Loneliness is a disease of affluence robbing years off of our lives

By October 27, 2019 3 Comments

One of the most sobering pieces of news I read this year was a small mention in a Canadian newspaper this summer of the rise of forensic cleaning services in Tokyo, Japan. Yes. You read this right, businesses responding to higher demands for professional, forensic-standard cleaning services for residential homes where people die alone, undiscovered until decomposition. There is even a name for this. They call it a lonely death, and it is on the rise. This coincides with the escalating number of single-person households, which according to the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Researchis expected to rise to 40% of total households in Japan. 40%. Single. Alone.

In that same country, 1560 km away from Tokyo, Okinawa boasts the highest number of centenarians in the world. They call it a blue zone. Blue zonesare pockets around the globe with the highest numbers of centenarians (people living over 100 years) and life-expectancy in general. On the surface, these pockets appeared to be random. But upon further investigation by a variety of scientists and specialties, the blue zones were found to share 9 common denominators that set them apart from every other place on the planet. Four of those are the antithesis of loneliness and as I suspect the most underrated in our lives today:

  • Okinawans have moais, groups of five friends that commit to each other for life. These social circles meet regularly and support one anothers healthy behaviours. (Turns out lifestyle is contagious, according to research from the Framingham Studies. Even loneliness. Contagious.)
  • Putting family first adds more years to our lives. Keeping aging parents and grandparents at home or close to home, which incidentally lowers disease and mortality rates in children living in the same home too, and committing to a life partner adds up another 3 years to life expectancy. Investing in our own children with time and love will ensure our children invest in us when the time comes.
  • Belonging to a faith-based community regardless of faith adds 4-14 years to life expectancy, simply by attending a faith-based service 4 times a month.
  • Why I wake up in the morning or ikigai as the Okinawans call it adds up to 7 years to our life expectancy.

As I write, my elderly relative is suffering from stage 4 terminal lung cancer. He has flesh-eating bacteria currently ravaging his legs. He is alone, in a filthy apartment at the other end of the world with his sole companion a dog that loves him unconditionally and waits for weeks for his return from hospital so he can lick his legs and soothe his pain. He is cared for by the state, in return for a life of selfless service that robbed him of any meaningful relationships other than this affair with the state.

I doubt this is what he envisioned his older years to look like. I know he took his vitality and health for granted. I suspect he misunderstood freedom and care-free living. I think he kept postponing authentic relationships to tomorrow. I am thankful he kept caring for the dog, although he ignored his five life-long friends, community, family, and purpose beyond himself.

David Brooks tackles the topic of a life beyond ourselves in The Second Mountain. As we traverse our first mountain, the question on our minds is always What can the world do for me? Our focus is directed toward our own selfish needs and micro-universe of goals measured by materialistic metrics of power, fame, money, and empty glory. On that mountain, there are no life-long moais, family, community, or true ikigai. If we are lucky enough to get to the top unscathed, this is where most of us fortunate ones recognize the view is terrible, the weather is cold, and we have no one to warm us. So off we head toward the second mountain, asking ourselves on the way up what we can do for the world as we shed the heavy weight of ourselves to a more giving, altruistic lightness of being with life-long five friends, family, and community, jumping out of bed every morning with an urgency of purpose far greater than the limitedness of ourselves.

The relationships we are investing in today are digital, heartless, and shitty battery-operated. Our faith-based communities worship insatiable virtual gods of fake social media influence. Our friends are strategically chosen to serve a first-mountain purpose. We try our best to avoid our family. We disrespect our elders. (Who are we kidding? We complain about them all the time and behave as if we will never be in their shoes. If we are one of the lucky few, we will be.) We invest more effort in the funeral and condolences than in any meaningful relationship with them. We are unwilling to invest in the commitments we have with our partners because we are blinded by the fake lives of digital bliss that seem greener. The concrete structures we hide in and the metal we drive isolate us further into airless silos so that we require the paid assistance of social app gods to meet people.

Tokyo and the rest of the affluent world are lonely. And they are dying lonely deaths. Loneliness is an integral part of the diseases of affluencebecause it is a direct result of our affluent, digitized lifestyle. We have disconnected ourselves from one another, from the earth we inhabit, and from the other living beings that share it with us. Every relationship we have today is a transactional one whose bottom line is: either you eat me or I eat you.

It is not too late. We can rebuild these connections, starting with our loved ones, parents, children, grandparents. And five friends, you know the ones who have been with us from the old school days when we wore those silly shoes and stole our parents’ car keys while they slept. We can meet in our temples and ashrams, and worship Love.

No sentient being should live a lonely life. And just as importantly, no one deserves to die alone.

No one.



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