This is one demon we cannot fight alone

lonliness copy




In todays society we grow up encouraged to be unique, independent, self-reliant. “You don’t need anyone else,” we are told. “It’s your life, don’t let anyone stand in your way”. And so we enter adulthood fighting our own battles, refusing aid for fear of becoming reliant on it.

But there is one demon that we cannot fight alone.


In the US, studies have found that 35% of people aged over 45 feel “chronically lonely”, up from 20% a decade previously. The research also discovered that about 60 million Americans are “unhappy” with their lives because of loneliness. [1] That is the equilavent of almost every single person living in the UK.


But in the age of connectivity, when at the touch of a button we can interact with people on all corners of the globe, how is it possible that people are feeling so alone?

Robert Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size in the early 90’s and used this to predict a human ‘mean group size’ of 150. This number refers to the average number of people with whom we can sustain a stable social relationship with. Looking across history this number has not changed in thousands of years and appears again and again: it is the size of Neolithic farming communities, professional armies in Roman antiquity, and even today in notions of appropriate company workforce size. 150 is the average number of people each of us can maintain a relationship with that involves trust and obligation.

So OK, we have the brain capacity to maintain 150 friendships, but people are clearly struggling to have any meaningful friendships at all if they are complaining of being so lonely.

But what is meant by a meaningful relationship and how do you even establish one?


“A touch is worth a thousand words”


During my time at University I noticed something that interested me. Guys would meet girls on nights out, chat them up, buy them a drink, dance with them and — if all was going well — invite them back to theirs. “Well this is nothing new…?” I hear you say: but it was not promise of sex that enticed the girl, but the six magical words “I will be your big spoon”. I knew many girls who had a ‘cuddle buddy’; someone they would go home with after a night out and share body heat with. Many women think men are just after sex (and most men don’t consider that actually women often are just after sex!), but a lot of the time it is purely human contact that we really crave; to feel the warmth of someone else’s skin against your own.

In the past human touch was more commonly given and received. A Noblemen of the 15th Century would often have an extra large bed to enable his wife and children, soldiers and even servants to join him during the winter nights. In contrast here in the 21st Century it is the norm to sleep alone. Bigger living spaces and double glazed windows mean there is no need for such cozy sleeping arrangement and the idea of sharing a bed with one’s parents once you’ve hit school age is now frowned upon in todays Western society. Whether it be due to the more modern view of interpersonal touch as unhygienic or the rise in technology enabling us to connect with others without being physically close; nowadays it is often awkward and uncomfortable when someone ‘invades’ you personal space.

Touch is the most powerful of our senses. It is the first sense to develop in the embryo; within three weeks of conception, we have developed a primitive nervous system which links skin cells to our rudimentary brain. In the initial stages of our life touch is our first language. Long before we can see, smell, taste, or hear, we experience others and ourselves through touch, our only reciprocal sense. In the 1950’s American psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of controversial experiments to demonstrate the importance of touch in coping. He raised baby monkeys in isolation in a cage with two ‘surrogate’ mothers: one made only of wire and one wrapped in a terrycloth. Despite the wire monkey holding a bottle from which the monkeys could nurse, the frightened animal would cling to the terrycloth mother even when it led them to dehydrate and starve. The monkeys were hungry for something other than food.

Although most of us will agree on the importance of touch in bonding and child well-being at the early stages of infancy, the obvious need for interpersonal physical contact seems less relevant as we get older. However, no matter what age we are, touch has a powerful impact on our emotions. A loving touch triggers the release of the chemical oxytocin often referred to as the “bonding hormone”. There is also evidence to suggest that a hug can increase serotonin levels and help reduce stress. [2]

Although nowadays we live in a fast paced, goal directed, multitask oriented world; the part of the brain which governs emotions and responds positively to the chemicals released by loving touch is prehistoric (Heller, 1997). However in my opinion it is not the chemical reaction that is important, it is much more basic than that; the beauty of touch in comparison to all other senses is that you cannot touch another without being touched ourselves. Touch is always a shared experience and something that can (at least at the moment anyway) only be performed in person.

However, if you regular share interpersonal touch with another human being(s) the likelihood is (especially if you are male), is that you are in an intimate relationship. But what about if you are single? Going around asking people if you can touch them is probably going to lose you friends rather than gain them. There must be another way to make, and keep, friends.


Where are you?


I am a baby of the 90s and as such an internet connection is as important to me as food and water. However technology is a hindrance as a well as a help when meeting people and making friends.


You have arranged to meet up with a friend you haven’t seen for a couple of months. Over a beer you catch up on each others work, life, play stories; hear about the crazy boss, the lazy new flatmate, the latest Tinder date. Their phone sits beside them at the table although you are sure you didn’t extend the invitation. It vibrates and conversation stalls as their train of thought is lost. Oh, it’s the Tinder date. (You definitely didn’t extend the invitation to her!). A smile at an in-joke you aren’t privy to and a quick tap tap tap of the screen; “so where was I?…” You sit there thinking how rude your friend has become and as you look around you see the same scenario played out over and over. Phones on tables as if the owners are inviting distractions, phone calls being answered that could have easily waited until later, a hand into a jacket pocket on the way to the bathroom for some quick toilet texting between conversations.


You may be sitting there thinking ‘that’s definitely not me’, but next time you are out, just take a second to think: where am I?

With instant messaging leeching into our daily lives we are an impatient society. At work, why get out of your chair to speak to your colleague in the next room when you can just email him. And when he receives said email; of course you expect an instant response. In fact, now he can access his emails from his mobile, he can (and should) respond to you even after work hours. This can not possibly wait until 9am.

We know everyone carries their phone on them 24/7 so we become frustrated when we get no answer, or a reply takes hours rather than seconds. And then you find yourself writing; “sorry for not texting back sooner, I was having lunch with my mother”. Surely lunch with the woman who brought you into this world is important enough to justify radio silence for a mere 3 hours. Don’t apologise!

What I’m trying to say is technology is preventing us from concentrating on what is really important in our lives. With half your mind distracted by WhatsApp messages, work emails, wondering why that guy you are dating hasn’t text you back; it’s as if only half of you turned up to the reunion dinner with the girls. If you honestly believe that ‘that guy’ is more important than your old University mates, then perhaps you shouldn’t have gone to the dinner. If he’s going to get shitty with you because you didn’t text him back for a couple of hours then he really isn’t worth your time.


Knowing about someone and knowing someone are totally different


We are so scared of missing out on something, we stay constantly plugged into the message stream. We find ourselves Facebook stalking other people’s lives to see how their (far too public) relationship is doing. Asking friends whether your other ‘friend’ has got a job yet. As if knowing about that person’s life is going to make you feel like you ‘know’ them better.

But if you really cared; you would pick up the phone and call them.

Oh but that would take at least 20 minutes of my time, and The Apprentice is on in 15. And maybe it might be awkward, you haven’t spoken to them in a few months now. And what if they don’t answer, should I leave a message? But then what if they call back at an awkward time? Or don’t call back at all?

No wonder you feel lonely.

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