Humans are social animals and the ways we connect – not only intellectually, but emotionally and sensorially – is crucial to physical and emotional “health”. Rituals such as eating together are fundamental in forming social relationships and emotional bonds. And this social connectedness is key to understanding loneliness.
Sainsbury’s Living Well index has identified a reduction in eating with others as a significant index of a decline in wellbeing, especially among baby boomers. It suggests this is linked to the breakdown of relationships in later life; middle-aged people score highly in loneliness measures as a rule, too, particularly when they have experienced divorce and social isolation.
Importantly, there is another group that shows a significant decline in wellbeing: the child-free generation X. The reasons given include reduced sleep, fewer secure social networks, financial pressures and worries for the future.
The Living Well report, which uses data collected every six months, and is the result of collaboration between Oxford Economics and National Centre for Social Research, confirms a general picture of British society that has been emerging in recent years: of rising social disconnect and loneliness, of work stress and excess screen time, and of many individuals experiencing a significant crisis in mental health.
Yet the report also raises a lot of questions about how we measure and respond to data around concepts such as “wellbeing”, community and loneliness. And how we talk about socialisation.
The take-home headlines from this report focus on sociability, loneliness and declining community: “Nearly half of Britons socialise with family and friends only once a month or less,” was the line many, including the Guardian, homed in on. This featured a finding that “nearly one in 10 (9.1%) participants said they never met friends, family members or coworkers socially”.
This is yet more evidence, says Simon Roberts, Sainsbury’s retail and operations director, that “there has been a decline of the sense of community the nation feels as a whole”.
Given the social breakdown caused by Brexit and the intense focus on loneliness and mental health we have seen across the media in recent months, this seems a logical conclusion. And yet.
Sociability is not the opposite of loneliness. We can all be lonely in a crowd. One of the problems in how loneliness is often framed is the sense of a lonely person as being socially isolated, when there is so much more to consider.
Yes, humans need other people for contentment and wellbeing, but not just anyone – which is one of the challenges in addressing loneliness by creating opportunities to meet other people. We need meaningful relationships that bring us a sense of connectedness to our lives. And that can’t be measured in the number of times we go out for a drink with work colleagues: how emotionally satisfying that drink might be, is more to the point.
The relationships that give us meaning and a sense of wellbeing will vary. It is entirely possible for people – especially shy, young people – to find the community they need on social media, provided it connects to real-life experience rather than replacing it.
One of the problems with talk of a “loneliness epidemic” is that its language eradicates important differences in experience. There is a difference between transitional loneliness, which might affect students or those moving between jobs, and chronic loneliness, which is experienced by people with mental health problems, or experiencing trauma or social isolation. And different measures will be needed to address each version of loneliness, especially when it is unwanted.
It should be recognised that plenty of people don’t want to be sociable – especially when they are tired, broke and annoyed with the very people they are expected to see. And people won’t go out to eat when they are worried about money; they might eat alone when they are exhausted from their zero-hours contract work or living in a bedsit hundreds of miles from friends and family. But people also eat alone meditatively, savouring the calm after a hectic day.
There are huge questions about how we live in the early 21st century that can be hinted at but are not fully addressed in large-scale studies of wellbeing. In this case, 8,000 or so people were consulted, but we need to know much more about them – their age, gender, class, health, ethnicity, geography and so on – to help understand when social isolation becomes unwanted loneliness and the remedies that might be needed to address it.
So, too, does understanding what we mean by community: it is not a static entity that exists outside the meanings we give it. We can inhabit many communities during our lives, and some will be more fulfilling than others. But the very notion of community that is regularly invoked as an antidote to loneliness ignores this arbitrariness and hints at David Cameron’s “big society”.
But we don’t necessarily need to panic about declining sociability – instead, let’s ask questions about why people are not socialising as much (if indeed this is a national trend), and what they might be doing instead. Examine what emotions accompany the desire not to socialise rather than dressing it up as yet another “ought”.
Let’s try to understand the difference between social isolation, loneliness and solitude – they have never been one and the same.
• Dr Fay Bound Alberti is a reader in history at the University of York and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow. Her book A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion will be published by Oxford University Press