The Loneliness Pandemic

With enforced isolation as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, loneliness – and its link to a rise in depression and mental illness - has become a prime concern.

As a trend forecaster, or futurist, whichever term you prefer, I’m not terribly surprised to read that people have started (or started thinking about) moving out of cities to country or regional areas – or, in certain celebrities’ cases, back to their Australian homeland – and that many are now becoming more engaged in their own local factions. In other words, more effectively returning to living in closer communities, and in closer proximity to nature. 

What is surprising – to me at least – is that it took a pandemic to make it happen.  

Loneliness and isolation generally walk hand in hand but being alone is not loneliness – there a distinction must be made. However, with enforced isolation as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, loneliness – and its link to a rise in depression and mental illness – has become a prime concern. With the ability to connect having been basically stripped from us, the pandemic has further exposed an underlying issue of modern society.

Prior to the pandemic, urbanisation was an increasing way of life, as well as of increasing concern. With 75 percent of the global population estimated to be living in a Mega City (more than 10 million inhabitants) by 2050, that left 25 percent of the global population to feed and farm the world. Which is not the best odds, if you are a betting person.

Not least, the cities themselves and the infrastructures surrounding them were being sorely tested. Transport, water, sewerage, food, farming, green lungs, green spaces in general were buckling under the weight of the migration into cities. But that was not the worst of it.

What was most distressing, was the incredible rise of isolation and loneliness, which is a key factor in decreasing mental health. Crowding into highly populated areas but connecting and interacting less. Of course, there is also that little thing called “technology”, living behind screens, thrown into the mix.

I still have in my mind the media report of an elderly Italian couple who were discovered in their city apartment by police. Their crying had alerted neighbours to call the police who, on arrival, found them crying their hearts out. Due to loneliness, it transpires, and their desperate sadness at the state of the world. 

In true Italian form, the police cooked them simple pasta with butter and cheese and sat around their little Formica table chatting to them to alleviate the pain. The image is burned into my brain – a tiny little table with a plastic flower tablecloth and a uniformed policeman at the stove, with these two beautiful old souls sitting in front of two heaped plates of simple pasta. The description on the Italian police’s FB page was so beautiful it was almost poetry. 

“There isn’t a crime. Jole and Michele are not victims of scams, as often happens to the elderly and no burglar came in the house. There’s no one to save. This time, for the boys flying over, there is a more difficult task to perform. There are two lonely souls to reassure.”

As the FB page goes on to so beautifully state, “it was a simple meal … but with a precious ingredient: inside it is humanity”. 

We are tribal at our core … We desire support, company and connection. Actually, we more than desire it – we need it.

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone who lives alone is lonely – the two are very different. In fact, the rise in one-person households has been attributed, in the main, to a choice encompassing a major lifestyle shift for younger generations who are eschewing marriage and focusing on career, education and other personal goals. 

Statistically, by 2039, the number of one-person households is projected to rise to 10.7 million. In Australia, it is currently estimated that 25 per cent of all households are single-person inhabitants.

The phenomenon is global and on the increase. So much so that restaurants, pre-COVID of course, were catering to solo diners on an ever-increasing scale. Emanating from Korea, eating and drinking alone (hon-bab and hon-sul) became an important new trend. 

Initially, it was thought to be the result of an increase in singles, but it soon became apparent it was a choice. By eating and/or drinking alone, people sought solitude to compensate for being constantly surrounded in densely populated Asian cities. This, of course, impacted upon other cultures and countries. In the US for example, party-of-one diners increased by 62 percent in 2018 as solo dining became more acceptable.

But with continuing and enforced isolation, being alone has, for many, become more akin to loneliness and its associated negatives than solitude.

And that is why it is really no surprise that we are returning full circle to the heady promise of community living. The absolute irony however being that now we are coming to understand the value, if not necessity, of human support, interaction and community – we now have to remain apart.

We are tribal at our core – hence the rise in tattoos over the past few years – denoting belonging to a tribe (even if subliminal for most people). We desire support, company and connection. Actually, we more than desire it – we need it.

It takes a village to raise a child, as they say. And it takes connection and community to assuage the loneliness and restore that one special but much-needed life ingredient – humanity.

About the Author 

Lee-Anne-Carter is an Australian born journalist who has worked variously for the BBC and as Lifestyle Director of New Idea magazine. In 2019, she became Head of Global trend Intelligence for Swarovski Professional, based in their headquarters in Austria. This role saw her travelling the world visiting major fashion and creative houses to tap into and predict forthcoming consumer treads. She still consults to Swarovski but moved to Morocco with her husband Andre on 2018. 


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