Getting serious about loneliness

By Danielle van Dalen July 24, 2018

As Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera sang: “Nobody wants to be lonely.” But loneliness is more than just missing spending time with your friends. Research has found that loneliness can have a negative impact on a person’s health as significant as the effect of “smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

While loneliness is increasing in numbers amongst New Zealanders both young and old, this is not a problem unique to New Zealand. An essay by the former US Surgeon General claims that loneliness in the US has reached “epidemic levels,” while in Britain, following the recommendations of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, Tracey Crouch has become the world’s first Minister for Loneliness.

This is not a problem unique to New Zealand

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Crouch notes her new position has garnered attention from around the world, including New Zealand. However, our own government have no plans for such a position just yet. Instead, Tracey Martin, Minister for Seniors has said that the government hoped to utilise the Positive Ageing Strategy, due to be released later this year, to get an idea of the scale of loneliness amongst older New Zealanders.

The British Minister for Loneliness is using her role to encourage awareness of this issue, and to provide the infrastructure for reducing loneliness. It will be interesting to see how she can overcome one major problem with her role: the government cannot love people. In fact, when the Minister for Loneliness was first announced US comedian Stephen Colbert made this comment: “They took the most ineffable human problem and came up with the most cold, bureaucratic solution. How is it supposed to work? The Ministry has reviewed your application and you’re not lonely enough, I’m afraid. Your application for affection has been denied.” Obviously, this was said this in jest during a comedy routine, but Colbert makes an important point. There is a difference between getting ready for an appointment with a social worker and looking forward to spending time with a friend you share a long-standing connection with. The personal relationship is certainly going to be much more effective at combatting loneliness, and yet it can’t be written into policy.

‘The Ministry has reviewed your application and you’re not lonely enough, I’m afraid. Your application for affection has been denied.’

So, what does this mean? We can’t ignore that many people in our society are vulnerable to loneliness, and without passing the problem on to government to fix, it can be difficult to imagine how anything might change.

The thing is, the solution is actually pretty simple – it’s building relationships and communities that will overcome the loneliness. Already many communities are doing great things. Menz Shed’s (community spaces for woodwork or electronics), communities where the older generation often lives together with the younger family members, and school kids helping elderly people learn to use smartphones, are just a few ways spaces are being created to build relationships and in turn reduce loneliness.

While it can be easy to get caught up in the fancy titles and big policy ideas it’s important to remember that thriving communities and generous people, rather than government and policies, will always be the most effective tools for combatting loneliness.

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