After more than 18 months of rolling lockdowns, it’s hard to imagine a more timely book than Noreena Hertz’s latest. The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That’s Pulling Apart represents years of research into social disconnection and its attendant consequences, from poor physical health to populist politics – all of which has been accelerated by the pandemic’s extreme isolation. Here, the bestselling English author, broadcaster and University College of London professor speaks to The Globe about the unravelling of community and connection, and how we can come together.
In this book, you write about loneliness as something that’s political as well as personal. Tell me about this expanded definition.
The way that I define loneliness is not only feeling disconnected from your friends and family and colleagues at work, and feeling unseen, or unheard, or invisible. But also as a sense of feeling disconnected from your employer, your politicians, your government – the institutions that have relevance for your day-to-day life.
You make the case here that loneliness is a public-health emergency. Many will understand that loneliness can impact mental health, but what can it do to physical health?
There are clear correlations between loneliness and the rising levels of anxiety and depression that we are seeing across the globe, but loneliness also has a very profound physical impact. We were never designed to be alone. In evolutionary terms, if you think about hunter gatherers operating in tribes, being together was really a matter of safety. Our bodies have evolved so that when we feel lonely, we go into a state of high alert. Our blood pressure goes up, our heart rate goes up, the levels of cortisol coursing through our veins go up. All of this signals to our body that loneliness is not a good state to be in, and we should do something about it. But in contemporary life we all too often don’t – or can’t. And so we remain in this protracted state. Which is why loneliness is as damaging to our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. There are clear effects on heart disease, stroke, life expectancy.
You explore a range of factors driving loneliness. Why did you include neoliberalism?
We don’t always acknowledge the role that the political and economic environment in which we live in plays on our emotional state, and yet it clearly does. The form of capitalism which has become dominant across the world since the 1980s – the dog-eat-dog, me-first form of capitalism promulgated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – has a lot to answer for when it comes to the contemporary loneliness crisis. Firstly because of the way that it has hyper-valorized qualities like competitiveness, self-interest, the hustle, at the expense of qualities like thinking about the collective interest, caring for others, collaboration, helpfulness. Of course, a world in which we see ourselves as takers rather than givers is inevitably going to be a world that feels lonelier. But also, while anyone can feel lonely, rich or poor, we do know that if you are economically disadvantaged you are more likely to feel lonely.
You wrote and researched most of The Lonely Century before COVID-19. What do we know about how the pandemic has exacerbated the loneliness crisis?
What we’ve seen through the pandemic is a further acceleration of loneliness, with some recent surveys suggesting that as many as 50 per cent of the population is currently feeling lonely. There are three groups that have been disproportionately impacted: the young, who were already the loneliest generation, people on low income or unemployed, and women.
What’s one surprising response to loneliness that you encountered in your research?
In Japan, the fastest growing demographic of people being incarcerated is the over-65s. Researchers believe that a key reason for this is extremely high levels of loneliness. Japan was a country where traditionally the elderly would move in with children, and there was care provided by kin. But as that has diminished, there are increasing numbers of elderly people who are committing minor crimes like shoplifting with the sole purpose of finding the care and connection and community that they feel bereft of elsewhere. It’s really quite moving and tragic.
You also interview right-wing populist voters for the book. What is it about loneliness that makes us vulnerable to that ideology?
A disproportionate amount of people who vote for right-wing populists are lonely. When we are lonely, we have a greater propensity to see the world as a hostile, threatening place. We are also more likely to see outsiders as threats. So, the socially isolated are vulnerable to politicians who depict the world this way. Part of it is the political message. But part of it is that they are lonely and craving community, and they are finding it in these right-wing populist parties who deliver a theatre of community. The populists speak to something else, too: the other element of loneliness, this sense of feeling invisible. Right-wing populists have proven very effective at convincing swaths of the electorate that they are the only ones who see or hear the person who feels this way. Often, they feel this way because they have, in economic terms, been forsaken or marginalized. But it’s the right-wing populists who have tended to most effectively speak to this.
You write that “loneliness is not just a subjective state of mind; it is also a collective state of being.” Moving out of the pandemic, what can we do to come together?
There is so much that we can do – and need to do. Consciously put your phone down more and be present with those around you. Nurture your local communities. Our local independent bookshop, our local café, our local grocery store; all of the people who work in these stores play essential roles in making us feel less lonely. Show up at community events. Initiate community events. We also need to think about if there’s anyone in our own network who may be feeling lonely and reach out to them. So, lots that we can do at the individual level. Lots that business can do, too. Loneliness is bad for business. Lonely workers are less productive, less motivated, less efficient and more likely to quit. And then, of course, there’s much that government can do, like better regulating the social-media companies, which we know are playing a very significant role in the loneliness crisis. Governments also need to fund the infrastructure of community, which since 2008 has been massively depleted all across the world – public libraries, public parks, youth clubs, community centres, daycare centres. People need physical spaces to come together. When it comes to trying to heal societal fractures along political, socioeconomic and racial divides, we need events and spaces and activities for different kinds of people to spend time together.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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