I don’t know about you, but I’ve been looking for a sense of belonging my whole life. Even though I had loving parents, I mostly felt like an outsider growing up, on account of always having such opposing views to the rest of my family. I even fantasised that I’d been secretly adopted. My late father (who died in February 2018), used to joke with a wide-eyed grin, that I was always looking for ‘like-minded’ souls. Growing up I’d often find myself deep in conversation with complete strangers, of all ages and walks of life, seeking and searching for others just like me. I imagined one day that I’d walk into an elusive, secret club full of people with whom I’d feel deeply connected on the inside.
The fact is, as research professor Brené Brown repeatedly shares in her many talks and books: “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” You only have to glance around the world today, particularly in western cultures, to find most people caught up in the giddiness of perpetual busyness (myself included). It’s as if we are glued to our screens, with no time to look up from our devices and engage with our fellow human beings. It is not without some degree of irony that in this age of information, where we can access people and content online at the touch of a button, that so many of our children in particular are feeling even more isolated than ever before.
According to the NSPCC, loneliness in children is on the rise. Figures from Childline reveal that there were 4,063 counselling sessions about loneliness in 2016–17 (of these, 73% were with girls), as children today struggle with the pressures of growing up in the 21st century.1 Before her tragic death in the summer of 2016, MP Jo Cox set up a Commission on Loneliness, something she had experienced whilst at university. According to the 2017 report, over 9 million adults in the UK suffer from loneliness, 43% of 17–25-year-olds using Action for Children services experience problems with loneliness, and over half of parents (52%) have had problems with loneliness.2
In their book The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, psychiatrists and authors Dr Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwarz speak of “social alienation”. “Depression has become a catchall complaint for everyone from the stay-at-home mother who talks only to toddlers all day to the angry unemployed man who feels the world has handed him a raw deal…What gets lost is the story of a mother who grows depressed simply because she has no adults to talk to, and the story of an unemployed man who feels completely left out because his entire social world had consisted of daily contact with his coworkers.”3
So why are we so lonely and what can we do about it?
There are so many reasons why people struggle with loneliness today. Relationship breakups, changing jobs, starting university or entering another phase of life – albeit the birth of a baby or retirement. These are just a few of the many events that can trigger feelings of despair, isolation and disconnection from the larger world. Never mind if you are on the receiving end of discrimination or enduring health issues.
If you’re a single parent (like me), any holiday season can be particularly challenging. With such a strong emphasis on family and togetherness it’s easy to become acutely aware of the ‘missing’ relationships in your life. Maybe you’re estranged from your family. Or perhaps you’ve experienced a bereavement.
It’s important, however, to reach out and seek help. To ask for support from those around you, whether they are related to you or not. Maybe you have a special interest – like yoga or gardening or painting or singing – and can join a local group. Even if at first you have to try a few groups to find the right fit, don’t give up. It’ll be worth it in the end and, according to the journal Heart, it may even increase your life expectancy too. The authors of a study on loneliness and social isolation suggest that friendships and social connections are not only good for health, but actually increase the chance of living a longer, healthier life and avoiding coronary heart disease. In a longitudinal study of 35,925 patient records, it was discovered that, “poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident CHD [coronary heart disease] and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.”4
How can we connect?
We are at a critical threshold in our development as human beings; we are social creatures all looking for a sense of identity and belonging. But how can we raise the next generation to be conscious contributors for the good of humanity, when we ourselves are struggling and feeling isolated?
The politics of fear and division weigh heavily on the human soul as the media constantly reminds us to be afraid of people different to us. My heart aches when I see young children in war-torn countries, refugees fleeing lives of violence, trauma and instability, or children torn away from their parents at borders. But the truth is, we have much more that unites us than appears to divide us.
Maybe like me, you’ve had your fair share of hardships – relationship breakdowns, financial struggles, heartache and betrayal, the re-visiting of ancient traumas, death, and the deepest grief and loss. This is a part of being human. It’s simply not possible to go through a lifetime and escape the ups and downs of life’s sometimes silken, sometimes bumpy road.
It takes tremendous courage to not buy into the global disconnect, and to find ways to come together with your fellow human beings and authentically share where you’re really at. It is the capital of human connection that offers us a precious antidote to the chronic disease of loneliness we currently face.
We all have a fundamental need to be seen, heard and felt by those around us. Raising children in particular is deep spiritual work. It is rewarding, yes, but also full of challenges. It takes courage to stand up for yourself as a woman and a mother. To go against the modern-day disease of over-busy, exhausted, stressed out mama, juggling and struggling to survive on too many levels to count. But your children need a fully healthy you. They need you to be a living example of love, support and kindness, offering them a solid foundation and a safe base from which they can explore the world.
At the recent Festival of the Child online education summit, we had 24 experts over 7 days sharing the importance of learning real communication skills, developing empathy and fostering resilience amongst our children, to help them navigate the changing times ahead. Perhaps the most profound and touching impact of this event was on the participants who, in feedback, said they felt supported, more confident, less insecure, inspired, and as if they had visited an oasis for nurturing themselves and their children in these challenging times.
One of the driving factors behind the summit was precisely to create spaces, both online and in person, where we can critically come together and share our experiences with each other. We need to recreate the village culture of old, but in a modern-day context. In ancient times, we huddled around fires to share our stories and engage in the transformative art of conversation, or used song and dance as ways to connect, heal and digest the events of our everyday lives. Now these communal structures of old have broken down, we must forge new ways of coming together, using technology to foster inclusivity and connection rather than further disconnection and disease.
It is my deepest belief that building community – even if it’s just you and one other person committed to meeting every week in your home – is a radical act of courage that goes against the solitary darkness of modern-day living. We must rekindle the glowing embers of our shared humanity and find ways of coming together, despite all the forces that seek to separate us.
There is a new story waiting to be told. As political and economic structures around us fail to address so many basic human needs, it is clear that we are living in a time of great emergence and it’s up to each of us to explore new ways of coming together. To dare to step out of the culture of isolation, or the comfort zone of your disconnection from today’s world, is a radical act of love in its purest form.
Building conscious and global communities online, where we can support and empower each other’s innate gifts and talents, will prove to be critical in the months and years to come. It is not through our isolated, separate selves that creative solutions to global challenges (the climate crisis, mass migration, deforestation, access to clean water, over-population, genocide, war and poverty to mention but a few) will be found.
A quiet revolution is happening and it’s taking place in your living room. Come join us. It’s easier than you think. There are many old friends and new patiently waiting to welcome you there.
Through a collaborative, connected approach, we will fan the flames of our hearts and minds, so that the next generation can warm themselves by the fire of our love, and then will we truly “give the next generation reason for hope” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin).
Priya Mahtani is a writer, consultant and mother of two teenagers. She has a passion for supporting individuals and organisations to communicate more effectively by deepening authentic connections and speaking from the heart. She is also the creator and founder of Festival of the Child, a series of 24 digital interviews with experts, empowering parents and educators to help children thrive. festivalofthechild.com
1. ‘Loneliness a key concern for thousands of children’, NSPCC, 18 June 2017. tinyurl.com/nspcc-loneliness
2. Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, 15 December 2017.
3. Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press, 2010).
4. Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, et al., ‘Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies’, Heart (2016), 102:1009–1016.
First published in Issue 65 of JUNO. Accurate at the time the issue went to print.