The silent epidemic that is killing us – Part 1

The Silent Epidemic That’s “Killing Us” by Akos Balough (Gospel Coalition)

A silent epidemic is sweeping across western societies.

It’s affecting young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. You wouldn’t know it’s happening, because much of it takes place behind closed doors. But increasing numbers of people are touched by it.

What is this silent epidemic?

Loneliness.

 

According to a survey by Lifeline, 60 % of people in Australia regularly feel lonely. And 82% of Aussies feel that loneliness is on the rise. The British government recently appointed a ‘Minister for loneliness’ – a Monty Python-esque title, perhaps, but it shows how serious the issue is.

 

So why’s this epidemic happening? Here are some thoughts:

 

1) Demographic Changes Are Helping Drive This Epidemic

The single person household is on the rise.

Australian demographer Bernard Salt writes about the rise of the single person household:

The next iteration is playing out in this decade and into the next as singles surge, driven by our individual values, our predisposition to postpone commitment and, most powerfully, the death of male baby boomers in their 70s leaving widowed partners.’

He then goes on to describe the consequences of this demographic shift:

And if this is the outlook, then the nature of suburbia [will] shift from a place of energy and activity associated with kids to a place that is stilled by loneliness, isolation and maybe depression.’

It’s an ominous trend, but it shows us the people who are most vulnerable to loneliness: the elderly.

2) The Elderly Are Particularly Vulnerable To Loneliness

Former UK journalist (and now elderly widow) Esther Rantzen describes how loneliness is affecting heras she’s grown older:

The sad fact is that I have fewer friends and family than I had. It’s one of the unintended consequences of growing older. You lose people you grew up with and love. All too often you have to attend their funerals…That’s the penalty of out-living the people who count most in your life.’

Loved ones die. And though you might live on, life is relationally poorer – lonelier – than before. You can see this in troubling nursing home statistics: 40% of nursing home residents haven’t had one visitor in the previous 365 days.

But it’s not just the elderly that are at risk of loneliness:

 

3) Busy-ness Can Lead to Loneliness

Relationships are inconvenient for busy people.

Lifeline Chief Executive Pete Shmigel suggested that our lives had become lonelier as they had become busier, and that loneliness was an unfortunate by product of convenience:

Relationships, frankly, are inconvenient…Society values convenience so much that we actually seek to make things so convenient that they actively seek to avoid human relationships.

His plea?

We need to have the stickiness, the gooeyness, the conflict that comes with engaging in actual human relationships.”

I think he’s right. Relationships take time – time that busy people don’t think they have. What’s more,  relationships inevitably bring tension and conflict. And it’s all too easy to walk away from relationships when the going gets tough: couples divorce; adult children don’t talk to their parents; siblings don’t see each other for decades.

As a society, we’re rather weak in sticking with relationships when they go south. And when this happens, loneliness increases.

But thankfully we have social media, right? It’s a great way to keep in touch, isn’t it? Well, it’s not that simple:

4) Social Media Is a Mixed Blessing At Best

It allows us to stay in contact with distant loved ones, but it’s a poor substitute for face to face contact.

Social media is a powerful tool for keeping in contact with people, but if it replaces face to face contact, then you’re in trouble.

Why?

Because as a recent University of Pittsburgh report on social media use points out,

The exposure to “highly idealised representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives.”

In other words, on FB everybody else’s life looks charmed compared to your ordinary existence: they go on the cool holidays; their kids that win all the awards; and they have the fun experiences.

And it’s this continual comparison that may lead some people – particularly younger people –  to withdraw socially from real interactions.

Furthermore, we human beings are designed by God to interact with people face to face – not just virtually. Our brains respond differently to seeing people in real life, than endless scrolling feeds. Just as babies need regular human interaction to develop, we too need real human interaction if we’re to flourish.

But social media doesn’t provide that real human interaction. It’s a poor substitute, that can leave you empty, and lonely.

So then, why is all this happening? (Part 2 next week)