Last month, the British government created a new portfolio called the Minister for Loneliness.
The idea for the new ministry arose out of research that found about nine million Britons—14% of the population—are lonely.
Loneliness cuts across all age groups, but it is particularly hard on the elderly.
More than a third of older people in Great Britain reported being overwhelmed by loneliness. About half of people over 75 live alone, with many saying they can go days or even weeks with no meaningful social interaction.
The situation is similar in Canada, where as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians say they are lonely.
Overall, between 25% to 30% of Canadians describe themselves as lonely, young and old alike.
Being lonely is hard on mental health, but also on physical health. Researchers say being lonely increases the chance of premature death by 14 percent.
What’s behind the epidemic of loneliness?
Some blame our high rates of mobility—people move a lot today, disrupting long-term relationships. And when children move to faraway cities, parents are left behind and on their own.
Others blame social media. Although it’s never been easier to connect with people, it can also lead to fewer physical encounters with actual human beings.
And then there’s the general decline in participation in civic life—decreasing involvement in service groups, parent-teacher associations, labour unions, political parties and the like, as outlined in Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
Thinking about the epidemic of loneliness, I wonder: Could the decrease in participation in faith groups also be part of the problem?
Many studies show that regular participation in worship services and other religious activities can protect against loneliness.
And being part of a worshipping community is associated with higher levels of social integration and support—things that help people feel less lonely.
As more and more people drop out of religious groups, perhaps loneliness is an unintended consequence.
But the studies about the positive effects of being part of a religious group only evaluate and measure how it feels to have someone to talk to, to be part of a group, or what it means to get a casserole when you’re sick.
There must be more to it than that; what about the spiritual dimension?
That’s the question I posed to Dr. Delmar Epp, associate professor of psychology at Canadian Mennonite University.
From a psychological perspective, he says, people do “have a need to belong.”
People of faith would call that “being created by God with a need to be in relationship with others . . . its fundamental to who we are as human beings,” he says.
But where does God fit in? His answer was to point me to Lee Kirkpatrick’s work on attachment theory as it pertains to religion.
I am not going to pretend I can do a good job of explaining attachment theory in a short column like this.
In short, it is that idea that humans form deep and abiding bonds with their caregivers when they are young. This provides us with a sense we are secure because someone who is strong will keep us safe.
In Kirkpatrick’s view, for believers God becomes an attachment figure—someone to have a relationship with, and to turn to when we feel unsafe or distressed.
“People can view God as their friend and companion, a comforter and protector,” Epp says.
Through prayer, worship and meditation, people can feel close to God and not so alone, he adds.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out so neatly. People who have bad experiences with caregivers when young can struggle to form an attachment to God when older.
And if your own parents were harsh and neglectful, it can be tough to believe in a heavenly parent who cares for you.
Places of worship aren’t perfect, either. They can be lonely experiences for those who don’t feel they can be open and honest with others about their struggles for fear of being judged.
Yet there’s still something about religion that seems to make a big difference in loneliness and overall health.
At a time when millions of people are looking for a wonder drug, therapy, treatment program or workout routine that will lead to better mental and physical health, it seems that one might already exist: Religion.
But I don’t expect it any western government to create a Minister for Religion and Health anytime soon.
From the Feb. 17 Winnipeg Free Press. Image from the Daily Express.