Only the Lonely

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When Hank Williams wrote "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in 1949, it was not widely interpreted as a call for government intervention. But that was then. Earlier this month, British PM Theresa May appointed a minister of loneliness. Strident demands that governments "tackle the growing problem of loneliness" have followed in Europe, the United States and Canada. In scant weeks, loneliness has vaulted to the top of the social-justice agenda. What is going on, and why now?

One answer is that Ms. May's minority government is in disarray, wary of the collectivist Corbynistas, and cognizant that co-opting the anti-loneliness initiatives of slain Labour MP Jo Cox carries little political risk. The devil, of course, is in the details. May's enthusiastic new minister of loneliness, MP Tracey Crouch, hit the ground running with "a multi-million pound fund" designed to "pull together existing work being carried out on loneliness to create a framework for the future." But when a BBC journalist asked Crouch whether the Tories' closure of libraries and daycare centres might have exacerbated Britons' loneliness, the minister replied evasively that "there was no single solution." Professor Jane Cummings, chief nursing officer of the U.K.'s National Health Service, identifies "cold weather and loneliness" as a lethal combination—another inconvenient truth likely to stick to PM May, given that Britain's 25,000 annual "excess Winter Deaths" can be laid directly at the feet of her "clean growth" energy policies.

British news media routinely assert that loneliness leads to "mental health problems like depression, stress and anxiety." But this common-sense claim elides an important distinction between loneliness as a mental-health issue versus loneliness as a social condition. No one disputes that depression and anxiety are serious problems—as are addiction, suicidality, mood and eating disorders, PTSD, and any number of other isolation-inducing afflictions. The question for clinical researchers and policy-makers, however, is whether such maladies can be tethered empirically to "the growing problem of loneliness." The answer is that they cannot, according to Dr. Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation in the U.K. "There is no hard historic data to show loneliness—which is arguably subjective—is getting worse."

But the idea that social isolation is reaching crisis levels in the West—where the bonds of community, marriage, family and even friendship are under strain—remains a powerful meme. "For far too many people," PM May herself has said, "loneliness is the sad reality of modern life." This common lament helps to explain the appeal of anti-loneliness activism, and the extraordinary effort already under way to graft "the growing problem of loneliness" onto existing critiques of modernity. Andrew McCulloch, for example, cited above, told the BBC that "there needs to be a cultural shift," since "arguably society is too materialistic and individualistic." Canadian seniors' advocate Isobel Mackenzie agrees. "We need to look at some of the decisions we are making as a society on how we are choosing to live," she asserts, "decisions like living in single-family homes in the suburbs, driving alone in cars, communicating through social media rather than in person." Capitalist affluence, selfish lifestyle choices—it is no coincidence that in 2018 the prescriptive cure for loneliness is the same as the cure for global warming.

No one denies that the torments of loneliness are real, irrespective of whether they are born of poverty or wealth, cultural difference, mental or physical disability, bereavement, abandonment, or abuse. And no one disputes that busy, insular and distracted citizens can do a better job of alleviating the loneliness of others. The question is whether loneliness—once imagined by philosophers, poets and pop stars to be as intrinsic to the human condition as love and loss—should be re-cast as a public-health crisis to be diagnosed and treated by the state.