The Age of Loneliness, by George Monbiot

When Thomas Hobbes claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war “of every man against every man”, he could not have been more wrong. We have always been social creatures who depend on each other. The hominins of east Africa could not have survived one night alone. We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others. No longer.

Loneliness has become an epidemic among young adults, and is just as great an affliction of older people. A study by Independent Age shows that severe loneliness in England blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1m women over 50, and is rising with astonishing speed. Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.

Competition and individualism are the religions of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.

More than a fifth of all British children say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed. Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Why? Because we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin. We talk about “losers” and have dropped the word “people” in favour of “individuals”.

Television reinforces the income-happiness paradox: as national incomes rise, happiness does not rise with them. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little.

So what’s the point? What do we gain from this war of all against all? Competition drives growth, but growth no longer makes us wealthier. Recent figures show that, while the income of company directors has risen by more than a fifth, wages for the workforce as a whole have fallen in real terms over the past year. The bosses get 120 times more than the average full-time worker. (In 2000, it was 47 times). And even if competition did make us richer, it would make us no happier, as the satisfaction derived from a rise in income would be undermined by the aspirational impacts of competition.

The top 1% own 48% of global wealth, but even they aren’t happy. A survey by Boston College of people with an average net worth of $78m found that they too were assailed by anxiety, dissatisfaction and loneliness. Many of them reported feeling financially insecure: to reach safe ground, they believed, they would need, on average, about 25% more money. (And if they got it? They’d doubtless need another 25%). One respondent said he wouldn’t get there until he had $1bn in the bank.

For this, we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness. (This is a precised version of an old article by George Monbiot, The Guardian, 14 October 2014. It is reproduced without comment by me, for what response can there be?)

  • Owen Bell

    First of all, it’s good to see a repudiation of Hobbes, who is given far too much attention in my view. We all agree that security is vital. But his bleak view of the state of nature, and his authoritarian prescription of total subservience to the state is the demagogue’s dream. Trump insists on absolute loyalty, claiming that only he can protect America from its enemies. A classic Hobbesian trope, and one to be dismissed out of hand.

    As for loneliness, I think Monbiot is on the right lines. He’s right to point out that it’s more of a problem in the UK than the rest of Europe. I would argue that this is due to a culture of individualism that has gripped the English-speaking world. However, where Monbiot and I digress is that Monbiot makes a link between an individualistic culture and neoliberal economic policies. He implies that the free market reforms enacted by Thatcher and Reagan have led to an increase in loneliness. I personally disagree with this. Partly because countries across Europe, like Germany and Sweden, went through similar reforms (albeit later), and do not suffer from the same levels of loneliness as Britain. Monbiot is a voracious critic of economic globalisation, which he regards as damaging to public services and the environment. But I would argue that the richer countries in (continental) Europe prove it is possible to have both a highly globalised economy and a strong civil society.

    I would love it if our culture was less self-centered. It would be great if people thought more of others and less of themselves. But I think such a cultural change has to come from the people. Any change in the government’s fiscal policies is unlikely to have an impact on loneliness levels.