It is surprising how powerful the mind can be when you think about it. Many times, over these past few weeks I have wondered what path the human race is taking.
To challenge a view
Time and again I have been told or overheard people say that the development of time is equal to progress. Although I believe I am not in a position to challenge this view head on, I don’t think a statement like that cannot go unchallenged.
A slice of bread
Believe it or not but I had an inspiration whilst making toast one morning. Two centuries ago our ancestors would have known the precise history and origin of everything they ate or owned. Perhaps it could even be fair to argue that the consumers of the day may have even known the producers of their goods.
If I take it back to the bread analogy my great, great, great grandmother (say) would have passed the fields of wheat where the flour came from on her way to the baker of whom she may have known who had baked the loaf. The salt pits may have been dug from the roman salt pits only a short distance away and so on.
Where did that come from?
By today’s standards we are so disconnected from the manufacture and distribution of so many things that I cannot tell you who made the bread for my toast, where the ingredients came from, or for that matter what the loaf actually contains beyond the basic ingredients to make a loaf.
What I am sure of is that I do not know the name of the baker and I would never guest where the flour came from but I expect it to be from overseas.
One long season
I have often walked up and down supermarket fruit and vegetable isles and gave thought to the fact, regardless of the season, we manage to obtain fruits and vegetables that were once considered seasonal. At some point in time our ancestors would have been delighted to have grabbed handfuls of berries found on a bush in late summer. Perhaps they would have viewed them as some form of divine gift. But as we became ‘modern’ our impatient attitudes turned our backs on sporadic gifts and demanded an immediate and continual flow of such gastric delights. In effect, even the seasons have now become controlled.
This process of alienation has stripped us of wonder (because we have no appreciation of the production process) and gratitude (for the science and skill involved).
I have become also aware that this process of removal from local centralisation has shaped and developed the way our homes have been built. All villages, towns and cities were built around the central figure of religion.
All churches or cathedrals where the central point of the village or city. For the village the local population would gather once a week and not only prey but socialise with their neighbours and also with the local tradesmen (like the baker and my great, great, great grandparents). Although, I am sure most of the people then would not have realised it but this enforced community relations would soon be exchanged with a new religion or belief.
A new religion
The new religion of consumerism replaced the Sunday meetings in the church with new towns being built around the central figure of vast supermarkets where people now congregate to worship at the tills with their credit cards or cash. Whichever way you look at it both processes were profitable yet the new religion has separated communities into individuals where once they would have prayed collectively we now move down the isles with a list in our hands not making eye contact or speaking to anyone (unless we are failing to find a special ingredient and then we ask an employee).
Now don’t get me wrong at this point. I am not advocating religion as the perfect solution to societies problems. Far from it, as I don’t have any form of religious conviction. But I do think there must have been some form of benefit to having local people meet and be forced to mix for the benefit of the village rather than the sterile brightly lit cathedrals paying homage to St Sainsbury’s or St Tescos on a Sunday morning. And it is here I have identified the problem with so called progress.
For me an ancient church or cathedral only holds an historical interest. Perhaps it may even be considered as arrogant to walk amongst the memorials and consider them to be foolish to have had such simple beliefs by what I now know to be science and not divine inspirations.
I have also noted that people are happily divorced from the realities of what they eat. Time after time I have met people who are squeamish about handling raw meat or refuse to come into contact with the fish counter. Yet will eat the meat of something they had considered endearing running around a field a few hours previously.
Although I am not a vegetarian I do think the processing of our foods has divorced us from the reality of what our food is. Nothing is born wrapped in cellophane, yet many people are happy to disassociate the meat on their plates with the creatures they consider as cute.
“Loneliness can kill. It’s proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day,”(Mark Robinson, Age UK)
Over the past few years I have noticed the rise in people who are alone. Children are now almost expected to move out of their home towns to seek work or further education.
So like the baker many centuries ago he has now moved from the bakery on the village green to a larger bakery out of town or to a central bakery miles away from home. He will never meet his customers like the isolated pensioner rarely sees their family or for that matter a neighbour. After all, I don’t know mine and I’m sure they don’t know me either.
Although it is still relatively rare, finding a deceased person who has laid dormant and undisturbed for months is become more of a familiar factor within my job. It is only when the body has started to emit pungent smells or bills are not paid does anyone intend to act. The systematic and automatic paying of bills via direct debits has removed regular human contact further. Thus even in the stages before death the individual may know that the months to follow may still be lonely as their body ceases to function. As a result of this it has now become a realisation that families now only meet at weddings and funerals.
Of the 66 million people crammed into the UK boarders 9 million people report often or always feeling lonely. One study showed about 200,000 elderly people in the U.K. had not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in over a month (Mark Robinson, Age UK).
