Gareth Crispin has been finding stats on loneliness surprising and illuminating
This year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that 1 in 4 of us feel lonely often or some of the time. That might not surprise you as the ‘loneliness pandemic’ has been talked about a lot recently. What might be more surprising is how this breaks down by age and sex.
When it comes to men and women the received wisdom is that women have lots of friends and are more social beings and this means they are less lonely compared to men – that’s certainly how my friends talk about the issue. The ONS figures however indicate that women are 50% more likely to feel lonely than men – 50%, that’s staggering!
When it comes to age, again the assumptions don’t hold up. The image of the old person sitting alone looking wistfully out the window is not what the data tells us is the truth of the matter. Sure, anyone can be lonely, but emerging generations feel twice as lonely as those over 70 and the trajectory is clear, people get less lonely as they get older even though they are far more likely to live alone. The key difference with this compared to the data on men and women is that this does change over time – that is key; something happens as you get older that means you feel less lonely, even if you might have fewer social contacts.
What are we to make of this?
Well firstly, it seems that we might need to think carefully about the difference between feeling lonely and being alone. Girls and young women might be alone less but they feel more lonely and vice versa so these are clearly not the same thing.
This is something that lies at the heart of a haunting book on loneliness by Diane Enns.[i] She defines loneliness as: ‘an unfulfilled desire, a longing for the intimacy or closeness one does not have with other human beings.’ Understanding loneliness first and foremost as an unmet desire might seem obvious when you stop and think about it, but it is surely crucial if we are to properly understand loneliness and to do something about it.
This distinction means that we can understand why some people might feel lonelier than others even if they have the same number and quality of social contacts – it’s partly about us as individuals. For Enns, it also means that we can appreciate the difference between solitude and loneliness; solitude is not loneliness ‘because it is chosen.’ It explains the irony of the situation where we crave solitude but people will not leave us alone – and that makes us lonely! (I know!). Enns states it powerfully when she says: ‘Together, we can become imprisoned within a group. Alone, we can become imprisoned within a self. We must walk a fine line between these points, and everyone has a different sense of balance.’
As the ONS stats reveal to us, that sense of balance depends not only specific individuals but on factors such as sex and age. There is something about the children and young people in our care, in our churches, in our community that means they are more likely to be lonely.
But Enns suggests that loneliness isn’t simply subjective in this way (meaning, it isn’t simply my feelings about a situation, inside my head if you like) – it is also lived, in an objective sense. By this she means that the antidote to loneliness among our children and young people is not simply being with other people, even when they want to be – no, being with other people needs to include some sense of purpose and belonging (it’s not enough just to party! sorry).
This idea is pressing for our youth and children in today’s culture as they are only too aware of the meaninglessness of the options in front of them. A friend of mine was babysitting once and innocently asked one of the children if they’d had a good day at school. The child replied: ‘it was OK but I don’t see the point!’ which was not the answer my friend was expecting. The child went on to explain that they understood the idea was to work hard at junior school so they could get into a good senior school, so that they could get good GCSEs and then A Levels so that they could go to a good university so that they could get a good job so that they could afford a nice house for her children who would then work hard at school so that……so that……so that the wheel just keeps going round. Strikingly, this child presented as lonely. Enns would say: of course, that’s because they didn’t see meaning in their social life.
So, what are we to do then?
Enns has some helpful thoughts about the ironic loneliness of social media (ironic because it is supposed to be ‘social’) and that won’t surprise us. This isn’t the place to explore research into the impact of social media on children and young people, but we can’t pass by without commenting on its relationship to loneliness. Suffice to say, the research reveals a complicated and nuanced picture. In short, a small amount of time (one to two hours per day) online tends to have positive social benefits for adolescents whereas longer than that and the interaction tends to become more negative. The type of interaction online matters too. Interaction with friends known in the physical world has much more of a positive social impact than interaction with people unknown offline.[ii] Given what we saw above with the ONS data it is also vital that we pay attention to the research that suggests that girls and boys feel the impact of social media differently.[iii]
There is so much more to say and dig into here, but we’ll leave that for another time. In brief, the conclusion is: we need to be having conversations around time and types of interaction with our youth and children, helping them to see that their use of social media has a direct and powerful impact on their mental health and in particular their feelings of loneliness. We need to explain to them the need to limit their amount of time but equally importantly the need to think carefully about the types and quality of their social media use. We need to help them see that this will change over time, that it is something specific to them at this stage of life.
