Longhurst: Cure for loneliness?

Apr 9, 2018 by

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Earlier this year, the British government created a new portfolio called the Minister for Loneliness. The idea arose out of research that found about 9 million Britons are lonely.

John Longhurst

Longhurst

More than a third of older people in Great Britain reported being overwhelmed by loneliness. About half of people over 75 live alone. Many say they can go days or even weeks with no meaningful social interaction. The situation is similar in Canada, where as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians say they are lonely.

What’s behind the epidemic of loneliness?

Some blame high rates of mobility. People move a lot today, disrupting long-term relationships. Others blame social media. Although it’s never been easier to connect with people, it can lead to fewer physical encounters.

And then there’s the general decline in participation in civic life — decreasing involvement in service groups, parent-teacher associations, labor unions, political parties and the like.

Could the decrease in participation in faith groups also be part of the problem? Many studies show regular participation in worship and other religious activities can protect against loneliness.

Being part of a worshiping community is associated with higher levels of social integration and support. As more people drop out of religious groups, perhaps loneliness is an unintended consequence.

But the studies about the positive effects of being part of a religious group only evaluate and measure how it feels to be part of a group, or what it means to get a casserole when you’re sick.

There must be more to it than that. What about the spiritual dimension?

I posed the question to Delmar Epp, associate professor of psychology at Canadian Mennonite University. From a psychological perspective, he says, people do have a need to belong.

People of faith would call that “being created by God with a need to be in relationship with others. . . . It’s fundamental to who we are as human beings.”

But where does God fit in? He pointed to attachment theory as it pertains to religion.

This is the idea that humans form deep and abiding bonds with their caregivers when they are young. This provides us with a sense of security. Someone who is strong will keep us safe.

In the religious sphere, God becomes an attachment figure for believers — to have a relationship with, to turn to when feeling unsafe or distressed.

“People can view God as their friend and companion, a comforter and protector,” Epp says. They can feel close to God through prayer and worship.

But it doesn’t always work out so neatly. People who had bad experiences with caregivers at a young age can struggle later to form an attachment to God.

If your own parents were harsh and neglectful, it can be tough to believe in a heavenly parent who cares for you.

Places of worship aren’t perfect, either. They can be lonely for those who don’t feel they can be open and honest with others about their struggles for fear of being judged.

Yet there’s still something about religion that seems to make a big difference in loneliness and overall health.

At a time when millions of people are looking for a wonder drug, therapy, treatment program or workout routine that will lead to better mental, emotional and physical health, it seems that one might already exist: religious faith.

But I don’t expect the Canadian government, or any other, to create a Minister for Religion and Health.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.


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