We all need to feel that we matter and belong. Connection is everything. Humans rely on it for happiness, wellbeing and even survival.
To feel isolated and alone is devastating. Loneliness is on the increase and we need to talk about it. It’s all around but tends to be invisible, hidden behind walls of care homes or city apartments or student rooms. It’s hidden, too, behind shame and denial as we struggle to say the words: “sometimes I feel lonely”.
Adolescents and elderly people are most at risk: technological advances, a global pandemic and societal changes all add up to a dangerous moment in our human story.
People who are lonely are at higher risk of depression, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes. Add to that an increase in the production of stress hormones, lack of sleep, weakened immune systems and it is no exaggeration to say that loneliness is a matter of life and death. We are social creatures and we suffer when isolated from others.
In 1958 an American psychologist, Harry Harlow, carried out an experiment with infant rhesus monkeys to look at the effects of isolation. He set up two maternal shapes made from wire – one that held food and one that was covered in soft material – and then released the youngsters. Amazingly they all chose to run towards a soft figure for comfort rather than a wire figure that offered food.
We need each other. In a modern world that involves contactless shopping, private housing where neighbours don’t speak, interactions behind screens that avoid eye contact and tone of voice, we are more and more isolated. And for now we can no longer hug loved ones, visit one another, be part of a big crowd. Masks hide our faces, work is precarious or carried out from a distance, and fear is all around.
But all is not lost. Little steps are surely possible, for our own health as well as that of our family, friends and neighbours. Check in on each other. Reach out more. Phone calls, messages, even visits to doorways or waving through windows can all brighten someone’s day.