Maybe more surprising and challenging is Enns’ claim that the marriage industry and the intense focus on the nuclear family have ironically fueled loneliness (ironic because marriage and family is again supposed to be all about connecting people). Now as Christians we’re used to marriage and the family being attacked and we’re used to feeling the need to defend them, but just as with social media we need to stop and think carefully about what exactly it is that we want to defend about marriage and the family and why.
Now I hear a voice in my head that says – surely marriage and family are a key part of the solution to loneliness, right!? Don’t we read in Genesis 2:18 that is it not good for man to be alone! And isn’t the solution to being man and woman together in what looks like a marriage service (Genesis 2:24)? Well yes and no. Eve is not a companion because Adam is lonely, Eve is a ‘helper.’ God has given Adam the job of stewarding the earth (Genesis 2:15) but it is not a job he can do on his own, he needs help; the job God has given us on the earth is a communal one.
But what exactly is that job?
Dan Strange[iv] makes a compelling case that the job given to humanity is not simply gardening, the idea of cultivating goes much wider than that. This job is sometimes called the cultural mandate – a wider idea of building good culture, which includes everything in the cultural world, from fine art to hip hop, litter picking to filmmaking.
Funny that isn’t it – how closely this resembles Enns’ conclusion that the solution to loneliness is not simply being with people but some form of constructive engagement with the world – it’s like she has understood Genesis 2 better than some Christians! God has weaved into creation, into us, the need to work together to create good God-honouring culture. This isn’t something we prioritise in our churches and families, but it should be. Addressing loneliness is not the main reason for doing this (it is a bye product) but it will help and so let’s look for opportunities to engage our children and young people, constructively and collectively in forms of cultural creation.
But hold on – we’re not simply post Genesis 2 people. We’re not even simply post Genesis 3 people either. Wind forward and we are post-resurrection and post-Pentecost people too. In the church, in our families, the risen Christ lives in us through His Spirit, and this does change things radically, including our view of marriage and the family.
Long story short (and it is a very long story we can chat about another time) the arc of the Bible paints a picture of a movement from focusing on the biological/legal family to the spiritual family: the church. Our primary family is and will be in eternity the people of God. Of course the new creation has not come yet and so we live in the in-between times, but the eternal marriage has begun; earthly marriage points us to the heavenly marriage.
I think if we’re honest a significant segment of our church has over-idealised marriage and family life.[v] Please don’t mis-hear me. Marriage is a great gift of God and provides all sorts of benefits to the world. But do we sometimes place more on it than it was designed to bear? Marriage and the family are not Jesus, they will not save us from the loneliness pandemic (or anything else for that matter). When we desire another human there are limits to the extent to how that human can meet our desires, but if we desire God, we will find his unlimited ability to meet our desires in their truest and deepest senses.
And so in a sense we have come back again to Enns. Remember how she not only focused on collective purpose but defined loneliness as: ‘an unfulfilled desire, a longing for the intimacy or closeness one does not have with other human beings.’ As with the cultural mandate it is as if Enns has understood something foundationally true, but she can’t see the solution that the Good News provides.
Enns actually knows this too. She admits struggling to articulate an understanding of relationships that gets her to where she wants to be in terms of intimacy; ‘lovers’ doesn’t quite do it for her and neither does ‘friends’. I think maybe the words she is looking for are ‘brother and sister’. What a beautiful picture God’s family is. With the backdrop of a loneliness pandemic what amazing Good News we have for the youth and children of our communities and our nation. We have a loving heavenly father who through his son adopts us into his family where we become brothers and sisters and not only that – the sense of belonging we have through being a son or daughter of the Father goes hand in with the purpose that this brings as we participate in the mission of God to the world both by communally building good culture as well as building the church and in doing so, bringing his love to the unloved, his fathership to the orphan, his friendship to the lonely.
[i] Diane Enns, Thinking through loneliness: essays on social life (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).
[ii] Laura Marciano, Is social media use bad for young people’s mental health? It’s complicated. (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/is-social-media-use-bad-for-young-peoples-mental-health-its-complicated - accessed on 30 September 2023).
[iii] Rebecca Anthony, Young people’s online communication and its association with mental well-being: results from the 2019 student health and well-being survey.
(https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/camh.12610 - accessed on 30 September 2023).
[iv] Dan Strange, Plugged In: Connecting your faith with everything you watch, read, and play: Connecting your faith with what you watch, read, and play. (The Good Book Company, 2019).
[v] For a deeper dive into some of these questions you can read, Dani Treweek’s book: The Meaning of Singleness: Retrieving an Eschatological Vision for the Contemporary Church. (IVP: 2023).