I have heard New Zealand being described “as beautiful as heaven and as lonely as hell.” If so, it does not bode well for us, as a 2010 study by Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton highlights that the long-term effects of loneliness brought on by social exclusion is “equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes and drinking six units of alcohol a day.”
Statistics New Zealand’s 2009/10 time use survey highlights that we do in fact spend a fair amount of time alone. People who live alone and are aged 15-64 spend 16 hours and 21 minutes alone a day. Those aged over 65 who live alone spend a whopping 20 hours a day alone.
Alone vs Lonely
However, spending time alone is not the same as feeling lonely or being socially isolated. The findings of Statistics New Zealand’s General Social Survey in 2013 showed that despite the amount of time spent alone “older people experienced the lowest levels of loneliness … with adults aged under 30 years experiencing the highest levels of loneliness.”
It also found that “living alone was associated with loneliness for young adults and those in midlife but not for older people.”
It really is the quality of our interactions that count, not just the time we spend alone or even surrounded by others.
Must for children
This point was hit home by (University of Melbourne) Professor John Hattie at the recent Maxim Institute Sir John Graham Lecture where he talked about the need for school children to make friends in their first month at school.
Almost unbelievably, his research at an Auckland school highlighted that one in five children in a class on any day has no one talk specifically to them – presumably not even a teacher. A person can literally be surrounded by others and still be socially isolated. No wonder some kids don’t want to go to school.
We are discovering that these experiences matter later in life too. In Maxim Institute’s research on poverty, we have noted that success in many modern workplaces relies more and more on ‘soft skills’ like communication, teamwork, negotiation and other relational attributes, alongside traditional skills like Mathematics and Science.
I remember my first few days on the job as a young manual labourer. Everyone else was older, knew what they were doing and were better than me.
Fortunately, my boss looked out for me. He made sure the older guys did not mock me too much, surprised me with a one off bonus for what must have been a pretty poor day’s work and even picked me up on my second day.
Employers, teachers, families and strangers who go the extra mile to help someone fit in, learn the ropes, and feel included, are unsung heroes.
When we practice intentional and quality interactions with the people around us not only are we contributing to their health, wellbeing, and productivity, we were making a social investment in New Zealand’s future.
Julian Wood is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland