There’s this big open secret. So many of us (around the world) are lonely. From the US, UK, and Australia to Japan, India, and Russia. It seems almost no culture is immune from this growing loneliness epidemic.
According to comprehensive research conducted by the US health insurer Cigna, one in two people feels the effects of loneliness. Surprisingly, loneliness is most prominent in young people. But that’s not to say that the elderly aren't also suffering deeply through this modern-day malady.
Governments, institutions, and societies are just beginning to give serious consideration to this issue. Mental health professionals, government ministers, local communities, and school administrators are grappling with how to advise their populations on how to cope with loneliness. Conventional advice such as volunteering your time and reaching out to your neighbors is a fine place to start.
But with an issue as complex as loneliness, it helps to think both broadly and creatively. No one has the magic bullet yet to eradicate this troubling issue. Still, organizations and businesses are bringing forth creative solutions to try to address loneliness in meaningful ways.
It’s a big social experiment to figure out what works. Chances are a single solution won’t be the cureall. And it will be a personalized formula for every person. But innovative ideas such as the following can be an enjoyable and rewarding way to make some impact.
Care for Chickens to Ease Loneliness
In 2012 a group of elderly men in the UK started HenPower a project to bring hens into assisted living facilities. It seemed the elderly patients found new meaning in their lives when they had something to care for. Taking care of their hens brought structure to their days and it helped facilitate socializing and broadening community. I mean what a conversation starter!
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A study by Northumbria University in Northeast England found that the male participants of HenPower all reported improved wellbeing along with reduced depression and loneliness. Said Thomas ‘Ossie’ Cresswell, a participant of the HenPower project, “‘My life has been a lot fuller since we’ve had these hens. I think I’d be lost without them.”
Having chickens for pets isn’t practical for many but what this project illustrates is that there is power in animal companionship. An animal gives unconditional love and is always present. They make us feel like we have something invested in us when the rest of the world is too busy to notice. This may help explain in part the significant increase in requests for emotional support animals. They don’t just calm our anxiety, they help us feel less lonely.
Pets can also help facilitate socialization and community building. Dog owners certainly need to get out of the house. And having a dog by your side is an excellent ice breaker. Using an app like Meet My Dog helps users find nearby dog owners to meet up with. It can be a resourceful tool for the beginning steps of finding genuine human relationships among canine friends.
Have a Seat on a Chat Bench
Ending temporary loneliness may be as simple as having a seat. Local communities around the world are installing Chat Benches in common-use areas like parks to help spur on interactions among strangers.
A police municipality in western England decided to install chat benches in community parks following increased reports of loneliness among the young and the old. The Happy to Chat Benches help facilitate dialogue among strangers without anyone dealing with the awkwardness of conversation first moves.
The police officer who pushed for the installation was pleased with how quickly they made an impact. Sgt. Ashley Jones reflected, “A few days after the [bench] signs went up in local parks, I saw people sitting there actually talking to one other.”
Less than a week after the benches were installed and the police department posted photos on Facebook, Jones started fielding calls from around the world of groups hoping to implement the same kind of program.
Schools are also seeing the value of open solicitation for conversation. School districts around the world are installing Friendship Benches or Buddy Benches to help students recognize loneliness in their classmates and prompt compassionate socialization. Seeing a student sit down on a Friendship Bench helps spark empathy and destigmatize the feelings of loneliness which many may secretly wrestle with.
It seems like the Buddy Benches in schools are making an impact on par with the Chat Benches. In a study of 117 pupils at three schools which have benches, 40% of the kids interviewed said they had used the bench. 90% said if they saw someone sitting on the bench they would go talk with them.
Go on Blind Friend Dates
Many suspect the root of our loneliness problem is how we have evolved our socialization norms. No longer do we exclusively find our friends through navigating our real-life social circles. Instead, we turn to the expanse of the world wide web to discover and grow our social connections.
