Why loneliness fuels populism,Financial Times, September 25 2020, Noreena Hertz
Connectedness is inherent to our wellbeing
“White hair. Pink nose. Tail. The mouse is three months old. He’s been in a cage for four weeks in a period of enforced solitude. But today he will get a visitor.
A new mouse enters his cage, “our” mouse sizes him up — there’s “an initial pattern of exploratory activity”, as the researchers running this trial will put it. Then suddenly our mouse makes a startling move. He stands on his back legs, rattles his tail and aggressively bites the intruder, wrestling him to the ground.
The ensuing fight — brutal, violent and prompted simply by the introduction of another mouse — is videotaped by the researchers. They have seen this play out before. In almost all cases, the longer a mouse is isolated, the more aggressive it is to the newcomer.
So mice, once isolated, turn on each other. But is this truth about mice true too of men? Could loneliness not only be damaging our mental and physical health but also be making the world a more aggressive, angry place? And if so, what are the implications for a cohesive society and democracy?”
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Through the WI lens
This timely article is ostensibly about the link between loneliness and populist politics. And coming at a time when further lockdowns are brewing and a US election is pending, that is highly pertinent. But it also touches on a non-political but equally profound point: that loneliness infects our entire world view and especially our sense of wellbeing with respect to the world around us. A King’s College study asked 2000 18 year olds and their siblings to describe their neighbourhood; the more isolated siblings perceived it as “less friendly, less cohesive and less trustworthy” than their more socially connected brother or sister.
The writer attributes some of this to the ‘neoliberal mindset’ – 40 years of seeing ourselves as competitors rather than collaborators – and cites a survey which found that ‘individualistic’ societies are considerably lonelier than collectivist ones. Putting aside the political dangers inherent in this, it’s clear that the Covid pandemic poses a major threat in terms of heightening levels of loneliness and there are powerful reasons for society to mitigate that. At its best, lockdown brought many communities together, whether that was Thursday night doorstep clapping for the NHS, or people offering to collect groceries for their neighbours. For the mental wellbeing of society it’s vital that these activities are promoted wherever possible, and that the pandemic is treated as an opportunity to build communities and strengthen them, rather than to foster further fragmentation.
Governments and public authorities could even take a leaf out of the populist political parties’ playbooks on how they tap the sense of loneliness by making the disenfranchised feel welcome. Companies that actively sponsor community participation and activities rather than simply burnishing their credentials will see their reputation enhanced disproportionately at this time. And at an individual level, it is a time to appreciate the priceless value of community, and how much happier that can make us in our own lives.
What this article goes on to explain is how positive thinking – described here as ‘thriving’ – can counter the effects that come from the negativity outlined above, from reduced memory to diminished performance. Based on studying people in a series of organisations in different industries, one of the authors has found that people who attain this state are more resilient, experience less burnout, and are more confident in their ability to take control of a situation
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“In the new ‘consensual contract’ between employer and worker, what’s required is a commitment from the employer to safeguard the wellbeing of their people, and a commitment in return from employees to take personal responsibility for their performance of their job.”
“Could loneliness not only be damaging our mental and physical health but also be making the world a more aggressive, angry place? And if so, what are the implications for a cohesive society and democracy?”
“On such fragile foundations are built the first steps towards a more ethical kind of business, and who knows what virtuous circles might result?”
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“Looking at the bigger picture, putting the measures in this order represents a lost opportunity that the pandemic could have offered for a cultural pivot pivot towards getting people more focused on their health, a powerful statement of intent.”
“Employment is necessary to fulfil our most basic human needs such as food and shelter. Any significant increase in long-term unemployment will spell a retrograde step for human wellbeing like no other.”