Experiencing emptiness in your life, no close ties, the feeling of being isolated from everything and everyone. People suffer from loneliness. Increasingly. The recent CBS figures do not lie: one third of the Dutch population feels somewhat lonely and 11 percent even very much. Loneliness has increased alarmingly, especially among young people and single parents. So the cabinet is allocating 40 million euros in this Week of Loneliness for combating loneliness.
According to Anja Machielse, professor of humanism and social resilience, loneliness is a normal and inevitable part of life, just like grief and heartbreak. It even has a function. Just like you look for a drink when you are thirsty, the feeling of loneliness encourages social contact: vitamin S. It makes us resilient and strong.
But if you don’t have access to vitamin S for a long time, loneliness becomes chronic. Buried in yourself, confined to your house, where after the death of your wife the doorbell no longer rings. Trapped in the cage of an unhappy marriage, yearning for liberation. Or swiping on the couch, with only your mobile as a companion, because – through years of bullying at school – contact outside the blue light is too frightening. Then loneliness is a terrible mental burden. And also physically unhealthy. Chronic loneliness is equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
Rianne is a nice, single woman of about 30 years old, with her own nail studio. Despite the contact with her many loyal customers, she feels very lonely. She no longer speaks to her family. Finding a life partner, or just a girlfriend to hang out with, doesn’t work either. ‘When I’m not working, I’m alone. Always,” she tells me. Sometimes Rianne calls on Sunday afternoon to ask what I’m going to cook. She says what she has on the menu. Then the conversation ends, always with the same words: ‘Thank you for letting me disturb you. At least I used my voice this weekend.’
We are living in the loneliest century ever, wrote influential economist Noreena Hertz in her book The lonely century. Not only do more and more people miss the feeling of connection with others, but also with the government, according to Hertz. She blames neoliberalism – the sacred belief in the free market, the prevailing view in Western economies since the 1980s. A withdrawing government that indiscriminately exchanges collective care and public services for fierce competition and an idealized form of self-reliance.
According to Hertz, this leads irrevocably to a hyper-individualistic world in which ‘I’ is more important than ‘we’. A world of winners and losers, in which large groups feel abandoned and have lost their faith in democracy and its institutions. Add to this the steady breakdown of meeting places such as libraries and community centers and the breeding ground for a loneliness crisis is born.
‘The days of neoliberalism are numbered’, headlined de Volkskrant following the recent interventions of the European member states in the free energy market. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Yet I choose to believe that the dawn of a new era is dawning. No longer ‘the loneliest century’, but the century in which we manage to shed our narcissistic feathers and restore the connection with each other. What about that Hertz book? Well that turns out to be well-written fiction, just like that other classic about a hundred years of loneliness.