Even before the pandemic hit us all with lockdowns and spending a lot more time by ourselves than before, Britney Spears sang that "My loneliness is killing me." While she was referring to a guy that it's been over with, she was onto something. Loneliness can, in fact, be detrimental to our health. Statistically, loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That's a lot of cigarettes.
What's more, the impact is the same regardless of gender, age or nationality. Loneliness renders us all the same miserable, rich or poor. At least that's something. Not something we should aspire though. Quite the opposite argues Noreena Hertz in her book: "The lonely century: a call to reconnect."
In this book, the author combines in-depth research, scientific studies, and personal experiences into a cohesive, entertaining, and eye-opening read. Why has loneliness been increasing, and what are its implications? This book covers it all, including some ideas on how we can start making things better.
And yes, you guessed it right, technology does make a big appearance. So let's start with it.
Obviously, like many others, Noreena Hertz mentions that smartphones have contributed to us not connecting with others as we used to. Instead of talking to baristas when buying our morning coffee, we check our Twitter feed or swipe on people on Tinder.
Unfortunately, though, it's such small conversations that drastically reduce feelings of loneliness. When people have small chats with others in the community, they will automatically feel less lonely — regardless of how long that exchange was. It can be saying hi to your neighbour, asking the postman how he's dealing with the weather or thanking someone at the door to let you go in first.
Just having our smartphones on us makes us less perceptible to our surroundings as our attention shifts. So for your own, and everyone else's sake, leave your phone in your bag when you go for a date.
Social Media, you will know, makes people unhappy and loneliness worse. When I was a child, sure, my friends also met in groups without me. So what. But nowadays, such meetings are documented on Social Media and make the one person uninvited painfully aware of having been excluded. You can probably write a whole book on this topic alone, so I leave it to that.
However, have you thought about AI yet? Some companies — and Japan is leading the way — have started developing cute robots to alleviate loneliness and "make you happier". Check this one out; it's called Lovot, is super cute and is smart enough to know who it's looking at. It can talk and display emotions similar to a natural pet.
Great, everyone buys a cute robot and problem solved? Not so fast. The author highlights one potential challenge with AI these days. It's inhumanly polite. If you insult Alexa, she will shrug it off. Similar responses from Siri, even when you tell her that she's a b*tch. Is it far-fetched to have some serious concerns about how people who deal more with AI than actual humans might develop a certain expectation that a real woman would show similar responses? (I mean, is anyone using a male voice assistant?)
We might need compassionate AI, and we should probably start with it sooner than later.
Technology is the obvious culprit, but there's more to the loneliness endemic. Our economic framework is as much to blame as other factors for communities drifting apart. You might think it's just economical, but it is a lot more. Our shift to neoliberalism has changed our relationships.
Neoliberalism has made us see oursevles as competitors not collaborators, consumers not citizens, hoarders not sharers, takers not givers, hustlers not helpers, people who are not only too busy to be there for our neighbours but don’t even know our neighbours names.
Are you going to take a break, talk to a stranger when you are so busy running after deadlines, to be able to compete with your coworkers, impress the boss and not be fired? Unlikely. Kindness and empathy took a beating in our pursuit of growing productivity, cherishing things such as hyper-competitiveness, and following one's self-interest regardless of broader consequences.
Fortunately, some companies have realized that hyper-competitiveness can do the opposite of bringing out the best in people. Even under governments, there is a growing awareness that the purely neoliberal model won't work in a society that heavily relies on individuals forging bonds with each other.
And if you're also not the biggest fan of neoliberalism and wonder, what the f*ck it did to microfinance, read "why microfinance doesn't work", and you'll feel even less good about it but enlightened. 💡
So, what now?
Throughout the book, there are various accounts of individuals battling loneliness, even to the degree they live in their car, to afford paid cuddling. After laying out what we know about the causes and impact of loneliness, the author highlights a few ways to address it.
So, no need to "abandon all hope" yet; we're not at hells' gate. (it's a reference to Dante's inferno, in case you didn't realize. Also, an excellent phrase to drop on people during a bear market if you want to annoy them 😉).
First and foremost, every single one of us can help alleviate our own and others loneliness. How? Take some hints from this cowboy-inspired meme.
It's not so hard to be kind. If you walk around with open eyes, you will find a few chances to practice that. Someone is losing your key in front of you, a mother struggling to heave the baby car up the stairs, or just letting someone go in front of you in the queue who has a lot fewer items than you to check out. Remember, being kind and caring and doing small acts for others is good for our health. It's a real win-win. The other person will be happy you helped them, while you will feel better about yourself.
Small things can add up to something bigger.
Of course, we can't just rely on every individual making a change. Some of the challenges are bigger than that. Architecture has a significant impact on how we interact with each other in cities. As Noreena Hertz puts it: "cities are typically designed to foster connections for cars, not people".
Governments need to wake up to the challenges and costs imposed by loneliness. The more lonely people are, the less they will interact with people different from themselves, which is a threat to our democracies. It's in our best interest to tackle loneliness head-on.
I think everyone who cares just mildly about society should read this book. It's well-researched and combined with individuals' unique stories making it a very entertaining yet educational read. A wake-up call to be more kind, support local businesses and re-think our relationship with AI.
If you're in London and would like to borrow the book, hit me up :)