The festive season is a time of socialising and good cheer so it’s appropriate that in the past few weeks social reformers have turned their attention to two great scourges of modern times – loneliness and the need for more kindness.
The Jo Cox Foundation has produced a report – a call to action – entitled ‘Loneliness: Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time’. Their focus is on what various levels of government can do to facilitate social connections and combat isolation.
At the beginning of December the Carnegie UK Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a useful and welcome report called ‘The Place of Kindness: Combating loneliness and building stronger communities’. I was fortunate enough to be at the launch event in Glasgow for the report, written by Zoe Ferguson.
In the past few decades there has been considerable research and many publications showing that humans are social beings. For example, the evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research demonstrates that humans’ large brains are due to the extensive social connections individuals need to maintain to function well in hunter-gatherer societies. In fact, his work shows that the number of people to whom we can meaningfully relate is 150. Read Dunbar’s research and you will see how social connection is at the core of human existence.
Of course, humans have a strong instinct for self-preservation and this can lead to selfishness but our survival instinct exists alongside an often stronger urge to ‘tend and befriend’ – to turn to others to collaborate when times are tough. Even though males are less likely to exhibit this type of behaviour than women it is not uncommon for males to act altruistically. Indeed, academics from a wide variety of disciplines have now shown just how cooperative and pro-social human beings can be. Some attribute this to the human need for ‘cooperative breeding’ – the fact that humans have to work together to raise their children.
Given all this why is it that over 9 million adults in the UK say they feel lonely all or most of time? Why has loneliness (often caused by a lack of kindness) come to blight contemporary life for so many people?
The Jo Cox report does not proffer an analysis of the origins of the problem but the Carnegie/JRF report does. They outline four factors which they believe ‘get in the way of kindness’ – personal risk, reputation, professionalism and performance management. Much of this analysis is helpful and shows, for example, how ‘cold professionalism’ now determines so many interactions in organisations; how rules and the management of risk trump relationships and actions that would genuinely help people; and how micro-management, resulting from a focus on improving performance, often undermines collective and individual well-being. Ultimately, they argue that organisational values are often at odds with ‘kindness and humanity’.
But where do these values come from? Who is encouraging us to downgrade relationships and connections? In the Carnegie/JRF report it’s clear that they think the problem emanates from government and public bodies. This belief was clearly to the fore at the launch event. In his introduction Martyn Evans – Carnegie’s CEO – attributed blame for the loneliness/unkindness problem to how governmental agencies now operate. He argued that large charities also contribute as they have similar styles of leadership and performance structures but that smaller charities have not followed suit and that these organisations usually operate with humanity and kindness.
But Martyn Evans then went on to let business completely off the hook. In fact, all he said on the role of this sector is that we can see from advertising that business understands the importance of relationships. The report itself says nothing about the role of business in creating loneliness/unkindness and its only reference to business operations – Tesco Maryhill – is positive.
I have little doubt that a big store like Tesco can provide a community focus for residents in Maryhill and that the staff there regularly display kindness. Nonetheless I am mystified by the absence of three things in this report – an analysis of the dominance of business ideology in all walks of life; the influence of the media on relationships; and how the values corporations beam into our lives via advertising are a major part of the problem the report tries to address. Interestingly event participants themselves were aware of the relevance of these issues as they raised them in group discussions.
I have written a small book called The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives on just how important this value shift has been. Here are three important, though inevitably simplified, points I explore which are relevant to the rise of loneliness and unkindness
- Materialism and loneliness
The American psychologist Professor Tim Kasser defines materialist values as a focus on three things – i. money and what it can buy; ii. appearance and image; and iii. fame and power. Thanks to the mass media these are the values which now saturate our world. Of course we must pay some attention to such things as we live in a material world and some degree of materialism is not only natural but necessary. We need food and shelter to survive and a sense of security and comfort adds enormously to the quality of life. We can also see from archaeology that people have always devoted time and energy to their appearance. Equally, human beings are extremely social so we’re always going to pay attention to our status within the group and want to feel some degree of pride in our accomplishments. And this means caring, to some extent, about how we are viewed by others.
However, while materialist values have always been important in life they were once kept in check by lack of time and money for consumption and by competing values. In the past the church and various political creeds tempered and reined in selfishness and acquisitiveness. It is interesting that the businessman turned philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, himself asserted that ‘the man who dies rich dies disgraced.’
The decline of religion, the loosening of family and community bonds and the erosion of socialist idealism have removed an important counterweight to the acquisitive individualism which drives consumer capitalism. At every turn in our society, adverts and various forms of media encourage people to focus not only on themselves but also on their individual freedom rather than on others or community cohesion and well-being. Of course adverts can present us with scenes of loving, supportive relationships but they are often about looking better than others, getting the upper hand, and being envied.
