Loneliness: THE 21st century killer?

Stress is certainly a 21st Century ailment, and it manifests itself in many diseases: the WHO predicts that by 2020, half of all diseases will be stress related. Our mental health, perhaps better described as mental wellbeing, is deteriorating: one in four UK citizens will experience episodes of mental illness in their lives.

However, stress is only part of the story. It exists in a vicious and co-dependent circle with loneliness. We get stressed because (amongst other causes) we are busy; often busy doing unfulfilling or unmeaningful activities. That stress means we have less time for the people who matter to us, and this causes loneliness. Loneliness then causes more stress.

Many aspects of modern life exacerbate the situation. Our devotion to work means that we are more tired. The benefits of mobile working and flexible hours also mean that we spend more time home-working; even in large organisations. Those same organisations often use mobile working as an opportunity to trim their estates and institute hot-desking: which means employees lose the relationships which are forged by sitting with the same people each day.

Back at home, jump on Facebook and many people have 500 or more friends on their social networks. But not only is this online rather than face-to-face which therefore lacks intimacy, our social networked lives are strictly edited for public consumption. Indeed, social networks give us all the tools we need — groups, pictures etc. — to pick the medium and the audience for any social message. They’re often used as broadcast tools, for keeping people at a specific distance, not tools for enhancing friendships.

These issues will continue to challenge modern society. Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence technologies will allow us to become ever more disconnected from the people around us if we let them; and this will lead to soullessly lonely lives. The workplace, meanwhile, is in line for a series of changes which are almost entirely unpredictable. We may be forced to work harder by economic pressures. Equally, technologists predict with alarming regularity that advances in technology will render over 50% of jobs obsolete. Perhaps this will mean we will have more time for each other. The jury’s out; but we need to rediscover the importance of shared human experiences and value them for their contribution to our lives. (Even when we do choose to get close — really close — to one another, dating apps like Tinder can make the experience a commodity rather than something more engaging and meaningful).

Healthy relationships are about being in real touch with other real people — our sometimes foolish, flawed conflictual and challenging selves; not a collection of edited avatars.