Are our approaches to tackling this issue fundamentally flawed?
Loneliness is a hot topic. There’s no questioning the significant negative social, health and economic hurt caused by ‘the loneliness epidemic,’ and many community leaders and third-sector organisations are calling for greater acknowledgement of this social issue, and investment in initiatives to tackle loneliness. But a question that isn’t asked as often is, do we actually know how to effectively tackle loneliness?
A seemingly logical assumption
Charitable and community organisations have been ‘helping the lonely’ for centuries. And in some ways, the lonely soul persona hasn’t changed all that much, portrayed in shades of blue and grey, sitting alone, shoulders hunched, slumped slightly forward, sitting alone in the shadows. The solution is presented as the warm, friendly face with the helping hands and charitable spirit bathed in sunshine, showing up at the shadowy doorstep to reach out the hand and pull the lonely figure out of the darkness into the light, where connection, happiness and all the good things await.
The solution to loneliness is broadly characterised with what would appear to be a very logical response – Loneliness, the state of being or feeling alone, is overcome by creating togetherness, surrounding ‘the lonely’ with ‘the social.’ The application of this typically looks like service-led responses that connect the lonely person with others, through 1:1 or group-based arrangements, or a combination of the two. Programs that send well-meaning volunteers to visit and spend time with lonely individuals in their own home. Volunteers that take lonely people ‘out into the community’ so they ‘can be part of the community.’ Self-help groups for lonely people to gather together with each other. Or even programs that may be considered to be slightly more progressive, using volunteers or paid staff to facilitate connections in the community for the lonely person, introducing them to their neighbours, taking them to local social or community groups to be surrounded by others.
Once again, I reiterate – The response to loneliness is assumed to be found in surrounding the lonely person with people. But, is this assumption sound?
Alternative examples offer food for thought
Visiting a large number of different loneliness-tackling initiatives in quick succession has led me to question this assumption, by reflecting on how some approaches to tackling loneliness are fundamentally different from others. Here are a few examples that differ from the more traditional approaches described above.
Skills-exchange initiatives, through which two people share a unique personal skill with each other. Exchanging Moroccan cooking lessons for assistance learning to use the iPad. Exchanging sustainable-living knowledge and tips for French speaking lessons.
Homeshare arrangements, connecting an older home-owner living alone with a young home-sharer in need of affordable accommodation. Studies conducted by Homeshare show that lasting relationships are formed when the match is primarily characterised by reciprocity – The home-owner and the home-sharer learning and sharing all manner of things in life with each other.
Food-share models, connecting individuals, families or groups over a shared meal, creating the environment to cultivate relationships and understanding through the sharing of traditional recipes, culture and customs.
Supporting people to explore, develop and encourage participation in valued social roles as the doorway to natural relationships – Becoming a worker, a volunteer, a sports-player, an artist, etc, and forming connections through participation in these roles (Read more in previous post).
Neighbourhood development projects, through which local residents work together towards a common goal, mobilising their collective gifts, skills, knowledge and resources to create community gardens, hold local social events, transform an unused public space, etc.
None of these initiatives is the silver bullet to ending loneliness. And in fact the genuine, lasting relationships that have formed through all of these initiatives (and many others) is clear evidence for the value in a diverse range of approaches. However, I believe there is an underlying common theme here that could change the way we think about responses to loneliness. That theme is the importance of giving our gifts.
Giving our gifts
Our modern culture may have warped the meaning of the word ‘gift,’ but its use here has no reference to consumer products that we buy and give to others, nor does it refer to select people of extraordinary ability. The use of the word ‘gift’ in this context refers to the primary contributions that we have a natural inclination towards, and an innate desire to make to and for others.
In the five examples above, the theme of people making valued contributions is at the core of the approach. As humans, we contribute in all kinds of different ways, with our gifts, skills, strengths, personalities, resources, knowledge. All of these contributions are affirming, yet it is the giving of our innate gifts that is most deeply affirming. When we give our gifts, we make ourselves vulnerable through revealing a little piece of who we are. When our gifts are received, valued and appreciated, we derive a deep sense of self-worth, acceptance and purpose, and we feel an affinity to the receiver who has valued us for our gifts. We begin to see ourselves as someone worthy of respect, love and acceptance. To be acknowledged for your gifts can result in deep feelings of having been seen for who you really are.
