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Better relationships, better health

A growing body of research shows that having good friends and strong family ties boost your well-being, health, and longevity. Although people today are better connected than ever before, isolation is on the rise. How, then, do we build a future of greater companionship and better health?

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“Put family first, treasure your friendships,” said your grandmother, probably after telling you to eat your greens. It turns out that Grandma was spot on, health-wise. It is becoming increasingly clear that people with good relationships live longer, healthier lives than those without.

According to a report from Harvard Medical School, “Social connections…not only give us pleasure, they also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking.”

There are numerous reasons why this is the case, one fairly obvious: social people cope better with stress because they can get help from, or at least blow off steam with, companions. Another is that people who feel needed feel more compulsion to take care of themselves. Think new parents or those caring for relatives; they live less riskily, more often avoiding smoking, drinking, partying, unhealthy eating, and inactivity. They even heal faster when injured. Why? Because they know acutely that their health matters to someone else. And for most people, deep relationships are the purpose of life. The means and the end of living well are the same thing.

Isolation on the rise
In our ultra-connected world, we tend to think everyone has a strong network of friends, family, and acquaintances even if they live alone. However, according to a ‘Loneliness across Europe’ survey sponsored by the European Commission, this is not the case. All told, about one-fifth of European adults are at least somewhat lonely, and that figure is rising.

Retired, relocated, widowed, or simply less sprightly: all make for increased likelihood of social isolation, with 15-20 per cent of European over-65s saying they are ‘mostly to always’ lonely. Yet, surprisingly, the EU study says the 26-45 age group is more frequently lonely than the over-65s. Despite their constant connectivity, their increasing reliance on technology over face-to-face interactions, coupled with changing social conditions (leaving the parental home to live independently, raising children as a single parent, over-work, and non-social working hours), is leaving many feeling isolated.

Even families can struggle to spend quality time together, with many passing it ‘non-interactively’, i.e. watching a film or TV, and six in ten families polled in the UK said they struggled even to eat together. Only four of a possible 21 meals per week are taken communally, and even those are rushed, as children (and surely many parents) are anxious to get back to their gadgets.

Left unaddressed, the situation is likely to get worse because longevity is increasing and the number of one-person households is growing, while conventional ‘befriending networks’ (offices, clubs, churches, even public houses) are on the wane.

Quantifying the impact of loneliness
Such findings have touched a nerve, and the enforced self-isolation required to tackle the pandemic has brought the issue of loneliness into sharp focus. Not only does isolation damage our well-being, it is also detrimental to society and the economy. A recent attempt to quantify the impact of loneliness in the USA placed the cost of treating the associated health problems at nearly USD 7 billion per year, and a recent study by the New Economics Foundation estimated that loneliness costs UK businesses around GBP 2.5 billion each year. Hardly surprising, then, that nearly every EU member state now has some sort of strategy or policy related to improving our relationships and communities. No country yet has a ‘Ministry of Companionship’, but the UK government, which has appointed a Minister for Loneliness, stated in 2018 that loneliness “is an issue of increasing interest to policymakers at local and national levels as well as internationally.”

Loneliness is not caused by one factor and so there is no one solution for everyone. We need to work together across different levels to reduce loneliness.

Michelle Lim, psychologist and loneliness expert, Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute

Non-governmental organisations and businesses have also joined the efforts to tackle the situation and to make the most of community. From carefully planned building projects such as Kalkbreite in Zurich, which combines residential with retail, office, medical, and day-care spaces to foster a vibrant and sustainable community, to a boom in mentoring schemes for young entrepreneurs run by retired CEOs such as Senior Expert Service, projects that build social interactions – especially across generations – are increasingly popular.

Interdisciplinary approaches required
While these schemes help, a broader response is needed, as Michelle Lim, a loneliness expert at the Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute and clinical psychologist, explains. “Loneliness is not caused by one factor and so there is no one solution for everyone. We need to work together across different levels to reduce loneliness – from thinking more deeply around how we can address loneliness in a non-stigmatised way and the changes we can make for ourselves, within our relationships and community, to changing policies on a societal level to facilitate the development of more meaningful relationships.”

It turns out that Grandma was right: you really should eat your greens – and nurture your relationships. Society is finally starting to recognise the enormous cost of ignoring loneliness and is working to find better, more systematic solutions to tackle what is a silent but global problem. The hope is that we can now work together to build a more companionable, joyous, and healthy future.

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