“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Theresa May, the then UK prime minister had said while announcing the new position of a Minister of Loneliness, the first of its kind in the world, at the beginning of 2018. Famous CBS talk show host Stephen Colbert, on his TV show, suggested: “This is so British. They’ve defined the most ineffable human problem and come up with the most cold, bureaucratic solution.”
Well, a minister for loneliness? A somewhat similar idea, though not British at all, may be traced in the pursuit of happiness. Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness was created in Venezuela in 2013, and the UAE created the post of Minister of State for Happiness in 2016. To what extent these ministries succeeded in inducing happiness in their countries is, however, a different issue to introspect. Back to the issue of loneliness.
Three years have passed since the UK announced the headline-making position. In between, the deadliest pandemic for a century resulting in prolonged lockdown, severe economic distress and millions of job losses, and increasing dependence – often enforced – on internet, certainly wasn’t very helpful to combat loneliness. Interestingly, Japan now has embraced the idea and appointed its first Minister for Loneliness after the country’s suicide rate increased for the first time in 11 years during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In fact, a total of 20,919 people committed suicide in 2020 – an increase of 3.7 per cent. This is in contrast to 3,459 Covid 19-related deaths in this period. And, when announcing the new Ministry, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga commented on the gender paradox in suicides and expressed concern over “increasing women’s suicide rate under the pandemic”.
Often loneliness is not about a poetic journey, for sure. It may not always be inspired by a host of golden daffodils and cannot always be characterized by floating of a cloud on high over vales and hills. In fact, loneliness is a real and diagnosable scourge. Loneliness is typically defined as the feeling of lacking or losing companionship, and a public health concern. It’s a growing health epidemic.
A Harvard Business Review article cited a study that said social isolation is associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Back to Britain. Jo Cox, a Member of Parliament from the Labour Party for Batley and Spen, was the leading force to combat loneliness in Britain through a commission. Cox was murdered in 2016 by a white supremacist, and subsequently two other members of parliament continued the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.
More than 9 million people in Britain – around 14 per cent of the population – often or always feel lonely, costing UK employers up to $3.5 billion annually. The report of the Jo Cox Commission recommended serious action including the nomination of a lead minister. “I am pleased that government can build on her [Cox’s] legacy with a ministerial lead for loneliness who will work with the commission, businesses and charities to shine a light on the issue and pull together all strands of government to create the first-ever strategy,” responded Theresa May.
What was the British approach to combat loneliness? In October 2018, the UK government launched its inaugural loneliness strategy. Nationwide adoption of a way to measure loneliness from Britain’s Office for National Statistics began with a single, direct question: “How often do you feel lonely?” paired with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) three-item loneliness scale.
The government announced a £7.5m fund to countering loneliness during winter, and support sectors well known for bringing people and communities together, such as the arts, libraries, charities and radio. A volunteer phone call service for older and vulnerable social housing residents and a homemade Christmas food delivery service featured among the notable initiatives.
In Japan’s case, however, a 22year-old student of Keio University named Koki Ozora started a non-profit volunteer organization called Anata no Ibasho (A Place for You) in March 2020, which offered a 24-hour textmessaging service for those seeking a sympathetic listener. Anata no Ibasho promised to answer every request, as soon as possible and sometimes within seconds, and received more than 300,000 inquiries from about 26,000 people by the end of November.
Ozora along with lawmaker Takako Suzuki proposed a nationwide survey on the issue of loneliness to draw up a basic policy on countermeasures and appoint a minister. The government led by Liberal Democratic Party agreed and also linked the rise in suicides with the loneliness among people. Tetsushi Sakamoto, Japan’s first Minister for Loneliness, wants to carry out activities with a view to preventing social loneliness and isolation, and protecting ties between people.
What about other countries? A 2018 survey on 20,000 US adults conducted by Cigna Corporation, a global health service company, in partnership with market research firm, Ipsos, found that nearly half of people suffers from feelings of loneliness. The evaluation of loneliness was measured by an often-used score of 43 or higher on the UCLA ‘Loneliness Scale’, a 20item questionnaire developed to measure feelings of loneliness and social isolation, which is a frequently referenced and acknowledged academic measure used to gauge loneliness.
The questionnaire ranges from “I feel in tune with the people around me” to “There are people I can turn to”. Each question carries 1 (Never), 2 (Rarely), 3 (Sometimes) or 4 (Often) marks, and hence the minimum and maximum possible marks are 20 and 80, respectively. In case of American adults, it was found that average loneliness score was 43.5, compared to an average score of 46.4 for those who live alone.
Single parents/guardians are more likely to be lonely, even though they live with children; they have an average loneliness score of 48.2. Around half of Americans (53 per cent) had meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
Interestingly, generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation, and, contrary to the general perception, social media use alone was not a predictor of loneliness; very heavy users of social media had an average loneliness score of 43.5, which was not markedly different from the average score of 41.7 of those who never used social media. Loneliness may be the perceived sense of isolation, and an epidemic as well.
However, is loneliness associated with physical isolation only? Can’t loneliness also affect those surrounded by a lot of people? In a world where so many people are visibly lonely, and many of the remaining, if not all, feel lonely, loneliness is not an alien concept at all. Can a cold, bureaucratic solution be really helpful, even to some extent? A ministry of loneliness might sound a very British or maybe a very Japanese idea though, for the time being.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)