The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that loneliness is a “pressing health threat” and has launched a new commission that will be committed to cultivating social relationships in communities and nations across the globe. It is set to be co-chaired by Dr Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, and Chido Mpemba, African Union Youth Envoy. Dr Murthy has been urging policymakers to tackle the causes of loneliness for the past few years and has been making the case that the risk of isolation to our health is comparable to heavy smoking and substance abuse.
He is not alone. Many of us are becoming captivated by friendship as the great need of our time. This is my story.
I had a horrible 2020. I am an author and, having worked hard on my first proper book, I excitedly set the release date for March of that year. When lockdown was announced, I was sent into a downward spiral of discouragement and disappointment, at one point hosting a pity party for one under my duvet as I asked myself if I was the first person in the world to publish a book the week all the bookshops closed. But it turned out that this was just the beginning. Within weeks, we found out that my mum’s cancer was terminal. I spent the first weeks of lockdown sitting at the end of her driveway, watching her deteriorate each day. She died on 8th June.
Two things got me through: faith and friendship. We hardly cooked a meal for three months. Our kitchen looked like a card shop, and our living room resembled a florist. I remember who was there for me, and all this at a time of social distancing. At a time when I most needed the embrace of a friend, I was starved of the connection I needed the most. So I began to research friendship and made some startling discoveries.
Firstly, it is astonishingly good for us. It has profoundly positive effects on our mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Even if you eat badly, do no exercise, and neglect other areas of your physical health, but have good friends, you will live longer than someone who is socially isolated. It is better to eat kebabs with friends than salad on your own.
Studies have shown that if we don’t have a close friend, the levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase significantly, with fatal consequences. Cortisol is the fight or flight chemical that gets us out of bed and away from danger, but a consistently high baseline means bodily resources are drawn away from core biological business, meaning we are more vulnerable to illness, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Secondly, our friendships are under significant pressure. The Movember Foundation found that as many as 1 in 3 men have no close friends. The picture is not much brighter for women. 40% of 16- to 24-year-olds say they ‘always or often feel lonely.’ The extraordinary technology in our pockets and palms makes us the most connected generation in history, and yet, the pressures of life and the prevailing narrative of individualism are painting a devastatingly disconnected picture. The WHO’s findings and response must do something about this.
Thirdly, we don’t talk about it enough. There are over 10,000 books with the word ‘leadership’ in the title; only a fraction contain the word “friendship”. It is the most significant, yet least discussed, preached on, and read about relationship in society. Our playlists are full of tracks about romantic love, and we know when St Valentine’s Day is, but not many can name more than a handful of songs about friendship, and the International Day of Friendship is only known by a few trivia fans.
The WHO’s commission will last three years, but whatever its scale, it will be enough. Their declaration highlights the urgency and prevalence of the issue, and my hope is that it will raise the volume of the conversation around friendship and encourage all of us to invest well in our relational connections, for our own benefit and the sake of those around us. It really is a matter of life and death.
Phil Knox is the author of “The Best of Friends“.