What have we lost

The cost of the loneliness epidemic

How fractured communities fuelled addiction

Change has been impacting upon societies for hundreds of years, but the 20th century saw a series of radical shifts resulting in the breakdown of village life and the local support network of the extended family.

This social fracturing was partly due to a previously unseen wave of vast urban redevelopment. After the Second World War, hoping to resolve the issue of Britain’s many bombed towns and cities, local planners undertook huge rebuilding programmes. This was fuelled by the 1956 Housing Subsidies Act, which stated that funds would be available for slum clearance, along with new buildings for expelled residents. But the act also decreed that the higher the new building, the higher the subsidy, which spawned tower block living.

Local planners became increasingly ruthless. Some inappropriately categorised properties as slums in order to get their hands on subsidies. Along with the housing, the wrecking ball destroyed communities. There was no more neighbourly bonding over the garden fence. Mothers forced into tower blocks lost touch with their children, who no longer played on the doorstep but several floors below. The long hours of each day swallowed them up in a cruel atmosphere of solitary confinement.
Many families resisted moving from the communities they had grown up in and the new multi-storey housing was soon deemed ‘hard-to-let’. Finally in 1977 subsidies to build high were reduced.

Leading architect Peter Smithson admitted that he had ‘made a big mistake’ in his vast designs. Tenement high-rise building stopped. Many post-war blocks were demolished. Most of the remaining ones will be destroyed over the next twenty years. But the damage had already been done.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin’s groundbreaking work on the way we all influence our world and the ways we are all influenced by it, illustrates that in order to understand human behaviour, we need to understand the ‘life space’ in which it takes place. Intense pressure has been put on the nuclear family, and it too is now fracturing along with church, school and work environments. The quest for individual fulfilment has torn loose from the community context in which it was nurtured. While the debate continues as to whether food can be addictive, many obese people describe their relationship with food in a similar way to addicts describing their relationships with alcohol and drugs. Typical comments include: ‘I eat to fill the void inside me’. Therefore, if we are looking for clues to the obesity crisis – and its relationship with the community – we can gain insights from key studies in addiction.

One such study in the late 70s challenged all of the research that suggested drug addiction was purely a result of repeated exposure
to a substance. Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander set about challenging a laboratory experiment, which involved putting rats in cages on their own and exposing them to cocaine. In a very short time these isolated rats became hooked on the drug and died. It was assumed the opiate properties of the drug had destroyed the rats. But Dr Alexander suspected that it was the intense stress of isolation combined with the lure of the drug that proved fatal. What would happen, he wondered, if the rats had been part of a thriving, happy community?

In order to find out he built his very own ‘Rat Park’, which consisted of a large cage full of lush vegetation and toys. The rats within were constantly in the company of each other, bonding and socialising. Meanwhile, he placed another group of rats in complete isolation in bare cages. The results were incredible. The rats living together consumed less than a quarter of the drugs than their isolated peers. Not one rat from Rat Park died of addiction while the isolated rats perished in great numbers. Thus, Dr Alexander demonstrated that the biggest driver for addiction – certainly in this context – was the loss of community.

Humans are not too far removed from the rats in Dr Alexander’s study. We are social, community-minded creatures. Without family, friends and meaningful work environments we soon turn to other substances – including food – to anaesthetise our feelings. Loneliness can ultimately prove fatal. A recent study showed that living alone or feeling socially disconnected can accelerate mortality rates by around 30%. Undeniably, in the last 30 years the obesity crisis has tripled. But where do responsibilities lie? Perhaps it’s time to rewind the clock and have a quick look at what was going on back in the 80s when much of this crisis became evident.

Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s Britain was in full swing. This era represented a vast consumer culture that celebrated money, ambition and the advancement of self. The hedonistic trend towards individualism led to the increased dilution of many post-war values. This produced both positive and negative results. Divorce rates rose steadily, as did single-parent families. More women went out to work. Meanwhile, the elderly found themselves increasingly marooned from their families. While some benefited greatly from this seductive decade and the many liberties it bestowed, others found it incredibly challenging. Post-war communities had already long-since crumbled and that trend dramatically increased. Family mealtimes gave way to convenience food invariably eaten on the go. Snacking, which tended to be frowned upon by older generations, became increasingly fashionable. Families stopped talking to each other and increasingly numbed their feelings with TV, fast food and technology.

Thirty years on and few people seem to know their neighbours. Few care. They complain of suffering from stress, which they typically medicate with a ‘must-have-it-now’ mentality. But it’s important to remember that while the loss of community has been damaging, the wounds need not be permanent. The village life of old may have all but died out, but community groups have always been available for those who seek them out, be it a salsa class, book club or choir. Research has shown that group work is the most effective method for dealing with addictive and obsessive compulsive disorders. The popularity of organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous demonstrate how positive recovery networks can dramatically improve people’s lives. And while no individual person, culture or organisation can be held accountable for all of today’s social ills, recent history does give us some extremely legitimate leads, particularly in view of today’s towering obesity rates.