the US Surgeon General or the AIHW give us. The essay focusses in excruciatingly painful detail on the extreme effects in people's lives and in our communities when the toll of loneliness becomes overwhelming.
Krasnostein begins her description of the events at Wieambilla by reminding us that that 6 people died—recognising the humanness of all who died.
The Train Family Murders is a deep and caring, cautionary investigation into the ways people become radicalised to the point that they believe it necessary to kill police coming to their property. Much of the essay describes the social and institutional structures implicated in radicalisation but when Krasnostein turns her attention to the Train family members themselves, the personal pain that can manifest as radicalisation starts to take shape.
The founder of a "far-right disengagement group" tells Krasnostein “It’s not like they’re looking for a conspiracy theory–they’re just looking for a community.”
In 1941 Eric Fromm wrote about how people can be drawn to an extreme ideology in Escape from Freedom, a book which Krasnostein describes as explaining “the need to be related to the world outside one’s self, the need to avoid aloneness”. Fromm warns in that book that “To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death.” Consequently, people will do and believe almost anything to avoid being isolated.
The Train's felt that society had abandoned them, dismissed them—and perhaps it had. The beliefs they turned to in order to find connection were on that fateful day, fatal for six people.
Krasnostein writes that Balzac and Fromm recognised that “In the taxonomy of loneliness, moral aloneness is the most terrible". What her beautiful-horrific telling of the Train story warns us is that for people who are already not travelling well, aloneness can have consequences beyond even those detailed by Dr Murthy, the AIHW, and KPMG. Those consequences can tear directly at the very fabric of our society. And yet we appear to be oblivious to what leads to those awful outcomes—or at the very least, deeply reluctant to look in that direction.
But there's hope
The Surgeon General explains that "Loneliness ... can chip away at your self-esteem and erode your sense of who you are" and that "its invisibility is part of what makes it so insidious."
KPMG say that we risk trivialising loneliness despite it being an issue that many Australians identify with. They suggest this is because its impacts are not widely recognised.
In this context—and backed by the mountains of data that The Groundswell Foundation report highlights—Dr Murthy argues that the extraordinary costs of loneliness make it a top public health priority and proposes a national framework to rebuild social connection and community in America. Endorsing this position, the APA says "People from all walks of life, from educators to public health officials and even the media, need to consider actions that can help promote positive social interactions and healthy relationships to address this problem that affects millions ... daily. The Surgeon General’s report demonstrates multiple ways that our physical and mental health are intricately interconnected and affected by loneliness, suggesting the need to develop social connection solutions because of their importance to our physical and psychological health.”
What's needed, an ABC article about a lonely diplomat tells us, are practical steps to reduce loneliness and build social connection. We need action, not pity.
To this end, The Groundswell Foundation note the appointment of government ministers in the UK and Japan whose role is to take action to address loneliness. The Surgeon General's advisory links to resources that can help individuals, parents, communities, workplaces and other parts of society to support social connection. And being ever pragmatic, the AIHW report offers suggestions for preventing and reducing social isolation and loneliness. For example, "Having paid work and caring for others are important safeguards against loneliness." They also tell us that reduced social isolation is associated with "Engaging in volunteer work and maintaining active memberships of sporting or community organisations", although it's not clear whether community engagement consistently acts as a protective factor against loneliness.
Loneliness feels personal and on face value looks like a problem for individuals. But in the same way that there are many and large social effects from people's loneliness there is a large social component to the actions required to address loneliness. While we may not all be lonely, loneliness is all of our problem.
We should do it
Human connection is powerful. It can be maddening and exhausting but if the evidence is any guide, we are mostly erring on the side of not getting enough rather than having too much. Either way, it seems likely that we could be doing it better. And the evidence suggests that there are things we can do, at many levels, for ourselves and in our communities to improve our, and others' human connection.
Far from being a sweet or quirky research diversion, the causes and costs of loneliness are shaping up as among the fundamental drivers of human wellbeing.
Vivek Murthy concludes his NYT piece by suggesting that every generation faces challenges that threaten society and that meeting those challenges is required for our survival. He tells us that the crisis of loneliness is one of our generation's great challenges.
Democracy, in some tellings, means that when one falls, we all suffer. The Train family dropped out of the nurturing network of human connection that we all need and became the epicentre of a wave of suffering that engulfed the families of two police officers and a neighbour, the entire Queensland Police Service, the community surrounding Wieambilla, our whole nation.
Meeting loneliness' challenge to our wellbeing and our communities requires a broader, serious conversation. A conversation that helps us past that initial reluctance to talk about it. And perhaps a conversation that helps us re-evaluate our priorities as a society.