Back in 1974, British glam rock band Mud topped the UK singles chart with the now-perennial festive season song ‘Lonely This Christmas’. They sold over 750,000 copies and stayed in the No.1 slot for four weeks over the Christmas period.
I don’t know if the glam rockers in Mud ever experienced loneliness. Like love, it can be one of the things that money cannot resolve.
But what I do know is that loneliness abounds across our society and across all age groups.
At Christmas, we tend to associate the prospect of loneliness with older people; in recent years, the much-anticipated seasonal TV ad campaigns for several famous brands have featured or alluded to loneliness in old people. In each, as far as I can recall, the older person is rescued from potential loneliness by the Christmas-spirited kindness of others (all linked to the retailer’s brand, naturally).
Don’t believe everything you see on TV (or YouTube- No vloggers; Elvis never recorded ‘Lonely This Christmas’.) Seems daft to even write that in a sort of ‘stating-the-obvious’ way.
It’s not just older people who endure loneliness.
Christmas is supposed to be a time for family. Yet for all kinds of reasons, like rushing around, wrestling with priorities, struggling with finances, managing expectations and many other aspects of the festive season that lead directly to increased stress, it can be a time when family members fall out.
And here’s another thought. Why, in an age of the internet and online availability 24/7 where we have never been so broadly and easily connected to others, do so many feel disconnected – or worse, isolated?
Contrary to popular belief, it is not just those of more mature years who struggle with isolation. A BBC news item reporting on research earlier this year is headlined: “Loneliness more likely to affect young people.”
Interestingly, in the context of our ‘always-on connected world’, that BBC News report quotes a Senior Media Officer from the Mental Health Foundation who points this out: “loneliness among young people could be driven by social media and the ‘digital world’. Teens can have thousands of friends online and yet feel unsupported and isolated. Technology, including social media, could be exacerbating social isolation,” he says.
The Science of Connection
Why do we need other people? There is plenty of fascinating neuroscience around the subject of loneliness and isolation. We have a psychological need to belong. For one thing, it impacts our ‘emotional self’ and in turn our self-esteem.
The emotional consequences of belonging have been well studied. A report in Psychology Today magazine says that bonds with other people can become causes for happiness. Supportive social networks can act as buffers against stress. The feeling of being connected to others can be a protective factor against depression. Among students, a sense of belonging to peers and teachers can positively affect academic performance and motivation. For some, belonging and attachment to co-workers is a better motivator than money.
It also references recent neuroscience studies that show that the brain uses similar circuits to deal with our social pleasures and pains as with our more tangible delights and woes. When social ties come undone and connections are severed, the resulting social injuries may affect our brains in similar ways to physical injuries. That leads some neuroscientists to suggest that human beings could be wired to feel pain when we are deprived of social connection, just as evolution has wired us to feel pain when we are deprived of basic needs like food, water and shelter.
There are many other studies that I look forward to sharing in a future blog, including more illuminating insight that questions whether the use of social media really does contribute to loneliness or isolation.
In summary, we are simply not designed to be on our own.
The Human Animal
Nope! We are not the largest or strongest of animals. We don't have body armour or terrifying natural weapons like massive teeth, tusks or claws to attack or defend ourselves with. We don't spit venom. And we do have lots of soft bits that more dangerous animals would love to get their teeth into! Yet we are top of the food chain. How did that happen?
Because we work together; we enjoy safety in numbers and thrive when we are around other people. As we keep getting fancier and fancier in our approach to life, it easy to forget that it’s the basics that can move the needle the most.
Making connections and having people in our lives is so important for our wellbeing and mental health. Remember the Five Ways to Wellbeing? From research endorsed by Mind and the NHS, they are: Connect, Be Active, Keep Learning, Give to Others, and Be Mindful.
I think we need to reinforce two key areas of the ‘Five Ways’ model: Connect and Give. Give of your time, knowledge, or even a kind word. And make a connection.
And there’s a timely seasonal link to St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most venerated religious figures in history. Not only did he arrange the world’s first live Christmas nativity scene in 1223, he also uttered these little words of wisdom:
“For it is in the giving that we receive.”
Like so many times before, it seems that science is now catching up.