Curing our loneliness epidemic
Why are young New Zealanders so lonely? You may imagine it’s the elderly who are loneliest. They often live alone. Their health is declining. They’ve lost spouses, partners and friends. No. While loneliness and its associated ills are prevalent among older New Zealanders, research shows the highest levels of loneliness in our nation are among those aged between 15-24 years old.
How is this possible? Isn’t youth about freedom, friends, and socialising? Or maybe loneliness goes beyond simply lacking opportunities to meet or make friends. Perhaps it points to something deeper, something in our core.
People had often lost their sense of belonging, but also lost purpose.
In 2014, Dr Vivek Murthy was appointed Surgeon General of the United States. His first act was to go on a “listening tour” to understand the most pressing health issues besetting Americans. He expected to hear about obesity, heart disease, dementia, and even the opioid crisis gripping the heartland. What surprised him was how often he detected loneliness at the root of the apparently unrelated symptoms he was seeing.
In his 2020 book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Murthy identifies a range of factors that have contributed to a modern epidemic of loneliness: personal use of technology, ease of movement away from hometowns and the community structures people grew up in, wider acceptance of different lifestyles; and cultural and political polarisation.
Reading Together, I was struck that the stories of despair that Murthy surveys often contain a toxic combination of these factors. People had often lost their sense of belonging, but also lost purpose. They had been made redundant, moved cities, or stopped volunteering.
People described as lonely weren’t just asking “Who do I belong to?” they were also wondering “What am I for?” Notably, both of these questions require answers that primarily come from the outside, we can’t answer them on our own.
So the Disney cliché that “the answer was inside of you all along” likely isn’t true. The search isn’t for yourself, it’s—in part—for other people. We are relational beings. Others, friends, whānau and family, furnish a meaningfulness for our lives. We are needed, and in return need.
Committing to regularly serving others through work or volunteering involves sacrifice: a word often admired but rarely desired.
In his book, Dr Murthy prescribes practices to innouculate us against the ills of loneliness. The final one is a reminder to help, and welcome help from others. “Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life.” Committing to regularly serving others through work or volunteering involves sacrifice: a word often admired but rarely desired.
Paradoxically, this personal sacrifice of time and effort for others often ends up offering a sense of purpose that we wouldn’t receive if we were simply serving our own wants and needs.
Fixing young New Zealand’s loneliness problem isn’t merely about making new connections. We should encourage our young people (and ourselves) to make commitments and to find new purpose in service. We may find that the answer was outside of us all along.go back