Talk to enough lonely people and you’ll find they have one thing in common: They look at Facebook and Twitter the way a hungry child looks through a window at a family feast and wonders, “Why is everyone having a good time except for me?”
Marci O’Connor, 42, is an anglophone living in the largely French-speaking community of Mont Saint-Hilaire, just south of Montreal, with her husband and two children. She “almost feels guilty” for her feelings of isolation, but years of working alone as a freelance writer have taken their toll, and she’s now applying to be a waitress so she’ll have more human contact.
She has come to believe that there is no substitute for that contact, even if it’s just a smile while delivering a beer. For a while, Ms. O’Connor advised companies on their social-media strategies, but she has become increasingly disenchanted with the online world. “It’s so hollow,” she says. “You might get a lot of likes or retweets, but it’s fragile and meaningless. It’s not like I could call any of these people at 3 a.m. and they’d help me with my flooded basement.”
Ask Vancouverites what bothers them, and you’d think they might say house prices. Drugs on the street. Not being able to get into the hot new sushi joint. But when the Vancouver Foundation asked that question, it received a gobsmacking response.
“The biggest issue people had is that they felt lonely, isolated, and unconnected to their communities,” says Kevin McCort, president of the community-outreach charity. Last year, the foundation conducted a survey of almost 4,000 Vancouverites and found that one-third of those between 25 and 34 felt “alone more than they would like.” Another one-third said they have trouble making friends. Forty per cent of high-rise dwellers felt lonely, almost twice the number (22 per cent) living in detached homes. Crucially, the study found that the loneliest also reported being in poorer health and lacking trust in others.
“Social isolation just may be the greatest environmental hazard of city living,” writes Vancouver-based author Charles Montgomery in his new book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. “Worse than noise, pollution, or even crowding.” And the way we’ve built cities – suburbs with no central meeting place, prioritizing the car and the condo tower, passing restrictive zoning bylaws – has made the problem worse, he says in an interview. “If we’re concerned about happiness, then social disconnection in Canadian cities is an acute problem.”
Mr. Montgomery points to cities that have done things right, from Portland, Ore., turning its intersections into urban piazzas to the community gardens built in disused lofts in Berlin. Research has shown that a varied streetscape will cause people to slow down, and perhaps even exchange a smile or flirtatious glance, and that even a brief exposure to nature – cutting through a park – makes us feel more generous, and more social.
The Vancouver Foundation has another answer: It is giving out grants of $500 to people who will organize a community event that brings strangers together – a knitting circle, an origami workshop, a pumpkin-carving jamboree. Mr. McCort attended one gathering recently, and was struck by an unfamiliar sight: “No one was on their phone, or checking email. There were a hundred people, just talking and making new friends.”
On a personal level, being lonely can seem crippling, and saying “just get out and make friends” is like telling an asthmatic to climb Mount Everest. Prof. Cacioppo notes that lonely people will either withdraw into their shells or attempt to soothe their pain by lashing out. The first step, he says, is to recognize and acknowledge painful feelings, and to try to make small advances each day – by smiling at a neighbour, or performing an unexpected kindness for a stranger.
David Sutcliffe says he forces himself to keep a busy social schedule, or he would never leave the house. Group therapy has been a huge help. He also is evangelical about sharing his story, to combat what he calls “society’s tranquillity mask” – our tendecy to pretend that everything is swell, even when it isn’t. He knows he speaks for those who can’t or won’t.
“There are a lot of people walking around who feel that they don’t fit in, they don’t belong. That sense of disconnection is really common. But when you realize that you’re like everyone else, not only in your dreams and passions but also in your pain and sadness, there’s incredible comfort in that.”