When I read that British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister of loneliness, my first reaction was to laugh. I wondered if the new minister’s job would be to throw street parties or perhaps to set up a government-run internet dating site.
But I’m not laughing anymore.
After interviewing British officials and health professionals, I realize that it’s a good idea that the United States and other countries should seriously consider and, perhaps, copy.
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It’s true, there is a silent epidemic of loneliness in the world, and it will only get worse as we live longer and the population ages. Plus, young people are increasingly addicted to Instagram and other social media where many of them might have thousands of virtual friends, but not one single human friend.
Loneliness is producing more cases of depression, heart attacks and other diseases that cost countries a fortune in healthcare expenditures. Last month’s appointment of Tracey Crouch as the U.K.’s minister of loneliness aims to find ways to combat loneliness and help the government save money.
“Loneliness destroys lives. Loneliness costs the public purse a huge amount of money,” Sir Simon McDonald, head of the United Kingdom’s Diplomatic Service, told me in an interview. “So this new minister is bringing housing policy, social policy, health policy, education policy all in one place, to support programs to help the lonely.”
There are 9 million lonely people in the United Kingdom, or 14 percent of the country’s population, according to the parliamentary commission that recommended creation of the new office. In certain segments of the population, such as elderly people, the percentage of lonely people is more than 33 percent, it said.
The new minister shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel: There are many simple things that can be done to combat loneliness, such as making more effective use of existing public places for the elderly and juvenile centers that are currently under-utilized, McDonald told me.
Some studies have shown that loneliness produces stress, and that it can be as bad for your health as smoking, eating junk food or heavy drinking. We are a social species, and not communicating with our peers has dangerous effects on our health.
Among younger generations, tech addiction often not only causes social isolation but also attention disorders, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, according to The Truth about Tech, a U.S. anti-tech addiction campaign launched recently. The campaign is led by former executives of leading technology firms who have become alarmed about the effects of tech addiction on children.
Half of teenagers feel addicted to their mobile devices, and 60 percent of parents feel that their kids are addicted, according to a 2016 report by Common Sense, an advocacy group.
I asked experts: What can countries do about loneliness, in addition to resurrecting underused community centers?
Facundo Manes, a well-known Argentine neurologist, neuroscientist and writer who is affiliated with the University of Cambridge, offers an interesting idea: Get lonely people to do volunteer work. In other words, allow them to work together for good causes, while at the same time helping them be less lonely.
“Volunteer work is very important, because we all need a purpose in life,” Manes told me. “Being altruistic activates certain parts of the brain that produce pleasure, just like when people consume cocaine, or eat a hamburger with cheese, or make money.”
He added that unless we educate people to remain active, have purpose in life and have new projects, “Governments will have to pay for all the health complications that arise when people lead passive lives.”
There are plenty of examples of altruistic behavior among animals such as ants, bees, and even gorillas, that have led some scientists to conclude that humans may be biologically altruistic. Why not take advantage of that, and turn altruism into a tool to help fight loneliness?
More than half a century ago, in 1966, The Beatles’ immortal song “Eleanor Rigby” asked: “All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” Since then, the loneliness problem has grown dramatically. It’s time to experiment with new ideas to solve it.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at email@example.com.