This article was written long before Covid19 and lockdown invaded our lives but it raises interesting issues about isolation for Mental Health Awareness Week.
Philosophers often ask themselves very difficult questions while the rest of us appear not to have the time or the inclination. It has always seemed to me to be a very abstract and detached form of thinking until you start to apply it to real life.
I have an older surviving parent in his 90’s who despite my best efforts experiences social isolation. It’s not a life choice for him it is because he depends on people and can no longer drive himself to the places he wants to go. It was a real pleasure that after a period of illness and after some gentle pushing he joined a local group of men his own age for a weekly get together. The change in his mental state was like someone switching on a power source and he has had an infusion of well-being just by having a little bit more human contact than he has had for several months.
But there is a difference between being isolated and feeling lonely. People who feel lonely have a different experience and studies show this can have significant detrimental effects on long-term mental health.
Those who suffer from loneliness have a 64% greater risk of dementia, according to a Dutch study that appears in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. But the authors stress that the risk depends on having those feelings and not simply the fact that someone lives alone or is socially isolated.
There has been a recent awakening about the effects of social isolation and loneliness across society.
Loneliness is a subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact. It refers to the perceived quality of the person’s relationships. Loneliness is never desired and lessening these feelings can take a long time.
The whole subject area is a good example of what we think can determine our health and well-being and ultimately our quality of life.
Recently I have also had the pleasure of having grand children and the very young ones perform like philosophy post-graduate students. It could be scientific questions like, ‘Why does the Sun shine?’ , ‘Why is the sky red at night’ or ‘Why are there no rainbows every time it rains’. All relatively easy questions to answer, especially if you have a smart phone and an internet connection.
It’s the questions about thought and philosophy that can nail you to the floor however, grasping for some words of explanation and trying to avoid the cop-out answer ‘just because’.
In our insulated and sometimes very isolated lives do we ever get the time to converse with other people about the important stuff.
What am I doing with my life?
How can I be happy?
Where do I fit in this world?
This is illustrated by something I read about a group of philosophers attending a conference in New York. They decided to do a ‘ask a philosopher’ street stall for an hour during a break. Gradually a crowd gathered while one 60-year-old passer-by engaged in a conversation about what she should be doing with the rest of her life. The philosophers were brave to do this I thought. Younger passers-by asked questions about happiness complaining about being young and not being as happy as they expected to be.
“Research has shown that what makes us happy is achieving small goals one after the other. If you win the lottery, within six months you’ll probably be back to your baseline of happiness. Same if you got into an accident. You can’t just achieve happiness and stay there, you have to pursue it.
This pursuit of happiness sounds more of a life long journey and descriptions of how we can live well are as old as Aristotle’s ethics.
What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.
It makes you think what questions people have in their minds that go unanswered and just get pushed away to the dusty recesses of our minds.
Perhaps the most basic of philosophic questions was asked by small girl aged around 6.
‘How do I know I am real?’ Again, it’s the kids who ask the toughest questions. Shades of ‘I think therefore I am’, Rene Descartes. The philosopher’s answer was wonderful and one I will use when and if my grandson asks the same question.
I remembered that the most important part of philosophy was feeding our sense of wonder. “Close your eyes,” I said. She did. “Well, did you disappear?” She smiled and shook her head, then opened her eyes. “Congratulations, you’re real.”
Great answer from the street philosophers of NYC. I hope to make more time to have conversations with people as well as make time to think positively.