There is one complaint I have grown so tired of hearing in letters to my Saturday advice column in the Mail.
The writer, sad or angry as a result of falling out with a family member or friend, so often moans: ‘I sent her a text but she never replied . . .’
It drives me crazy. Why are you sending a stupid text? Why can’t you pick up the phone, so that your mother, sister or friend can hear that note in your voice and realise just how upset you are? Or better still — if possible — pop round?
We are living in an age of mass communication, yet it constantly saddens me to hear how badly people interact. It’s as if they’re afraid to talk.
Have you ever watched a young couple failing to interact with their children in the supermarket queue? So often they don’t chat, but simply grunt or snap.
Recently, I watched a father and daughter together in the park, clearly on his ‘custody day’. ‘Look, Daddy, look!’ the little girl pleaded from the play area. Indifferent, he stared hard at his phone.
Advice columnist Bel Mooney says it constantly saddens her to hear how badly people interact
The result of this? Well, firstly, nursery and primary teachers are faced with poor little scraps who have not been encouraged to use language well, or don’t know how to make friends easily, because mum and dad have always been too busy — or idle. Or too ‘stressed out’.
In the longer term, it will hardly be a surprise if these children end up returning their parents’ seeming indifference.
I found myself wondering if that distracted father — leaving his child so alone at play — perhaps deserved to end up a lonely old man?
The issue couldn’t be more pertinent, because we now know that it is true that people die of loneliness.
A major scientific study, published last month, leaves us in no doubt that without human contact, the mind and body can fail.
Of course, the shocking statistics refer to actual physical conditions — for example, the researchers found that social isolation can increase the chance of a stroke by 30 per cent, and premature death by up to 50 per cent.
It is associated, too, with a 43 per cent higher risk of first time heart attack, and those who already have cardiovascular problems are 50 per cent more likely to die if socially isolated, according to scientists who tracked 480,000 Britons for seven years.
But why? I believe it is because chronic loneliness ultimately breaks the human spirit. I once interviewed a distinguished oncologist who told me how often men and women develop cancer soon after losing a partner. After the death of their loved ones, their bodies murmur that there is no point in going on.
Bel says people are sending texts and interacting online, when they should be with friends and learning to read the faces and body language of their peers (file photo)
Like any plant, the human heart needs sustenance and will wither without life-giving food.
Just as some plants need more water than others, so some people are happy loners while others — the majority of us — need people around to give their lives meaning.
Like my three happy dogs, we humans are pack animals, naturally choosing to exist within emotional structures, for mutual support and to keep our society as stable as possible.
If you are fortunate, careful and unselfish enough to keep all your social networks in place, then if the terrible day comes and you are left bereaved, you will not be left feeling isolated. The trouble is, so much of modern life mitigates against sociability.
People are now too busy, they live far away from families and friends, they have learned to be selfish in this self-absorbed age . . . there are many reasons for failing to keep up our vital relationships.
What’s more, I believe that the phenomenon of social media — the long-term effects of which have not been fully examined — is storing up a time-bomb for a frightening future.
Young and old alike now interact online when they should be with friends, and learning to read the faces and body language of their peers.
It is tragic that today we talk about ‘connection’ and the importance of being ‘connected’ when we are not talking about real associations, but impersonal links via mere gadgets.
The latest loneliness statistics should be a warning to flex those muscles of empathy and think about how we treat those we meet in our daily lives, Bel says
Charging up a mobile phone in order to type ‘hugs’ on Facebook, or any other social media site, is not connection. It’s pretty meaningless.
More importantly, it’s likely to make us feel far worse.
Then what about those super-independent middle-aged people who are too busy working or going on cruises and living it up to have much time for family or old friends?
When they become too old to globetrot, their loved ones may have grown too used to them being absent. As the Beatles sang: ‘And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.’
This is the first truth of family life — and a vital clue to remedying loneliness. Which is why it struck me as terribly sad that the clinical advisor to Public Health England should have suggested a couple of months ago that voice-recognition devices for the home could help alleviate loneliness.
Surely, an intelligent personal assistant such as the Amazon ‘Alexa’ won’t really help solitary pensioners? Who can derive comfort from a machine?
It would be more thoughtful to consider adopting a little dog or cat from one of the many overcrowded shelters, especially an older animal for an older person. A pet will respond with affection and reciprocal need — and, I firmly believe, could save a life.
No wonder the Office for National Statistics found three years ago that Britain is the ‘loneliness capital’ of Europe. It affects all people, of all ages, from all backgrounds — nine million people living in miserable isolation.
The Royal College of General Practitioners is well aware of the knock-on effect on the NHS. Every day, patients seek help for problems that are not just medical but stem from social isolation.
We are living in an age of mass communication, yet it constantly saddens me to hear how badly people interact. It’s as if they’re afraid to talk
I welcome, wholeheartedly, the College’s plan to work with charities and voluntary groups on a manifesto for the Government to tackle loneliness. But this is not a new issue, and no government can devise happiness laws.
Do not expect a newly appointed Minister for Loneliness to save ‘all the lonely people’, to quote another Beatles song — when, in fact, some answers to social isolation might be within ourselves to solve.
I refuse to believe it’s impossible for people to help themselves.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, set up by the Labour MP before she was murdered by far-right terrorist Thomas Mair in 2016, concluded in a report in January that ‘each and every one of us’ needs to be aware of the problem.
For my part, the most important lesson of my entire adult life is this: relationships must be worked at.
Within parenthood, school, love affairs, work, marriage — all the little human interactions which gradually build us up as social beings — we have to sweat to sustain them as we focus on the value of empathy.
It’s crucial that we all make that leap of imagination into the heart of another, to reach out beyond the stifling circle of self-hood.
Also, this involves forgiving the failings of others, and thinking before we speak.
Above all, put down those ubiquitous bloody electronic gadgets and look, listen, feel and talk.
Try a real hug instead of a virtual one. Visit a person who needs you (the weepy mate whose lover has left, or the gran who rabbits on about her dodgy knees) because even if you don’t want to, you’ll feel better for being good. It’s called reaping rewards.
And it all adds up to a personal storehouse to draw on when it is necessary.
Of course, there are countless depressed people consumed by loneliness who have given up hope. They yearn for others to reach out, someone to stop and say: ‘Hello’.
It’s imperative that society takes this seriously. So never underestimate the importance of holding a hand out to another human being.
Above all, everyone should take the latest loneliness statistics as a warning, and flex those muscles of empathy and think about how we treat those we meet in our daily lives.
Surely, if we work hard at trying to prevent others becoming lonely, it will mean that we, too, are less likely to suffer acute loneliness ourselves.