Cigarettes, loneliness and the Big Society
In news that will bring raspy sighs of relief to social, as well as sociable, smokers everywhere, it seems that in order to neutralise the nasty side-effects of smoking all you have to do is be more sociable. Having a circle of close friends and strong family ties can boost a person’s health more than quitting smoking according to a new study by a team of psychologists at Brigham Young University in Utah.
The report argues that strong social networks can improve a person’s health in numerous ways: “When someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility to other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves”.
The good researchers of Brigham Young University have even been so kind as to translate the negative health value of friendlessness into corresponding measures of other unhealthy behaviours, providing a veritable get-out-of-death-free-card for those, providing they are sociable sorts, wishing to indulge in the hereunder guilty pleasures. The choices are as follows: being lonely and isolated is as bad as either smoking fifteen cigarettes daily, being an alcoholic, not exercising, and it’s twice as unhealthy as being obese.
On a more serious note, if, as this study suggests, loneliness is as unhealthy as smoking and alcohol abuse, perhaps the Government ought to take measures to encourage social interaction, much like it attempts to discourage smoking and excessive drinking. With religion in decline (scientific evidence has long suggested that religious people are less likely to suffer from depression or unhappiness than unbelievers) and family relationships throughout the developed world having become less reliable, traditional models no longer provide social safety nets in our increasingly atomised society.
Perhaps this is a tangible expression for that amorphous concept, the ‘Big Society’. While the uncharitable characterisation of the Big Society as trying to prise people away from the telly in order to run the NHS seems a straw man, a more modest role can be envisaged. New Labour was criticised for fruitlessly throwing money at complex social issues. With emotional needs now as pressing as physical ones, perhaps the Big Society has found its niche. Social networks delivering people-centred public services might prove more adept at dealing with the delicate social issue of loneliness.