Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Available here from Sceptre Publishing
‘The Lonely Century’ by Noreena Hertz is a book about loneliness. Loneliness has become a pervasive problem across modern society, affecting us in hidden and insidious ways. Noreena shines a light on the issues of loneliness to better understand the systems we live within, what they are doing to us as individuals, and what effect that change in individual behaviour has on society.
Do you live in an apartment block full of people but still feel alone? Have you ever sat with your partner but struggled to connect? Do you have a thousand friends on social media, but you still don’t have anyone to share a coffee with? If the answer is yes, this book is for you. Whether you count yourself as an introvert or extrovert, there are no doubt times in your life that you will feel intense loneliness; it doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone will feel lonely at some point.
‘The Lonely Century’ dives into every area of our modern lives, from relationships and social media use, to modern economies and how our cities are shaped. By shining a light on how individual and political systems have shaped our modern world, Noreena hopes to show you how community connections have been slowly eroded for the benefit of systems that claim to have our best interests at heart. However, whilst those systems assert that they help us to live better lives, how come we are becoming less connected, not more?
My favourite part was about how Pay As You Dine (PAYD) may be contributing to higher levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and mental health problems within the British Forces. When people eat together, there is evidence to suggest that they speak more openly, are more relaxed and feel a higher sense of connection to others. There is a reason why in traditional cultures such as in Fiji and Nepal, meals are shared with extended families and strangers. It’s a chance to build a strong community and learn about each other in a safe environment. However, PAYD seems to have eroded that joyous feeling of whole groupings of people coming together to share a meal; groups have become smaller or even non-existent due to the choice to be anti-social. Allowing systems to erode a sense of feeling part of something is too easy. So is saying no when being offered a chance to share a meal with friends, and choosing instead to eat alone in front of the TV.
The systems that have eroded much of our community feeling within the armed forces are also the same systems that both soldiers and the organisation continually asked for to keep people safe or allow for higher retention. Unfortunately, when a system is changed for one effect, it may also produce entirely unforeseen consequences. Take, for instance, the changes to the Single Living Accommodation Model (SLAM). We went from a variety of multiple occupancy rooms for junior soldiers (suited to a model where soldiers could live independently as they became more experienced or progressed up the ranks) to SLAM, which provides a single room to everyone no matter their maturity or experience. The previous model provided young soldiers with the opportunity for mentoring and support whilst in barracks, continually learning social intricacies and valuable habits that put them in good stead for the rest of their careers. SLAM arguably separates soldiers from each other, meaning the rooms that are supposed to provide a safe, comfortable space become the very thing that is harming them. The rooms themselves do not harm; the multiple doors that become barriers to a community do the damage, allowing people to withdraw from social activities, meaning individuals can become invisible to others living in the same corridor. This invisibility can produce feelings of intense loneliness, in the worst cases leading to self-harm or even attempts on their own lives. Imagine being the person who gets forgotten when a handful of people start knocking on doors to get a group together for a meal. How would that make you feel? It would most likely make you withdraw even more and reject the very community you may have joined for in the first place.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Noreena describes how we can actively engage in building connection and community by understanding the systems we inhabit. We may not be able to fundamentally change the systems or turn back the clock. Nevertheless, by being more aware of what those systems do to us, we can come together and repair the connections that we so desperately seek in all the wrong places. By understanding that sharing food is critical to well-being, we might encourage more people to make a concerted effort to ensure no one is left behind and eating alone. By knowing that the multiple doors create community barriers, we may be able to make conscious efforts to create spaces without barriers where soldiers can come together outside of their safe, comfortable rooms and experience true belonging.
Humans aren’t built to be alone; on the contrary, we crave contact and connection to others. It’s part of our natural survival strategy. So embrace it and start building connections with your neighbours or colleagues; they are just as lonely as you are.