UK government appoints a minister for loneliness

lonely woman on bench
CC BY 2.0 Hernán Piñera

Prime Minister May is hoping to cheer up the millions of Britons who live in a sad and unhealthy state of chronic loneliness.

Ours has been called "the age of loneliness." Despite communication being easier than ever, thanks to modern technology, people are lonelier and feeling more disconnected than ever before.

While everyone has experienced some degree of loneliness, which usually passes after a conversation with a good friend or a fun outing, a great number of people suffer from chronic loneliness, an awful state of perceived solitude that never relents. In the U.S. it's thought to be between 20 and 30 percent of the population. In the UK, it's 9 million people (out of 66.5 million), 85 percent of disabled young people, and 50 percent of adults aged 75 and older.

When people are chronically lonely, they can go days, even weeks, without social interactions. Quartz reports that "around 200,000 older people [in the UK] have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month."

The problem is so severe that UK prime minister Theresa May has appointed the current Minister for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, to lead a new commission to combat loneliness. In a statement delivered yesterday, May said:

"For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with."

Named the Jo Cox Commission, in honor of a minister who was murdered and was passionate about this issue, the new Commission will strive to "bring together government, local government, public services, the voluntary and community sector and businesses to identify opportunities to tackle loneliness, and build more integrated and resilient communities."

May's move could stem partly from the rising health care costs associated with chronic loneliness. One government document equates the health effects of feeling lonely to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Quartz cites other alarming evidence:

"Previous research has linked an epidemic of loneliness to early deaths across wealthy nations. The groundbreaking 2017 meta studies came to two important conclusions; greater social connection was associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of dying early and the effect of loneliness had an effect on the risk of dying younger equal to that of obesity."

For those of us who do not suffer from chronic loneliness, it is difficult to comprehend what a dark mental space it must be to inhabit. Make others' days better (and your own!) by taking a few basic actions:

  • Say hello to people. Make eye contact when you do it.
  • Put away your phone while in lineups. Take out headphones, which creates space for spontaneous conversations to happen.
  • Engage in conversation. Try to talk to one new person each day.
  • Don't rely on social media to communicate with friends. It's never an accurate measure for how someone's really doing. Call them instead.
  • Organize a reading group that joins younger people and senior citizens. (A friend did this years ago as a student at Princeton and he said it was life-changing, going to read books to old people once each week.)

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