A cry made by millions during lockdown is “I just want a hug“. Many may have indeed cried while saying it. We have all taken social and physical interactions for granted for so long; but would you pay for a hug, a cuddle or even rent a friend? The payment to satisfy a desire from another human being may not be so new but for a hug and cuddle it’s a new trend. This is a subject explored in a new book ‘The Lonely Century’ by the economist, Noreena Hertz.
Combining a decade of research with first-hand reporting, Hertz takes us from ‘how to read a face’ class at an Ivy League university to isolated remote workers in London during lockdown, and from ‘renting a friend’ in Manhattan to nursing home residents knitting bonnets for their robot caregivers in Japan.
In a radio interview, Hertz reveals that she has met people who have paid thousands monthly to be cuddled and held and she says there is a growing global demand for this service. There are well established businesses in Japan that supply boyfriends and girlfriends to lonely young adults and many are paid for by the parents. This epidemic of loneliness has opened up a fascinating and lucrative business opportunity.
Writing in the Guardian, Mathias Rosenzweig states that:
”Rates of loneliness in the US have doubled over the past 50 years. In 2018, some 200,000 of the UK’s elderly hadn’t spoken to a friend or relative in a month, according to a government report, and 75% of the country’s general practitioners report seeing between one and five lonely patients each day. “
Recognition of the severe damage loneliness can cause to mental health is widely recognised but perhaps Sweden is in a league of its own. They have just relaxed lockdown guidance for the over 70 s in their country citing the harm that isolation was having on people there
Many of us have become addicted to the next twitter or facebook alert with so many spending large parts of the day on our mobile phones as if it was our own baby or best friend. This technology trend, which had already been growing for years has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
How sad it is that real people and human interactions have been left behind in the need to shelter or shield from Covid-19. And how distressing to hear relatives talk about being denied a visit to their loved ones in a care home where a familiar voice or a song can bring back such happy memories.
There is the obvious loneliness of over 9 million who live on their own but there are also the young people moving to a new university town, perhaps struggling to make new friends, the mother with a new baby or young children trapped at home with few friends or someone who has moved to a new location for a job . And of course,all those families struggling on benefits trying to manage on meagre funds with little hope of escaping from their predicament.
In many respects the idea by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, of Eat out to help out was inspired; after the long lockdown earlier this year there was a recurrence of meals out and friendships were rekindled and perhaps many new ones formed.
But as we now move into a new national lockdown in the cold, dark winter these social occasions are disappearing again. What can we do?
You could give your friends a call rather than an online message. It could be an exchange that involves using facial muscles and perhaps even laughter. Zoom calls have worked for millions and seeing the other person live on video is fantastic but they are not real substitutes for a face to face interaction and a hug.
You could send your friend or neighbour a card or a note with a warm message and a small gift. Ideally you could make time to see them with a walk or similar. following lockdown rules. It may not be possible to have a hug or a cuddle but seeing people physically is nearly as good. And if this is not practical now make plans for when it is.
So, are we going to peruse new career opportunities and retrain to give a hug or a cuddle I hope not. Money cannot buy everything!
At some point the pandemic will recede and we will enjoy giving and receiving hugs; we will smile and laugh. Let’s try to turn the clock back on the defining condition of the twenty first century ‘loneliness’.
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