24 hour daytime
Nightfall was also a time when our ancestors became aware that the end of the working day had arrived. For many I assume, would have rushed to a safe place to ensure safety from marauding wolves or witches on the prowl for victims. Yet the natural process of day and night have given way to electrical lights such as flood, street and headlights. Thus, enforcing some form of unnatural order on our body clocks. It is therefore, no wonder that shift workers are so tired all of the time. Whilst others sleep many are working to ensure that the daily flow of consumerism is not missed because of darkness.
Speaking from my own experience, shift work is far more debilitating than just feeling a little bit tired. Shift work has an impact not only on a person’s health but also on family life and relationships.
So where is this discussion leading to?
Well, I think the passing of time and its associated conveniences has moved communities further apart. The void between close families and loneliness is far smaller now than it has ever been. Hence, a rise in recognised mental health conditions has become evident. Now I know that many of you may be saying that with the developments of modern medicine we may now be able to identify more health concerns, I would like to argue an alternative view.
A relative of mine (who is currently studying animal welfare) discussed the idea of animal communities. He stated that most animals have a pack mentality and so if they are separated from the pack they either become a victim of an attack or become so stressed they eventually die. So why do we expect it to be so different to for humans? People chose either to live in towns or villages and yet we call a hermit some form of eccentric?
But isolation isn’t the only problem. Although we live in larger communities than ever before we are more isolated than ever with our isolated homes, divided neighbours, distant families and easily purchased produce. By our own making we have created a society that is extremely lonely and isolated, and this, as a result, has further associated problems.
An unpleasant emotion
Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation.
Loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as is smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%.
Research has shown that loneliness is prevalent throughout society, including people in marriages, relationships, families, veterans, and those with successful careers. Loneliness has also been described as social pain. Or to put it another way, a psychological mechanism meant to motivate an individual to seek social connections.
Loneliness is often defined in terms of one’s connectedness to others, or more specifically as “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way” (Pittman, Matthew; Reich, Brandon. “Social media and loneliness: Why an Instagram picture may be worth more than a thousand Twitter words”. Computers in Human Behaviour. pg 62)
Loneliness has been linked with depression, and is thus a risk factor for suicide. Émile Durkheim described loneliness, specifically the inability or unwillingness to live for others ( i.e. for friendships etc), as the main reason for what he called egoistic suicide ( Marano, Hara. “The Dangers of Loneliness”).
In adults, loneliness is a major cause of depression and alcoholism. People who are socially isolated may report poor sleep quality, and thus have diminished restorative processes. Loneliness has also been linked with a schizoid character type in which one may see the world differently and experience social alienation, described as the self in exile.
Loneliness and social isolation in the United Kingdom
Although specifically focused on one section of society, Age UK carried out a range of studies connected to loneliness and isolation and discovered the following statistics;
- 17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003)
- Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010)
- Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK, 2014)
- 63% of adults aged 52 or over who have been widowed, and 51% of the same group who are separated or divorced report, feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013)
- 59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health (Beaumont, 2013)
- A higher percentage of women than men report feeling lonely some of the time or often (Beaumont, 2013)
Isolation and suicide rates
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year approximately one million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds. It is predicted that by 2020 the rate of death will increase to one every 20 seconds (https://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics)
The WHO further reports that:
In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 (male and female). Suicide attempts are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicides.
Although suicide rates have traditionally been highest amongst elderly males, rates among young people have been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of all countries. is this now evidence of the most loneliness generation ever? It has now become the norm to see our youth preferring to text on their phones than to hold a face to face conversation.
Mental health disorders (particularly depression and substance abuse) are associated with more than 90% of all cases of suicide.
Although it is difficult to measure the suicide rates historically (due to the lack of record keeping and the associated shame of ‘self murder’ and religious views) the most accurate suicide statistic I could find dated from 1285. The Essex eyre roll of 1285 points to an annual suicide rate of 0.88 per 100,000 since 1272 which covers a period of 13 years (Suicide in the Middle Ages. Volume I: The Violent against Themselves. Alexander Murray. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN).
In comparison, modern figures for deaths registered in 2016 in the UK, persons aged 40 to 44 years had the highest age-specific suicide rate at 15.3 per 100,000; this age group also had the highest rate among males at 24.1 per 100,000; the age group with the highest rate for females was 50 to 54 years, at 8.3 per 100,000.
I think it would be narrow minded and wrong to suggest that loneliness is specifically associated with people who are physically alone. By my own experiences and that of many others it can be said that you could be surrounded by a thousand people and still be lonely. But the new modern era has ensured that humans are incarcerated through choice and has developed over the centuries.
The world of social media has narrowed our human interaction as we falsely believe that we are in contact with others on the same measure as face to face contact would be. I would suggest, therefore, that the so-called progress of the modern age has not been beneficial for the human species at all. In fact it appears that it has had the opposite effect.