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Episode 8: A Lonely Planet
Episode 831st March 2021 • Is Anybody Out There? • the Connectery
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In 2018, the UK was the first country to appoint a Minister of Loneliness, making the issue a parliamentary priority. Japan followed suit in February, while Sweden and Australia are actively campaigning to appoint a dedicated loneliness official in their respective countries.

With such a top-down commitment to tackling the loneliness crisis, change makers in these countries have the necessary support to implement successful strategies to help fight loneliness at official and community levels. Some of these initiatives are highlighted in this episode.

Here in the United States, three in five Americans reported feeling lonely or isolated (pre-Covid) with the issue costing Medicare over $6 billion a year. So, why do we not have an official tasked with addressing this problem? Isn't loneliness a significant enough issue that the US government should intervene? And why are this country's loneliness resources mostly aimed at seniors, when younger generations are lonelier than ever? By engaging in this frank and honest analysis of the situation here in America and worldwide, hosts Judy and Jeremy hope it will lead to more powerful narratives of togetherness in the future.

Links

Loneliness among millennials and gen Z'ers 

New mothers and loneliness

The Campaign to End Loneliness

The Can't Sing Choir

The Choir With No Name

Minister of Loneliness UK

The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness

Jo Cox speech to Parliament

Minister of Loneliness, Japan

Robots to help with loneliness

Single person households, worldwide

The Swedish Theory of Love

Erik Gandini

Zygmunt Bauman

Colive, Sweden

No Isolation

The Loneliness Project

Australia campaigns for Minister of Loneliness 

Transcripts

[MUSIC]

Judy D'Mello:

Hello, and welcome back to "Is Anybody Out There?" A podcast series about loneliness brought to you by the Connectery. I'm Judy D'Mello.

Su Moore:

And I'm Jeremy Warshaw.

Jeremy:

Today's episode is called "A Lonely Planet," because loneliness is not simply an American issue. Certainly in these days of social distancing and lockdowns, many more people all over the world are suffering from loneliness and isolation. But I'll say this again, loneliness has been around long before COVID and will continue to be around long after we've all been vaccinated.

Judy:

When we started digging around, trying to get a bird's eye view of loneliness around the world, what became clear is that many countries have started initiatives to help curb loneliness. But sadly, the US is woefully behind in this department.

Jeremy:

Mostly in America, resources and programs are geared towards seniors. And that's great but it's not only seniors who suffer from loneliness. What about millennials and Gen Z'ers as we reported in an earlier episode? And how about marginalized members of our society, like immigrants and LGBTQ folks. Even new mothers reported a spike in feeling alone and isolated following childbirth.

Judy:

So we figured that maybe, just maybe, by highlighting some of the efforts from around the world, we could actually light a fire under some butts in this country.

Jeremy:

Well, let's start with shining the spotlight on the UK. Because I do believe that's where most progress has been made as far as raising awareness, de-stigmatizing loneliness, and just giving some oxygen to this necessary conversation.

Judy:

Why do you think that is?

Jeremy:

Well, actually, I'll share a short clip from an interview I did with Paul Cann, who was a founding member of the Campaign to End Loneliness, an organization that's really at the forefront of the loneliness movement in the UK. I asked Paul that very question. What's your explanation for why you guys took it seriously? What was going on do you think?

[MUSIC]

Paul Cann:

Well, I think it is certainly true that the UK has a strong civil society, in terms of, we have a very strong tradition of charities, operating to campaign to advocate to draw attention to disadvantage. This is not an issue that you can deal with, as a one off, it's not an issue that's going to go away. Loneliness is universal. It affects people at all ages and stages. And so that gave us a commitment and a stability, which made us able to take the message out and work on it with government and with the media, and with the whole of society.

Jeremy:

What are the themes and the approaches that you think are worth telling us about

that do make a difference have made a difference? And why?

Paul Cann:

Well, I think some common themes are coming out of all the research has been done. And there has been a lot of activity and research, a lot of funding, actually by our own National Lottery, which has put a lot of money into supporting something it calls Aging Better. And it all points towards finding social interventions. First of all, social interventions that work in tune with your own motivation. You know, we are all different and unique and wonderful, and different things will fire us up. So initiatives which play to those particular interests, and I wanted to give a couple of examples that also bring people together in groups work. These are themes that seem to be particularly powerful. In all the loneliness initiatives we've studied, and we've looked at hundreds, there are some things which perhaps, do not kind of empower, and do not help people to move forward in their feelings and in their emotional state. And sometimes you can do the wrong thing from good intentions. But the kinds of things that I would like to illustrate, Jeremy, include the role of creative arts. And creative arts is a funny phrase, but I'm talking about singing, dancing, doing anything which you really enjoy, which is creative expression, which is self expression. So there are lots of examples and I'm a singer. So I'm particularly keen on choirs that come together because they come together to make music and make beautiful things, hopefully, but they also come together. Because they can act socially, which is why it's been such a terrible time. So I have absolutely loved the explosion of choirs over the last few years. And this is across the world. But you're in the UK, we have the wonderful, I called the Can't Sing Choir, or the Choir With No Name. And the evidence seems to suggest, the research, that there is an icebreaker effect, that engaging in creative arts, like going to a dance class or going to a pottery class or whatever, these are all good things to do. But the singing thing gets you there quicker, breaks the ice quicker, which I think is very interesting. But I mean, it doesn't have to be creative arts. It's things which give you joy and give you connection at the same time.