The idea of gifts is not new. It is rooted in some of our oldest cultures from around the world. Many indigenous cultures recognise that all people are born into the world with gifts, and it was often the role of elders and others in communities to support and mentor young people to unearth, learn about and value their innate gifts, and find ways to share those gifts with others and their community. Living a life of giving one’s innate gifts is a life of purpose and connection.
The analysis of how and why our societies have changed to move away from the identification, nourishment and sharing of our innate gifts is deeply complex and beyond the scope of this blog. The key point I want to make here is that the notion of giving our innate gifts offers a different perspective on loneliness.
I believe that the root cause of loneliness lies in the experience of being starved of opportunities through which you are enabled to share your innate gifts with others and the world. From this perspective, we can see that loneliness can still exist when a person is surrounded by others; it has more to do with the individual’s experience of sharing and being valued for their innate gifts.
If we accept that overcoming loneliness requires developing connections through the contribution of our gifts, we assume the following:
- All people have innate gifts
- Loneliness indicates an individual’s lack of opportunity to share their innate gifts
- Connection, purpose and self-worth are derived from contributing our gifts
- Support to discover, unearth and understand one’s innate gifts can be deeply powerful
- The contexts in which the sharing of one’s innate gifts will be valued by others are the places in which connection will grow and flourish
What does this mean for traditional approaches?
I believe that this offers a helpful lens through which approaches to tackling loneliness can be critiqued. Looking back at the characterisation of loneliness and the traditional responses described earlier, there are some features seen in many current loneliness-tackling initiatives that may actually be undermining their ability to achieve their intended outcomes.
- Characterising people experiencing loneliness through a lens of sympathy, disability, symptoms and ‘needs’ is unhelpful and disempowering. It is the opposite of characterising people as individuals who have innate gifts that are waiting to be unlocked and shared.
- Characterising volunteers and staff as ‘saintly helpers’ can be unhelpful, as it can reinforce the characterisation of individuals as ‘charity cases’ without value, who would be at a loss without the existence of such saintly people.
- Creating artificial relationships (such as those filled by a paid or volunteer community worker) as a substitute for natural relationships is not guaranteed to alleviate feelings of loneliness, and in some cases, can be detrimental through reinforcing the notion that the individual will not be valued by others in society, and does not have the capacity for natural, freely-given relationships.
- Inserting artificial relationships as a substitute for natural relationships can lead to a rotating door of ‘visitors’ that come and go, filling a short-term void but eventually moving on when their employment/ volunteering situation changes, severing all contact at the termination of the ‘professional role.’ This cycle results in deep emotional wounding.
- Attempts to facilitate the development of connections for a person in their local community without a firm understanding of that individual’s innate gifts will be ineffective at best, and has the potential to lead to disappointment, rejection and feelings of failure and disconnection.
Perhaps it’s time to challenge our assumption that the answer to loneliness is surrounding ‘the lonely’ with ‘the social,’ and consider that the answer may in fact lie in platforms, initiatives and cultures that enable people to unearth, mobilise and share their unique, innate gifts and contributions.
What might this perspective on loneliness mean for you?
For individuals – What are your innate gifts, the natural talents that you inherited from birth and are intrinsically motivated to give? How can you discover, understand and nurture your gifts? (Hint: Ask the people who know you well!) Where are the opportunities for you to give your gifts, perhaps in a group, activity or other social environment? It’s likely that by doing this, others will see ‘the real you,’ opening up possibilities for great relationships.
For organisations – How can you support people to discover, understand and nurture their gifts? How can you walk alongside people to explore community contexts in which their gifts could be shared and valued? Are there any existing dynamics, terminology, language, structures or attitudes that unintentionally undermine this approach? What would a ‘gift-orientated approach’ look like in your context?
For our community – How can we all develop eyes for seeing and nurturing the innate gifts in each other?
– Nick Maisey