“Beautiful as heaven, lonely as hell”
I have heard friends of mine visiting New Zealand describe it as “beautiful as heaven, and lonely as hell.” If that’s so, it doesn’t bode well for us all – as a 2010 study by Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton highlights that the long-term effects of loneliness brought on by social exclusion is “equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day and to drinking six units of alcohol a day.”
Statistics New Zealand’s 2009/10 time use survey highlights that we do in fact spend a fair amount of time alone. People who live alone and are aged 15-64 spend 16 hours and 21 minutes alone a day. Those aged over 65 who live alone spend a whopping 20 hours a day alone.
However, spending time alone is not the same as feeling lonely or being socially isolated. The findings of Statistics New Zealand’s General Social Survey in 2013 showed that despite the amount of time spent alone “older people experienced the lowest levels of loneliness … with adults aged under 30 year experiencing the highest levels of loneliness.” It also found that “living alone was associated with loneliness for young adults and those in midlife but not for older people.” It really is the quality of our interactions that count, not just the time we spend alone or even surrounded by others.
This point was hit home by Professor John Hattie at the recent Maxim Institute Sir John Graham Lecture where he talked about the need for school children to make friends in their first month at school. Almost unbelievably, his research at an Auckland school highlighted that one in five kids in a class on any day has no one talk specifically to them – presumably not even a teacher. A person can literally be surrounded by others and still be socially isolated. No wonder some kids don’t want to go to school.
We’re discovering that these experiences matter later in life too. In Maxim Institute’s research on poverty, we’ve noted that success in many modern workplaces relies more and more on “soft skills” like communication, teamwork, negotiation and other relational attributes, alongside traditional skills like math and science.
I remember my first few days on the job as a young manual labourer. Everyone else was older, knew what they were doing and were better than me. Fortunately, my boss looked out for me. He made sure the older guys didn’t mock me too much, surprised me with a one off bonus for what must have been a pretty poor day’s work, and even picked me up on my second day.
Employers, teachers, families and strangers who go the extra mile to help someone fit in, learn the ropes, and feel included, are unsung heroes. When we practice intentional and quality interactions with the people around us not only are we contributing to their health, wellbeing, and productivity, we’re making a social investment in New Zealand’s future. Sounds heavenly.