Breaking the spell of loneliness…


I am not a natural socialite. Close friends will scoff at the very idea. It is not that I do not love people, their stories and their humanity, it is just that as I get older I appreciate more and more my own interior space, made safe by the love of my family.

This is at odds however with a deeper more universal truth about who we are as humans; we are above all things a social animal, made to live together, not apart. Accepting that we are all variations on a bell curve, it is a matter of common observation that our society is increasingly individualistic and isolating. We interact via screens, and our interaction is filtered, constructed, lacking flesh and authenticity.

Does this matter? I have written before about the relationship between loneliness and all sorts of health outcomes;

  • Measurable genetic and immunological benefits to good social contact
  • Biological changes as a result of physical contact- hugs for example.
  • Increased incidence of cardiovascular problems in people with lower amounts of social connections.
  • Lower general morbidity associated with higher amounts of social contact.
  • A study finding lower incidences of strokes on women
  • Lower blood pressure in men, and a faster return to normal blood pressure after stress.
  • Measured differences in the narrowing of arteries.
  • The unexpected fact that if you have contact with more people, you are LESS likely to have colds.
  • Memory loss in old age declines at twice the rate in those poorly integrated.
  • General links between enhanced cognitive performance and social interaction.
  • A reduction in mortality for those who attend regular religious services! (But not just to ‘warm the pew’.)

There is also a rather important connection between loneliness and materialism/capitalism which I talk about more in this post. The accumulation of stuff, and the exultation of buying power over just about all else is a recipe for unhappiness and disconnection.

I received a CD in the post today- I think this is perhaps the first time I have ever ‘pre-ordered’ an album but the combination of talent and timeliness was too much to ignore. The album is a collaboration between George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan, and here is the blurb from George;

It is our natural destiny to be apart, to fear and fight each other: this is a claim that has gathered momentum ever since Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan. It is a claim with no foundation. We evolved in a state of mutual reliance. Defenceless alone, we survived  only through cooperation.

But the mythic destiny appears, in the 21st Century, to be approaching fulfilment. Our time is distinguished from all other eras by its degree of atomisation: the rupturing of social bonds, the collapse of shared ambitions and civic life.

An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world. The results are devastating: depression, paranoia, anxiety, dementia, alcoholism, accidents and suicide all appear to become more prevalent when connections are cut. To stand back from the state into which we have fallen is to marvel at this misery. It is to witness seven billion people walking past each other.

A new ideology of detachment celebrates social collapse with a romantic lexicon of lone rangers, sole traders, self-made men and women. Corporate lobby groups and thinktanks argue that the defining characteristic of human relationships is competition. They insist that our primary aim is to maximise our wealth and power at the expense of others, to engage in a Hobbesian fight of all against all.

But the levels of altruism and empathy human beings display are unique among animals. While other species might go to great lengths to help close relatives, humans assist people with whom they have no familial connection, sometimes at great cost or risk to themselves: I think, for example, of the Jewish boy my Dutch mother-in-law’s family hid in their attic during the German occupation.

The claim that we are inherently selfish suits those who wish to hold us apart, the better to control and dominate. It persuades them that their ruthlessness and greed are merely a fulfilment of their biological destiny.

So how do we respond to this trend towards social breakdown? An article I wrote about it for the Guardian went viral, and several publishers asked me to write books on the topic. I could think of nothing more depressing than sitting in my room for three years, studying loneliness.

I wanted instead to do something engaging, that might not only document the problem, but help to address it. And what has more potential to unite and delight than music? So I went to a musician whose work I greatly admire, and proposed a collaboration. We would write a concept album, a mixture of ballads and anthems, some sad, some stirring, whose aim was to try to break the spell which appears to have been cast upon us; the spell of separation.

I suggested that I would sketch out the stories and a first draft of the lyrics, and Ewan would turn them into music. It has worked out better than I could have imagined: I hope you will agree that something quite special has emerged from this collaboration.

Our aim is that it should not stop here, that we should use our performances to help bring people together, to overcome our stifling collective shyness and make friends among the strangers in our midst. “Only connect”: a century on, E.M. Forster’s maxim remains the key to happiness.

On first listen, this is music with something important to say. It is also beautiful. Buy it.

Or don’t bother- phone a friend and suggest a trip to share a beer.

Go for a long walk through the woods and speak of unimportant things.

Laugh a lot.

Fart and express faux-disgust.

Let the space between you shrink a little.

So that when you part, you do so with soul enlarged

(Should that friend be me, I am busy  blogging/pontificating about loneliness I am afraid.

Tomorrow maybe, or the day after that.

But should I stew too long

In the self dug pit of my own presence

Throw me a rope my friends

Let down some tolerant tresses

So I my rise towards you.)

2 thoughts on “Breaking the spell of loneliness…

  1. Just saw this post from you, Chris – and yes the music, and the sentiment (theirs and yours) behind it, is beautiful. (I recently heard that you’ll be leaving CH, hope it goes well and all your days are new….)

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