Communities in decline, rapid advances in technology and diminishing opportunities for work have all contributed to a new age of loneliness that affects all demographics and puts serious pressure on an overburdened social care system.

Since the early 90’s, neuroscientist John Cacioppo has been studying the causes of loneliness by employing brain scans, monitoring blood pressure and analysing immune function. His studies demonstrate the powerful influence of social context on physiology – a factor so strong that it can alter DNA replication.

He finds that loneliness can have negative behavioural and physiological effects on par with smoking and alcohol consumption and more severe than physical inactivity or obesity. In summary: “Social species do not fare well when forced to live solitary lives” – making the case that social cooperation is, in fact, humanity’s defining characteristic

“As individuals, and as a society, we have everything to gain, and everything to lose, in how well we manage our need for human connection. With new patterns of immigration changing established cultures throughout the world, the importance of transcending tribalism to find common ground has never been greater.

Loneliness heightens our threat surveillance and impairs our cognitive abilities, but also the ways in which the warmth of genuine connection frees our minds to focus on whatever challenges lie before us… feelings of social isolation deprive us of vast reservoirs of creativity and energy.”

Professor John Cacioppo, University of Chicago.

Evidence of the effects of this appears in a recent report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which found that Americans’ life expectancy fell from 78.9 years to 78.8 years in 2014 to 2015. Although this sounds like a minor change, life expectancy declines in the developed world are rare outside of national crisis, and this represents the first such decline in the US since the height of the AIDS epidemic.

David Squires, a researcher for The Commonwealth Fund, concludes that “It is possible these phenomena are rooted in factors such as economic dislocation, cultural fragmentation, and social isolation, but more research is needed to confidently draw these potential connections.”

According to market research firm Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is rising fast, from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011, an increase of about 80% in 15 years. In Ireland, single people account for 23.5% of all households with 399,815 people living alone according to the 2016 census. In 1979 this figure was 16%. In 1926 it was 8.3%. 62% of males who lived alone were single with only 13% widowed (21,517). Amongst females 74,725 were widowed, representing 37% of the group, while 89,069 were single, accounting for 44%.

The problems of loneliness are particularly acute for the elderly and disabled living on the fringes of society. The TILDA longitudinal study on ageing found:

  • 1 in 3 adults over the age of 65 report feeling lonely often or some of the time.
  • Women tend to report higher levels of loneliness compared to men.
  • Those aged 75 and over report higher levels of loneliness.
  • There are significant socio-economic differences when it comes to loneliness: those with lower levels of education and those from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds report higher levels of loneliness.
  • Mothers whose children have emigrated experienced increased depressive symptoms and greater loneliness than mothers whose children did not emigrate. Interestingly, no significant effects were found for fathers.
  • Those who retired involuntarily experienced increased depressive symptoms.

Research indicates that our health and wellbeing are linked to social connectedness, but the dominant narrative continues to be one of competitive self-interest. In both education and employment, extreme individualism is touted over collaboration as the key to innovation and economic prosperity. It is believed that consumerism will bridge the gap in society and bring us closer together but this only encourages further disconnectedness with tools allowing us to quantify our social standing and intensify social comparison.

In a world where we are constantly connected by technology, it appears that we are becoming more isolated. Digital devices are great for sharing information, but not great for deepening human connections and a sense of belonging. Psychologist Susan Pinker suggests that we should use our mobile devices to augment, not to replace, face-to-face interaction – that is, if we want to live longer, healthier and happier lives in more socially cohesive society. Therefore, the provision of technology to support care for the elderly and people with disabilities needs to be underpinned by a strong community network.

For people suffering from loneliness within this community network, we need to look for solutions to transcend tribalism and find common ground. In his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, Cacioppo presents four steps to “EASE into social connection.”

E = Extend Yourself – Experiment with getting “small doses of positive sensations that come from social interactions.” Pick safe places to experiment, such as in public, with strangers, or volunteering. Make contact with others without expecting anything in return.

A = Action Plan – Detail how you can change your thoughts, expectations, and behaviours toward others. Knowing you can do something different is empowering.

S = Selection – Choose where to invest your social energy. Identify how many relationships you want to invest in and where you want to meet people.

E = Expect the Best – If making contact does not work out each time, don’t over analyse it. Expect the best will develop over time. Don’t get hung up on one encounter.

The Amicitia model draws heavily on research to design a system that addresses many of the concerns outlined in this post. Our vision for lifetime communities can help to rebuild Ireland using modern technologies with the support of a new participatory culture fostered through our social hub.

View our six pillars for social change for more details. If you would like more information on the project, you can contact our team directly.