Full text of Norwegian designer Karen Dolva’s talk titled “All the lonely people” at TEDxArendal conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Karen Dolva – CEO and co-founder of No Isolation
If I had died at 22, it would have taken weeks before anyone would have noticed because at 22, I was studying, I lived on my own, and I’d pulled myself away from everyone without anyone really noticing.
The next minutes will not be about me; it will, however, be about the work that I’m trying to do. Because two years ago, I decided to put an end to loneliness. The loneliness that I and my co-founders had experienced in our own lives was enough for us to quit our jobs and start a company called No Isolation.
We had no idea of what we were getting into and how big the issue really was. And I don’t think that you do either. Loneliness is not just a sad feeling that we need to get rid of because we want people to be slightly more happy.
Loneliness is dangerous. People suffering from loneliness are in a constant fight-or-flight mode, a stress mode very much equal to the one I’m experiencing right now, only there’s a huge difference between me experiencing this for a couple of minutes now and living with it for years. These increased stress levels lead to a number of things, but there are some consequences that are more severe than others.
Several studies have shown that feeling lonely results in a 29% increased risk of heart disease. Feeling lonely also increases the risk of having a stroke by 32%. You might not believe it, but when it comes to heart disease, loneliness is a bigger killer than obesity. So, if we could do our own mini experiment: all of you can raise your hand, and please keep it there until told otherwise.
So think about the feeling of being all alone, how it is like to not have anyone you feel you can talk to or reach out to in a moment. Now everyone who has never had that feeling can take their hands down.
Good. So all of us – it’s okay. So all of us have experienced loneliness.
But 16% of the Norwegian population reports that they’re being haunted by loneliness every day. And that’s in Norway. According to the United Nations, we’re the happiest country in the world! And still, 16% is 800,000 people in this tiny country alone, that feels like they have no one to talk to on a day-to-day basis.
And when you consider how big of a taboo loneliness actually is, it gets worse because people do not willingly admit to being lonely, meaning that 16% is probably too low.
The relationship between age and loneliness is shaped like a U. The youngest and the oldest generations are the most lonely generations.
And while most research is focused on the seniors, the amount of lonely young people is severely underestimated. It should be no surprise to anyone here that lonely children, teenagers and young adults perform worse at school, are more depressed and experience more suicidal thoughts than their socially connected peers.
And then there are children suffering from long-term illness and with long-term illness, I mean ME and CP and cancer and heart failure, all of these diagnoses and they’re particularly exposed to being socially isolated and lonely. They lose their place in society with their diagnosis. It’s not always easy to find their way back.
I didn’t realize how important this issue was until I met a woman named Anna. 14 years before I met her, one of her twin daughters was diagnosed with a form of cancer. And Cornelia lost her life after having spent two years moving in and out of various hospitals.
But when Cornelia passed away, Anna looked back on the previous two years with grievance because the worst thing had not been the diagnosis or the treatments or the pain but the fact that her teenage daughter became isolated from her friends and her normal life.
A 13-year-old girl is a 13-year-old girl, and no diagnosis in the world can take away her social needs. But an illness will definitely get in the way of her acting upon those needs. So let’s move on to something slightly less heavy.
I guess that all of you have heard of Tinder. It’s a dating app. Yep.
I have a theory that Tinder has actually done more for public health than we give them credit for. We could discuss it forever because despite Tinder doing the very best job they can, more people than ever before are single. And that is actually a huge problem. Because the single strongest predictor for loneliness is not your age; it is whether or not you’re in a relationship.
As a single woman, I’m four times more likely to be haunted by loneliness than women who are in a relationship. But the silver lining is that in this matter, I’m very lucky to be a girl because that guy – he is ten times more likely to be haunted by loneliness than his mates who are in relationships.
And yes, it is a fact that single people are more miserable than those who are hitched.
You would think that by 2017 we would have figured out how to properly connect people. But it looks like we’re getting worse at it. Loneliness has become a pandemic. It does not discriminate on age or gender or borders. It happens all over the world, and it happens most frequently to those of us who are already vulnerable.
As I said in the beginning – I don’t think I can stress this enough – the constant flight-or-fight mode results in a 29% increased risk of heart diseases. That’s equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes every day. It is more dangerous than being an alcoholic.
And on top of these physical risks, there’s one more thing: feeling lonely doubles your likelihood of getting dementia. Obviously, there’s an enormous individual cost in that of feeling all alone. There’s also an enormous public cost. People getting sick is expensive; it is extremely expensive.
And to give you a specific example of how loneliness is expensive, we can stay on dementia, because 66% of all the money we spend on mental healthcare is spent on people suffering from dementia. And loneliness doubles your risk of developing it.
We’re going to add one more number: 12% of the Norwegian population are daily smokers; 16% of us or maybe more are haunted by loneliness. We know that both of them give you an equally increased risk of heart disease and strokes. So it’s both extremely dangerous, and one of them is even exceptionally painful.
But the governments of the world are clearly focusing on only one of them. But what can you really do?
We set up taxes for cigarettes, and then we banned smoking inside. It’s quite obvious that we can’t use the same methods for curing loneliness.
So where do we start if we want to have an impact on a global scale?
Well, I started with studying almost the opposite of psychology because I chose computer science. And the debates around the impact of technology on loneliness is growing. Some argue that the use of technology is replacing human contact; others argue that technology is all we need to establish new relations.
I think that debate lacks one key insight because it is not about the technology at all. We could say that it is somewhat about what the technology does and somewhat about how we, as consumers, use technology.
But most importantly, it’s about the people who develop the technology that we use. They choose how it works and what it does. And different things do different things. And it’s people who develop the stuff we use.