Alone again: The epidemic we cannot afford to ignore

Writer and Economist Noreena Hertz on the dangers of loneliness, technology, and the importance of feeling connected even during lockdown
Alone again: The epidemic we cannot afford to ignore

Loneliness can be worse for our health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

IN March of this year, Noreena Hertz was about to emerge from two-and-a-half years of semi-isolation, researching and writing a book on the epidemic of loneliness. 

The irony is not lost on her that just as she was about to deliver the fruits of her labour, the Covid pandemic and ensuing lockdown intervened, resulting in a previously inconceivable and literal embodiment of the isolation she writes about in her book,  The Lonely Century.

“I was almost ready to hand it in and then the pandemic and lockdown happened, so I wove Covid throughout the book," says the London-based writer and economist.
All the trends I had already identified were if anything accelerating, it was happening faster even than I had anticipated — we were becoming even lonelier.

Technology dependence 

One of the great paradoxes of the 21st century addressed by Hertz is that we are surrounded by communication technologies and social media, yet we have never been lonelier.

“What I found in my research, unambiguously, is that technology, smartphones, and social media are a key driver of loneliness because we are perma-connected yet perma-distracted. We are together yet we are alone," she says.

"There is research in my book that when a smartphone is put on a table between a couple, even when it is turned off, even if they are not touching it, the couple feel less connected and less empathetic towards each other."

"Social media is playing a particularly harmful role, encouraging us to be ever more angry and tribal. Hateful posts are more likely to be retweeted and shared than kind ones.”

While Hertz acknowledges that technology has helped us stay connected during the pandemic, she says such dependence will invariably be at the expense of more personal interaction.

“Lockdown was obviously such a unique circumstance — and being connected through technology is better than not being connected at all. I totally understand that it was a lifeline for many of us but it is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction and can make us feel more lonely. So, when we have a choice, the choice needs to be clear,” says Hertz.

Cost of isolation 

Loneliness is something we usually associate more with older people, and Hertz cites research that two in five pensioners in Britain say their main form of company is TV or a pet. 

She also refers to startling research from Japan, where older people are committing crimes to find release from loneliness.

“The fastest-growing group of people who are being incarcerated in Japan is over 65-year-olds, where the rates have quadrupled over the last 20 years, with loneliness the prime driver," says Hertz.

"Those who have researched this phenomenon discovered elderly people committing relatively minor crimes like shoplifting in order to be jailed, so they can have company and be among other people. Researchers found over half of these pensioners lived on their own and over 40% said they had rarely spoken to family."

However, Hertz also explores how loneliness is a growing problem for younger people, with four in 10 people aged between 16 and 24 saying they often feel lonely, with technology a significant factor.

“It is serving as a real weapon of exclusion, with young people particularly affected," she says.

"I interviewed various young people, including one girl whose friends said they weren’t going out; she was sitting in her bedroom on social media and saw them all hanging out without her. She felt so lonely, so invisible, she stayed in her room and wouldn’t go to school for a week. Whereas in the past, a parent or teacher would have seen this kind of exclusion and would have intervened, now it is happening on children’s phones.” 

The Lonely Century is out now.
The Lonely Century is out now.

New understanding

The effects of loneliness on physical as well as mental health are also starkly outlined in the book, with Hertz citing academic research that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

While Hertz strongly argues for governmental intervention, she also says there are things we can do to avoid such outcomes, including limiting our use of smartphones, scheduling regular group activity, and volunteering or helping others.

“One thing we can do to feel less lonely ourselves is to do something that interests us with other people on a regular basis — for example, I do a weekly improv group," Hertz says.

"Also, if you are feeling lonely yourself, is there someone you could reach out to and help? Because by helping someone else, not only do you feel more connected to them, you will get a physiological benefit, the helper’s high, as it’s called. Also, you feel more connected to others yourself.

Feeling you are seen, heard, and thought about goes a long way in alleviating loneliness.

There is no doubt that there is a stigma around loneliness, but Hertz says that the pandemic has at least helped start a conversation on the subject.

“If there is a positive thing to come out of the last few months, we are talking about loneliness more. We have all experienced months of social distancing, being physically cut off from friends and family, not even being able to give people hugs. We all have a much more personal understanding of what it is to feel lonely and isolated.” 

Hertz says she is lucky to have a supportive husband, family, and friends, but adds that she is experiencing a particular kind of loneliness to which perhaps a lot of us can relate right now.

Noreena Hertz says she feels lonely in an "existential sense" right now.
Noreena Hertz says she feels lonely in an "existential sense" right now.

“I feel lonely in a more existential sense, feeling disconnected from my government and politicians who have not in recent months shown that they truly support and care for us.” 

As an author launching a new book, she is also especially missing human contact.

“This book is really taking off and there is incredible interest. Normally, when that happens, you are flying around the world, speaking at events, meeting the readers in different countries," she says.

"Now I am doing it all from my room on the phone or Zoom. As many of us feel, you really can’t beat in-person, face-to-face interaction. I cannot wait until we are able to do that again.” 

Th e Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart by Noreena Hertz, published by Hodder & Stoughton, €16.50,  is out now

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