Yesterday the BBC published their commissioned report  Changing UK which says that analysing the census data going back 30 years reveals the people in the UK are now much less rooted in their local neighbourhood. London was revealed as the ‘most lonely in UK’

Researchers put this down to the high concentration of unmarried adults, people living on their own, inhabitants who have moved to their current address in the last year and the numbers of people privately renting their accommodation.’

But is this issue as simple as this research appears?  Last week New York Magazine published Alone Together which looked at loneliness from many perspectives. 
In New York County 50.6% are single-individual households – in New York City, one in three homes contains a single dweller.  And yet the suicide rate in New York City is one of the lowest in the US.
John Cacioppo, the Director of the Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago has recently published Loneliness with William Patrick, which looks at how ‘social cooperation is, in fact, humanity’s defining characteristic. Most important, it  shows how we can break the trap of isolation for our benefit both as individuals and as a society.” 

‘Cacioppo points out that loneliness isn’t about objective matters, like whether you live alone. It’s about subjective matters, like whether we feel alone.’ Also his research shows clearly that being married is not necessarily a cure for loneliness, ‘married people were indeed healthier – if they weren’t lonely in their marriages.  If they were, the health benefits were so negligible the researchers considered them statistically insignificant.’

What both the BBC research and New York article seems to point to is that the most vulnerable communities are rural. But why is the picture drawn of New York so different from London?  New York is full of single people living alone, but with good social networks and lots to do….even their marriages seem healthier, with low divorce rates. Is it possible that the BBC research is only using objective data and making very wide assumptions based on trends e.g. living alone, or marriage rates?

From Cacioppo’s point of view ‘our large brains didn’t evolve in order to do mutlivariable calculus or compose sonatas.  They evolved in order to process social information – and hence to work collaboratively.’ “And if you look at any city,’ he says, “you see that we have a capacity, as a species, to do so.  They show we can work together, we can trust one another…. There’s a new sense of community in cities, an increase in social capital, and increase in trust,” he says. “It all leads to less alienation”

There are strong comparisons with cities and the internet – where behaviours are more and more social.  Even visiting a coffee shop with your laptop encourages sociability apparently – like taking your dog for a walk with fellow dog owners….
“In our data,” adds Lisa Berkman, the Harvard epidemiologist, who discovered the importance of social networks to heart patients, “friends substitute perfectly well for family.”

Through these different perspectives I think there are still many vulnerable people in our society: the elderly, the shy, the depressed, the disadvantaged … and also the young.  Hopefully good insights will help us all focus our efforts where they are most needed: in helping people understand their innate needs to be sociable and connected and encouraging deliberate behaviours that can help them lead healthier emotional lives to keep from loneliness and depression …. what could be more important.

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