Minister for loneliness

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Tracey Crouch

Britain has a new minister, the minister for loneliness, perhaps the first position of its kind in the world. While the ministry might be unique, the problems of loneliness are not. Studies have shown that living alone - or feeling lonely - raises the likelihood of premature death. For example, isolated people may take insufficient exercise, have poor diets or be less willing to visit a doctor. This can increase stress levels, driving up blood pressure and inflammation that could lead to heart disease. Those who lived alone, the study found, were more likely to die from heart attacks, strokes, or other heart complications over a four-year period than people living with family or friends, or in some other communal arrangement. Loneliness has proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as dangerous as obesity, and increases the likelihood of an early death by 26 percent.

It’s only a matter of time before loneliness turns into depression. And that’s where it gets dangerous. Loneliness can kill. It strikes people regardless of age, gender or situation in life. Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.

So, British Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed Tracey Crouch to take on the role of the minister for loneliness in a drive to tackle social isolation, a “sad reality of modern life”, the prime minister said.

Loneliness and isolation are described as “hidden epidemics” affecting people across all ages at various moments in their life, such as retirement, bereavement or separation. The issue is thought to affect around nine million people in the UK. In the US, a third of citizens are categorized as lonely. An increasing portion of the global population now experiences isolation regularly. Heavy users of social media have higher levels of perceived social isolation.

Most doctors in Britain see between one and five patients a day who have come mainly because they are lonely. Hundreds of thousands of older people can go without having a conversation with a friend or relative for months on end, with no social interaction at all.

People of the Arab and Muslim world in the main do not suffer from loneliness. Thanks to extended families consisting of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all living nearby or in the same household, there are usually more than enough people surrounding each other to provide comfort and companionship.

However, sociologists have long been warning about the dangers of increased isolation thanks to aging populations, scattered families, and cultures that promote the individual over the collective. Such epidemics are linked to prominent features of affluent culture: longer life expectancy, decreasing marriage rates, people having fewer children, more people getting divorced, and more people living alone.

In 2016, the UAE established the position of minister of happiness – the antonym of loneliness - to promote happiness and a positive attitude in government and life. The thinking of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, was that it is the duty and role of the government to create the right conditions for people to be happy.

Just as there is a Gross National Happiness Index, which measures happiness based on psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance, so too, loneliness has a measurement which the British government will start defining.

Among the chief purposes of any government is to work toward making its people happy and secure so they can have a better life. To help achieve that goal, as Britain has now acknowledged by setting up its new ministry, means to also be connected to others socially. It is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival.


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