Here are two recent statistics that give pause for thought:
1. Britain is now the loneliness capital of Europe
Its people are less likely to know their neighbours or have strong relationships than anywhere in Europe.
2. Every two hours a man kills himself in the UK
Suicide is the single biggest cause of death for young men (18-34), although suicide rates are highest among middle-aged men (35-54) – and rates are rising.
Nearly 8 million people living alone in Britain
With nearly 8 million people living alone in Britain, the word “epidemic” is being increasingly applied to loneliness, just as with stress, anxiety and depression. Humans are profoundly social beings and one of the most robust findings in wellbeing research is that relationships are by far and away the most significant factor in promoting life satisfaction. So if our relationships are not healthy, our wellbeing will be damaged. Loneliness is a clear indicator that something is wrong.
And loneliness is dangerous
In fact, as dangerous for our health as obesity or smoking thirty cigarettes a day! Research shows that loneliness increases morning cortisol levels (a powerful stress hormone), bringing the expectation of “yet another dangerous day”. It also increases depressive symptoms, producing a vicious circle of isolation and poor health. There’s more. When we become isolated, an in-built protective response kicks in. We become hyper-alert for threats, and so focus on our own welfare rather than taking on the perspective of others. So the more isolated we are, the more suspicious we become of others. That’s another vicious circle we need to avoid.
With all this evidence, you might think that we would be talking more about it
But here’s the double-whammy. Loneliness not only makes you ill, it also carries a social stigma, just like depression. We don’t mind showing the plaster on our arm after a sports injury, or talking about the operation we had on our gall-bladder last month. But to admit that we are lonely or depressed is more awkward. Somehow we feel that it’s not cool or acceptable – we’re going to appear weak and “needy”.
For men, there’s something more than the illness and the stigma
It’s not manly. Men are meant to be strong and resilient, not weak, emotional and needy. The “strong, silent type” is still the default male stereotype, at least for many. From an early age, the expectation is that “boys don’t cry” and that showing your emotions (or at least the apparently negative ones of fear, anxiety and dependency) is evidence of weakness. The idea of being “vulnerable” or “sensitive” fills some men with panic! In America, it’s all about jocks (intelligent, physically impressive and socially comfortable) versus nerds (intelligent but socially awkward and physically incapable)! It’s not so different here.
Our society doesn’t help
It promotes and elevates autonomy, independence and self-reliance, especially among men. Although these can help in our quest for ever-greater achievements, when it comes to building long-lasting, mutually dependent, healthy relationships they are potentially catastrophic – again, especially among men. An expert on loneliness, John Cacioppo says: “Our culture emphasizes going from childhood dependence to adult independence. What it means to be an adult in a social species, however, is not to be independent of others but to be a member on whom others in the group can depend. I think some of our society’s problems relate to that misconception of what it means to be an adult in a social species.”
Younger men face a further complication
In recent years there has been a significant shift in the role of men in society. With changing attitudes (at least publicly) to women’s roles, many men have begun to wonder what their own role is. In the past it seemed clearer – men were the breadwinners whilst women were homemakers, with major responsibility for bringing up the children. Now that has changed, and yet the old stereotypes of the man as the strong, tight-lipped, unemotional leader and provider are very much alive. It has produced a crisis in men – what are they for? Young men in particular have to negotiate this tricky path, and as a result experience uncertainty and stress about their identity and role. In the light of all this, the statistics about male suicide begin to make sense.