Kasser argues that ‘materialism is relative. Materialistic values become unhealthy when they are highly important in comparison with other values for which we might strive. The question is one of balance. . .’ Thanks to the prevalence of the mass media, and the erosion of alternative values, materialist values now underpin our culture and this has enormous implications for well-being.
Kasser presents evidence from various research studies which show that those with a materialistic orientation to life care less about warm, intimate relationships and take a more instrumental view of others. There is a mountain of research showing that the more people (of all ages) pursue materialist goals the worse their well-being becomes. The simple explanation is that these values distract people from what really matters for a good, healthy and fulfilling life for if people focus on making money and getting on they often sacrifice their intimate and family relationships and involvement with community – some of the most important things for well-being.
Sadly it isn’t just individuals who suffer from the prevalence of materialist values, so does the environment – think of all that needless consumption. There are also important social and community costs. Loneliness and social disconnection are inevitable by-products of rampant consumerism. Indeed research shows that there is a vicious cycle at work – valuing possessions can lead to loneliness but loneliness also fuels consumerism as lonely people try to fill the void in their life by buying more stuff.
2. Role of the media
Look around and you’ll see how common it is these days for people to sit alongside others but ignore them as they stare at their mobile phones. Technology can help us keep in contact with others but it is also leading to feelings of isolation. This is particularly true of social media. Recent research with young people found that those who were on social media for two hours a day felt twice as lonely and isolated than those who used social media for half an hour each day. Scottish research out this week showed that a third of young Scots aged 18-24 think that social media is leading them to feel isolated.
The problem isn’t just social media. For decades now research has shown that old style media has a negative effect on human connections. Indeed researchers have shown that as television came into people’s lives their participation in the community collapsed. Robert Putnam, author of that international best-seller Bowling Alone (2000), argues that the easiest way for people to build community is to ‘turn off the TV’ as ‘. . . the more entertainment television you watch, the less civically engaged you are. People watch Friends rather than having friends.’ We often think that television has been a great boon for older people as it helps to keep them entertained but their social isolation is partly caused by the fact that television has had such a negative effect on community
3. Performance management and cold-headed business
The Carnegie/JRF report argues that performance management with its top down rules and objectives, and cold professionalism and management styles are a major cause of unkindness in our society. And I think they are right to do so. But neither the author nor those involved in the seminar asked where this revolution in organisational management came from. The short answer is the economy and business.
The collapse of the gold standard in 1971 and the subsequent increase of footloose capital meant that many businesses became driven solely by profit. Investors – frequently foreign – increasingly wanted short-term results and they were largely indifferent to what the company was about. Money, and shareholder value, not the product, the employees or the wider community, are now all that matters in many corporations. No wonder there has been a spate of research and books showing, for example, that if corporations were individuals they would be labelled psychopaths and that many leaders of corporations score high on narcissism.
In the 1970s and 80s these hard-headed business approaches were imported into the UK’s public sector. Now business ideology and methods dominate almost every public sector institution. Even Charles Moore, a right-wing columnist, objects, writing: ‘Government now affects a business style. At meetings which are not, and should not be, commercial, modern Civil Service language insists on asking what is the ‘business case’ for a particular course of action.’ He cites other examples such as the introduction of business titles into the civil service such as ‘Managing Director’ and public bodies pushing out ‘pseudo-commercial hype’ such as ‘customer-facing’.
Public sector organisations are increasingly run as businesses – just look at universities, the health service or Creative Scotland. Many of the big charities have the same ethos as corporations. The language of business is now commonplace. For example, we are no longer passengers on trains but customers; consumers rather than citizens.
The importation of hard-headed business ideas into public sector organisations has not simply allowed unkindness to flourish but actually fosters unkindness as it’s finance, not human well-being, which ultimately matters. This generates so many human problems that it’s costly in the longer term but this type of manager is often blind to the problems they create.
I am not anti-business and would not choose to live in a world where the state controlled everything and there was no room for enterprising activity. But business serves its own short-term interests and, particularly in the case of large scale corporations, these are often contrary to the public good.
The need for a change of culture
It is simplistic to argue that business is only to blame – no one is forcing us to watch television, use social media, ignore our neighbours and go on shopping sprees. In many respects we are willing victims of consumer capitalism.
Given our complicity I’m aware that the cultural factors I outline above are not easy to address. Nonetheless I don’t think we can tackle the rising tide of loneliness and unkindness unless we have a better understanding of what’s driving such problems. Surely it’s the job of social reformers operating through foundations and think tanks to help us grasp the fundamental cause of problems such as these. For without a proper understanding of what’s driving an increase in loneliness and unkindness how can we ever make a difference?
First published on the author’s Centre for Confidence site