Loneliness: How far have we come?

Open laptop and note pad on wooden desk.

Paul Cann, Chair of the Campaign to End Loneliness, explains the context to the work done so far to tackle loneliness and to reiterate why this Hub is so important.  

Loneliness: How far have we come?  

The advent of a Minister for Loneliness and Loneliness Strategy (1) in 2018 were landmarks in the progressive sophistication of public policy. They built on a growing recognition that the emotional well-being of citizens is a rightful concern of the government.  Richard (later Lord) Layard’s influential work on happiness (2) elaborated this issue in the 2000s, which then grew into policy measurements of well-being by successive governments, and was given legal roots in the 2014 Care Act’s duty to promote well-being.  

Other countries have also focused on ‘softer’ aspects of national values: New Zealand’s well-being budget (3), Scotland’s enshrining of kindness in its national performance framework (4), and not forgetting  Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index (5).  It’s now about delivery.  We have to keep faith with the many fine words (there are 60 action points, and they are indeed well stated). A Loneliness Strategy is for life.

We launched the Campaign to End Loneliness through  listening to academics who summarised key findings from their lifelong research (6). With their help we’ve come a long way in understanding “loneliness”, a word which Fay Bound Alberti has helped us approach through the term ‘emotion cluster (7), showing how different mixes of feelings hit us hard throughout life, in different ways, at different stages.  

We studied the evidence of the roots of loneliness.  John Cacioppo’s work (8) convinced us that loneliness is a primordial impulse to connect, a pain evolved to move us closer to one another, for survival. Noreena Hertz has now, powerfully,  painted the context around why we feel uncared-for and invisible: the wider, structural barriers to interaction, such as poverty, cultures of individualistic personal gain, work insecurity, technological distancing. We must tackle those big issues if we are to “come together in a world that’s pulling apart” (10).

We’ve also come a long way in knowing what to do.  Sympathetic handouts have often been replaced by empowering chances to connect.  Our Promising Approaches (11) work on service delivery shows how myriad such activities, from Men’s Sheds to HenPower, are more likely to engage us, because they offer a reason to live and to give. Older people in Lewisham don’t go to ‘Meet Me at the Albany’ (12) each week because they belong to a Lonely Group but because they want to sing, watch a film or have a laugh.  We’ve looked at the psychology too (13): how we think about ourselves and about ways to adjust our mindset.

We’re not yet ‘all in this together’.  But we can achieve the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness’ vision of a Connected Recovery, now on the table (14), if we want to. Policy leaders must take it seriously, keep faith across the walls of tribal politics, and not get bored. Backing and strengthening communities where need be. Social prescribing into better resourced local ecologies rather than into deserts of social exclusion.  Giving the 4 million digitally excluded the skills, yes, but most of all confidence and motivation.  

The big message of ‘Promising Approaches’ is about connection:  the moving parts in a community needing to join up and work together for lasting impact.  For the Campaign too it’s about connection: global sharing and learning as interest grows. DCMS’ Tackling Loneliness Hub can help us as senior leaders,  learn, across our respective fences.  This of course echoes the key challenge of loneliness: that it is, as Olivia Laing said (15) “ a collective, a city”: “what matters is kindness, what matters is solidarity”. We are all really in it together.  

I never felt this sense of shared challenge more keenly than at the 10 Downing Street reception in 2017 to welcome the Jo Cox Commision report on loneliness, (16) when I saw Jo Cox’s children, playfully crawling around the floor of a very august room, and through the legs of polite guests, and heard the commitment to Jo’s legacy made for us all by the then Prime Minister: that we will never forget that we have far more in common than that which divides us.   It would be great to do her, and them, that much justice at least.         

  1. A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change. HM Government 2018; 
  2. Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard, 2005, World of Books.
  3. New Zealand Wellbeing Budget 2020
  4. Delivering for today, investing for tomorrow: the Government’s programme for Scotland 2018-2019, 
  5. The Gross National Happiness Index, GNH Centre Bhutan
  6. Safeguarding the Convoy, a call to action from the Campaign to End Loneliness, Age UK Oxfordshire 2011
  7. A Biography of Loneliness, The History of an Emotion, Fay Bound Alberti, 2019, OUP.
  8. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, John T Cacioppo and William Patrick, 2008, WW Norton & Company.
  9. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review, Julianne Holt-Lunstad et al, 2015, Perspect Psychological  Sci.
  10. The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World that’s Pulling Apart, Noreena Hertz, 2020, Sceptre.
  11. Promising Approaches Revisited: effective action on loneliness in later life, Kate Jopling, 2020 
  12. Meet Me at the Albany. A programme of Entelechy Arts
  13. The Psychology of Loneliness: why it matters and what we can do, Campaign to End Loneliness, 2020
  14. A Connected Recovery: Findings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness, British Red Cross, 2021: 
  15. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing, 2016, Canongate.
  16. The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission: Report on Loneliness 2017

Responses

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  1. Great to have the context succinctly summarised like this. An inspiring reminder on a grey Friday morning about the importance of kindness and persistence!

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