Some strive for higher Friend/Follower counts as some existential barometer of their social prowess. While the count may be impressive, it ends up being a hollow metric because most of those connections are void of the depth and familiarity that we earnestly crave.
In order to get what we’re all looking for, we must make a sustained effort with repeated and consistent face-to-face contact. The investment of time and effort yields far less quantity but far more quality.
So instead of discounting technology entirely, we can instead leverage its best uses to accelerate these person-to-person interactions with the most compatible people. This model seems to have worked for our dating life and it has plenty of application for our social life as well.
Apps such as Bumble BFF and FriendMatch leverage technology to bring people together socially much like dating sites connect people romantically. The goal for using such services could be to find a travel companion, a workout buddy, a mom friend, or meet new people in a new city.
The value these apps bring is two-fold. One, it starts to normalize a different kind of approach to finding friends. Many of us wish to have more meaningful friends in our lives but are stuck on how to make that happen. These apps open a new world of social possibilities that aren’t just left to chance and our own effort.
And two, these apps eliminate the bravery required to strike up conversations with strangers. We’d all love to meet new people but we’re usually stopped dead in our tracks when we consider the courage we’d need to muster to say, “Hi. My name is Amanda. So nice to meet you!” But hidden in these words (which are rarely spoken anyway) is our longing to telepathically inquire: Would you be open to being my friend?
When using such apps, everyone knows everyone else’s goals and ambitions.
Literally Thinking About Our Loneliness
These suggestions are just a sample of actions one can take to alleviate loneliness in the short term. They serve as fun distractions and temporary remedies. But when the origins and conditions of our loneliness are not honestly examined, loneliness will likely return. It becomes a burdensome weight that just keeps on getting heavier.
To be clear, loneliness is a perspective and a feeling brought about mostly by changeable circumstances. It’s not a permanent fact nor a mental condition. It’s important to recognize that our thinking patterns about our own social situation and sociability have the biggest impact on our feelings of loneliness. They can either draw us in or draw us out of loneliness.
Despite the pain we feel in the midst of it, it can be clarifying and empowering to objectively examine the thought patterns we have about this topic. Image a person is physically alone. They can either feel the sorrow of having no companionship or be thrilled by the lack of distraction. The fact of being alone doesn’t change, it’s just the thoughts attached to it.
I know this example is simplistic and is not intended to discount the depth of anguish loneliness often brings on. But it illustrates that we have power over our thoughts and with a slight pivot of perspective we can either suffer or enjoy the consequences of them.
Recognize Loneliness is in Great Company
The paradox of loneliness is that the efforts to address it would cure the condition. The solution is right next door or sitting beside you on the subway. But the solution also requires an effort and motivation that feels physically impossible especially when the effects of loneliness like depression or anxiety take hold.
But even if we can’t muster up the drive to be social, we can take comfort in knowing we are not alone in this suffering. Statistically, every other person we meet is or has dealt with the same feelings. Acknowledging that many others around us are walking this same path feels strangely comforting. We feel like we’re a part of something. Sick irony.
Take this 10 point questionnaire to determine your level of loneliness.
The only constant is change. In the midst of loneliness, it feels like nothing will ever change. But it will. We must give ourselves grace and patience in this season. Practice compassionate self-care. And tame the demons in our heads.
To help promote and sustain healthy thinking, it may be wise to consider therapy with a licensed professional. He or she can offer tools and encouragement to see a situation in a different way.
Lastly, find inspiration in the creative solutions presented in this post. They may be silly or they may be simplistic but for those that participated, the ideas have been life-changing. At some point, someone thought creatively and others then took action.
Think creatively about how you can curb loneliness in your own life or the lives of others. Remember your attempts to curb your own loneliness also affect the loneliness of others as well. Start small but think broadly and creatively. Opportunities are everywhere if you look for them.
Is it a matter of being brave and starting a conversation with a stranger in line?
Is it about joining a class on a topic you’ve always had an interest in?
How about training your pet to go visit seniors?
What are some other creative solutions that could help reduce loneliness?
Share with us all in the comments below.