[MUSIC]

Judy:

Yes, I think awareness and social consciousness around loneliness has been going on for a while in the UK. So it does feel like they're leading the rest of the world, which is great. And as we know, England was the first country to appoint a Minister of Loneliness in 2018. This appointment made it a parliamentary priority to reduce loneliness. And actually, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was instrumental in pushing for this historical appointment.

Jeremy:

And that's why I was so lucky to speak with Su Moore, the organization's current CEO. Here's some of our conversation.

[MUSIC]

Jeremy:

Welcome Su. Thank you for joining the Connectery.

Su Moore:

Thank you very much for having me.

Jeremy:

So, to the extent that you're able, can you set the scene in the UK of just a few years ago? How was loneliness talked about? And was the government at all involved in acknowledging this problem?

Su Moore:

Well, I think we certainly saw a sort of sea change in the loneliness landscape in the UK in 2016. So before she died, Jo, who was really passionate about loneliness, because of her own personal experiences of loneliness, she set up a cross party commission to really, as she said, turbocharge our understanding of loneliness, and the policy responses to that. And after her death, that was taken up in her name, and became the Jo Cox Commission for Loneliness. So they spent a year thinking about what could be done talking to businesses, to charities to everyone on the ground, who was actually working in the loneliness space, and came up with a series of recommendations. So we had the first ever Minister for Loneliness in Tracy Crouch, who was appointed in 2018. They also made funding available, which is obviously crucial, because you can't do very much without funding. And they also thought about how you can measure loneliness and embed those measurements across policymaking.

Jeremy:

What do you think the role of the cabinet minister of loneliness is? What are their responsibilities?

Su Moore:

She's really there to make sure that loneliness is continued to be prioritized as an issue, that when new policies are being considered, no matter where that is in government, that loneliness is embedded in that. So that can be transport policy, that can be policy about the built environment. So it's not just that loneliness has to sort of sit siloed in one part of government, that it should be something that's at the heart of all of the decision making this happening.

Jeremy:

How would you assess the UK his progress on tackling loneliness, pre Joe Cox to now? Where do you think the progress has been?

Su Moore:

I think the progress has really been in having that conversation, in keeping banging the drum about loneliness in making sure that it's present in our policymaking and present in our campaigns.

Jeremy:

Can you just start by describing what your foundation's mission and kind of overall goal is when it comes to addressing the very complicated issue of just loneliness?

Su Moore:

So the Jo Cox foundation exists to build a positive legacy for Jo Cox. And what we do is we work to bring people together, to bridge divides, and to build stronger communities. So our loneliness work really centers around our campaigns that we do. Our flagship campaign is called the Great Get Together. So that's an event that we hold in June, where we encourage communities to come together, based around the more uncommon message that Jo Cox had. So Jo, in her first speech in Parliament said, we have more in common than that which divides us. But what we understand is that by bringing people together, and by building those connections in communities, it can really help people address issues of loneliness, and prevent people becoming lonely in the first place.

Jeremy:

So it's not just how do we make Sheila feel better about herself? It's how do we as society bring communities together? Is that right?

Su Moore:

Yeah, absolutely. It's about giving communities the opportunities to do simple things like get to know their neighbors. So actually, if Sheila knows the people who live either side of her and even if they just say hello to her when she's taking the bins out, or going towards her car, it makes a real difference. That social connectedness we feel is at the heart of addressing issues of loneliness.

Jeremy:

And by the way a bin is a trash can for the wonderful American audience, you know. But bin it is for this for this podcast episode. Get us excited about some of the things you've pulled off that really are quite amazing, now that you look back on it.

