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Fixing our loneliness epidemic

Opinion Piece

by Jeremy Vargo

Jeremy Vargo

Why are young New Zealanders so lonely? You may imagine it’s the elderly who are loneliest. They often live alone. Their health is declining. They’ve lost spouses, partners and friends. No. While loneliness and its associated ills are prevalent among older New Zealanders, research shows the highest levels of loneliness in our nation are among those aged between 15-24 years old.

How is this possible? Isn’t youth about freedom, friends and socialising? Or maybe loneliness goes beyond simply lacking opportunities to meet or make friends. Perhaps it points to something deeper, something in our core.

In 2014, Dr Vivek Murthy was appointed Surgeon General of the United States. His first act was to go on a “listening tour” to understand the most pressing health issues besetting Americans. He expected to hear about obesity, heart disease, dementia and the opioid crisis gripping the heartland. What surprised him was how often he detected loneliness at the root of the apparently unrelated symptoms he was seeing.

In his 2020 book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Murthy identifies a range of factors that have contributed to a modern epidemic of loneliness: personal use of technology, ease of movement away from hometowns and the community structures people grew up in, wider acceptance of different lifestyles; and cultural and political polarisation.

Reading Together, I was struck that the stories of despair that Murthy surveys often contain a toxic combination of these factors. People had often lost their sense of belonging, but also lost purpose. They had been made redundant, moved cities, or stopped volunteering.

People described as lonely weren’t just asking “Who do I belong to?” they were also wondering “What am I for?” Notably, both of these questions require answers that primarily come from the outside — we can’t answer them on our own.

So the Disney cliché that “the answer was inside of you all along” likely isn’t true. The search isn’t for yourself, it’s — in part — for other people. We are relational beings. Others, friends, whanau and family, furnish a meaningfulness for our lives. We are needed, and in return need.

In his book, Dr Murthy prescribes a set of four practices that help to strengthen social connection and help us avoid the ills of loneliness. The last one is a reminder to help, and welcome help from others.

“Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life.” Committing to regularly serving others through work or volunteering involves sacrifice: a word that is often admired but rarely desired.

Paradoxically, this personal sacrifice of time and effort for others often ends up offering us meaningful connection and a sense of purpose that we wouldn’t receive if we were simply serving our own wants and needs.

Fixing our loneliness problem isn’t just about helping young people make new connections. We should encourage them (and ourselves) to make commitments and to find new purpose in service. We may find that the answer was outside of us all along.

■ Jeremy is communications manager for Auckland-based think tank the Maxim Institute.