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On Topic: In Touch with each other

Anja Machielse's 25 years of research into loneliness

For 25 years, Anja Machielse conducted research into loneliness, speaking with people who said they had zero social contacts. What causes people to live in such isolation? How does such loneliness affect you? And what systemic changes are needed to stop the ongoing rise of loneliness in our society?

In an interview with Dutch newspaper NRC, Machielse discusses her 25 years of research, meeting with people who experience intense feelings of loneliness and trying to raise awareness of this issue. She doesn’t believe that anybody truly wants to live in social isolation, but finds that it is often the result of negative experiences or feeling like you don’t belong. “It’s like standing at the edge of the swimming pool. Everybody’s doing all sorts of things, but I’m not taking part.”

She notes that discussing loneliness has become more normalised, also because of the corona pandemic. People feel less ashamed talking about it. Everyone having to live in a form of isolation highlighted the importance of social contact and the ways that loneliness can affect your well-being. In the 90s, she already found that social relationships are a bigger factor in our life expectancy than smoking or drinking. “Loneliness causes sickness. It fuels depression, weakens the immune system, increases the risk of heart conditions. Being rooted is our primary need.”

However, despite increased general awareness and government initiatives to tackle social isolation, loneliness only seems to be increasing. People are starting to disconnect: old people feel like a burden to a society that has become too complex, while young people feel unheard by politics. Loneliness is still too widely regarded as an individual issue, rather than the result of social structures. Rampant individualisation, the pressures of always having to perform and less physical social interactions are all important contributing factors. Fleeting interactions are disappearing, and as a result we are slowly getting estranged from each other.

You can read Anja Machielse’s interview with NRC here and you can read her lecture ‘Quitters and dropouts. On loneliness, social isolation and a resilient society’ here (both are in Dutch).

Want to know more about our need for social and physical contact? On Saturday 6 April, curator Daniela Tenenbaum will be joined by Birgit Hasenack, researcher at the department of Experimental Psychology at Utrecht University, for a tour of our exhibition In Touch and a talk about touch deprivation (or ‘huidhonger’).

Touch Base: a tour & talk with Birgit Hasenack
Saturday 6 April
12:00 – 13:00

Social touch is very important for our wellbeing, so what happens if we are not touched enough? Does touch deprivation influence our perception of social touch? Can you still benefit from touch if you never receive it?

Get your ticket here


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