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19. The problem of loneliness

Around the world, there are signs that things are beginning to open up. After a year of Covid-19, the virus and attendant disease has not gone away, there have been significant vaccine challenges — from manufacturing and distribution to potentially fatal side-effects for a small number of people — and the fear over vaccine-resistant mutant variations is a real one.

Nevertheless, everywhere there is a cautious optimism that the world is approaching the end of the pandemic rather than bedding in for another year or two of fresh waves and restrictions on movement and everything else that has become normal for most people in the world since the early months of 2020.

In the UK, pubs have reopened and theatres, after months of online performances, are preparing to welcome back attendees for the real thing. In Ireland, where the country has been in a maximum Level 5 lockdown since Christmas, the Government is insisting that there will be no further lockdowns in the future, promising that when small businesses are allowed again to open, it will be to stay open.

In the US, meanwhile, states such as Texas have been reopened since March, and major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and the Masters golf tournament have taken placed with significant numbers of spectators in attendance (even if they were necessarily less than capacity). Much of Asia, which had been well versed in pandemic response following SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, appears to have been operating relatively normally, with high levels of compliance on measures designed to reduce spread among the populations in the likes of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore.

While we could argue at length about the down sides of the blind consumerism that had become normal in pre-pandemic times — both for us as individuals, and for the environment around us — most people will be relishing the prospect of a little more freedom of movement.

Community matters to our health and our happiness. We know this for sure. Places around the world with the highest level of local community seem to correspond neatly with the so-called “Blue Zones” — from the Seventh-day Adventist communities of Loma Linda, California, to the Greek island of Ikaria, to Okinawa in Japan — where people commonly live healthily and happily well into their 90s or past the magic 100.

There is a sense that the pandemic has quickly eroded a lot of local community around the world, crashing like a wave against a shore where the sands were already shifting.

More connection = more disconnected?

While Internet social networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp and Twitter have left us in some ways more connected, we are in many ways more disconnected too. There seems to be an inverse relationship — the more shallow connections we have, the fewer our deep connections.

Studies going back to the 1980s seem to suggest that our friendships and kinships, the kind of meaningful relationships that ward off loneliness, is getting worse.

In 1985, the General Social Survey (GSS) in the US found that adults had an average of three close friends or confidants. By 2004, that number on average was closer to two. Even more alarmingly, the most common answer to the question was “zero”.

That study predated the rise of the social media phenomenon, which has changed the way most of us communicate and convene, a trend that was fast-tracked by the arrival of the pandemic and everything — work, shopping, education — online.

Several interesting studies published in recent months suggest at least two things: first, that loneliness was already a existing problem, and that it has been made significantly worse by the pandemic; and second, that loneliness causes a spiral of mental health problems that can be extremely difficult to overcome.

The first study, by researchers at Cambridge University, surveyed more than 50,000 people over the age of 50 across 26 European countries last summer. It found that more than 1 in 4 respondents struggle with depressed mood, anxiety or sleep problems, and that for all of those, the problem had become worse during the pandemic.

The researchers also stated that, as the survey took place during the summer months of 2020, when lockdown restrictions and coronavirus cases had fallen sharply, and before the second wave and further economic and social challenges of winter, the results were likely very conservative and in reality the problems may by now be much worse.

The second study, by the Harvard University-based project Making Caring Common, surveyed a wide population of all age groups in the US. It found that a striking 61% of 18-to-25-year-olds, and more than one in two young mothers, reported “serious loneliness”.

A third study, published in Lancet and which analysed data from more than 3000 American adults between the ages of 57 and 85 going back several decades, found that “social network structure and function are strongly intertwined with anxiety and depression symptoms in the general population of older adults”.

In effect, they stated, loneliness creates mental health problems, and mental health problems in turn create loneliness, and the downward spiral continues to make everything worse until it can somehow be interrupted.

In short, the problem of loneliness-related mental health issues seems to have been fairly well established already. The pandemic might have made it worse.

Aristotle’s perfect form of friendship

All of which brings to mind Aristotle’s theories on friendship. The Greek philosopher, writing 2500 years ago, outlined what he saw as three types of friendship. The first was based on utility, such as work colleagues or local organisational committees where both parties gain from the input of the other. This type of friendship seems to sputter when the transactions stop.

The second was based on pleasure, mostly an external source of pleasure. We can have friendships while enjoying some pleasurable pursuits, such as a Wednesday night bridge game or a mountaineering club, but take away the pleasure, and the friendship also drifts.

The third type, and the one that Aristotle urged us all to invest in, is a friendship of virtues.

The perfect form of friendship is that between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue. For these friends wish each alike the other’s good in respect of their goodness, and they are good in themselves; but it is those who wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake who are friends in the fullest sense, since they love each other for themselves and not accidentally. Hence the friendship of these lasts as long as they continue to be good; and virtue is a permanent quality.

Aristotle, though, also knew that these friendships were not common.

Such friendships are of course rare, because such men are few. Moreover they require time and intimacy: as the saying goes, you cannot get to know a man till you have consumed the proverbial amount of salt in his company; and so you cannot admit him to friendship or really be friends, before each has shown the other that he is worthy of friendship and has won his confidence.

New loneliness, or a new awareness of loneliness?

If true friendships were rare even thousands of years ago, is there a chance they’re no more uncommon now?

Is there a chance that because of the vastness of the information flow around us, we’re just more aware of it, and more aware of our loneliness, than we have been before?

Lex Fridman is a Russian-born US-based academic and podcaster who has won a sizeable audience for his brand of philosophy and questioning, especially coming from his research standpoint, which focuses heavily on the field of artificial intelligence.

In a recent conversation with the economist Tyler Cowen, Fridman spoke about his sense of people’s loneliness:

I have a sense that there’s a deep loneliness in the world. That all of us are really lonely. We don’t even acknowledge it. Even people in happy relationships. It feels like there’s an iceberg of loneliness in all of us. We’re seeking to be understood. Like, deeply understood. Having somebody with whom you can have a deep interaction [with], enough to where they can help you understand yourself, and they also understand you.

Maybe what’s true now has always been true.

That we’re born alone. That we exit this life alone. That we wake up each morning with our own thoughts locked inside our own minds, and that it’s a daily challenge for us to find a way to translate such internal strife into words or pictures so that we can better understand ourselves, and so that others can understand at least a small part of who we are.

Thanks to social science, we understand loneliness and its effects more now. Those effects are real and difficult.

But maybe we’re just destined to feel some level of loneliness in our lives, and that we’re no lonelier than we’ve ever been.

Whether that makes our own individual lonelinesses, when they inevitably come, any easier to bear is for each of us to answer for ourselves.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.