Su Moore:

I think we've got to reflect on our Great Winter Get Together campaign that we just ran. So we ran a campaign over five weeks. And what we said to people is that we wanted to face loneliness together one connection at a time. So what we did for each week is that we gave people something really simple that they could do, bearing in mind that most of the UK was in a hard lockdown at that point. So we had a week called Reach where we suggested that people just reach out to somebody that they'd lost touch with, whether that's an old friend or your aunt, who you haven't spoken to for a year, for whatever reason. We had another week, which was called Thank, and it was as simple as just say thank you to somebody who's helped you through this really difficult year. So they were really simple things. And it just seemed to strike a chord with people around the UK. So our polling data suggests that we had 3.5 million people who engaged with that campaign. And the data that came back from them is that over 80% said that by taking part they understood loneliness much better. And about 90% said that it made them feel that they could talk about loneliness more easily. And I think that's a really important thing, it comes back to that stigma. You know, if you can tell somebody that you're feeling lonely, or even if you can understand yourself that the feelings that you're experiencing loneliness, it makes it much easier to address that and to find a solution and to move forward.

[MUSIC]

Jeremy:

Interestingly, just last month, Japan followed Britain's lead, and appointed the world's second Minister of Loneliness. Officials there have said they believe they're in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. And that was even before COVID.

Judy:

And they have come up with a few cute and clever robotic inventions aimed at offering companionship to those suffering from isolation, especially people living on their own and working from home. But definitely one of my favorites is a very quirky, disembodied robot hand called, "Osampo Kanojo," which actually translates to, "My girlfriend in walk." So strange. But this thing is covered in a real skin like gel that radiates warmth, it can squeeze back on command, and its designers are hoping to make future models even smell, sound and sweat like a human partner. Look, robots and AI companions aren't a substitute for real human connection but at least it's something because this is a country that is facing a rise in people who live alone, largely because of declining marriage rates. and Japan has more seniors who are widows or widowers than anywhere else in the world.

Jeremy:

Well, the point is, at least they're trying to address the issue. In America, we too have a large percentage of single person households -- 31% in 2019 -- and we haven't seen anything like these initiatives that Japan has introduced.

Judy:

Well, speaking of single person households, I came across a really good documentary film called "The Swedish Theory of Love." It came out in 2018. And it examines why Sweden has not only the largest number of single person households in the world --around 50% -- but also where a staggering 40% of the population reports loneliness. And it's such a stark reality because this is a country that designed a super strong welfare system so that nobody ever needs to depend on their family for financial support. But this independence, this freedom from dependence on others, actually created a huge problem in Sweden. I managed to track down Erik Gandini, the director of the film, and we chatted about this.

[MUSIC]

Erik Gandini:

What intrigued me was this very strong idea in Scandinavia that you should be an independent, autonomous person. And just for you to understand, I am originally from Italy. My mom is Swedish. My father is Italian. So I come from different parts of Europe with certainly different cultures, also when it comes to family, social life and so on. And and since I moved to Sweden, you know, when I was a young adult, I was always struck by how important it is in Sweden to be self sufficient, you know, never to depend on anybody else. And Sweden since the 70s. embarked on a huge project of, you could call, modernity. There were these very strong ideas about moving forward. You know, so for example, children should never be depending on the parents. As a matter of fact, the average age for Swedish kids to move from home is 18, while in the rest of Europe is like 26, 27. The same thing was applied to elderly people -- that no retired person should ever be depending on their children or live together with the children. And so the project was -- and it almost paradoxical -- let's together help each other to be free from each other.

Judy:

That sounded great on paper, that we should all be independent and self sufficient. But really, as a collective society sounded grim.

Erik Gandini:

I must say that I mean, the ideas per se were very progressive. And they are I mean, I think that the basic idea was to make relationships a choice. So as a woman, you shouldn't be forced to live with a man out of economical independence, it should be your choice to do so.

Judy:

There's a old Swedish saying that I came across, which I'm going to butcher it in Swedish, but it's something like, "Ensam är stark." What does that mean?

Erik Gandini:

It means lonely is strong.

Judy:

Right? So where does that come from?

Erik Gandini:

So Ensam är stark -- lonely is strong -- is basically the idea that the mess of having to deal with other people, of compromising others, negotiating, is just not worth it sometimes. By yourself, you're strong, and I don't know any other languages, that has this idea. And sometimes I got the feeling that this is almost like a bizarre training, you know, like you're forcing yourself to be good at being alone. And there's something just silly in that. That, as an artist, a filmmaker, I just wanted to see how wrong it can be. There's a woman in the film, for example, who works with this institution that I told you, that deals with dead people. She's a Polish woman, who has a hard time explaining her job to her family back in Poland, because they don't understand what people living and dying by themselves -- it doesn't make any sense, it's almost like a scary idea. Anyway, she, she says at a certain point, in Sweden, if you feel sick, or if you are weak, if you're depressed, if you have problems, you cannot really cry in someone's arms. You can fill out a form.

Judy:

I loved the words at the end of your film by the Polish British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who died a couple of years after you've made your film, right? And he said that the result of independence is unimaginable and utter boredom. And he believed that happiness is not achieved by distancing yourself from those who are different or difficult to be with, but to learn to live together with people who are different. And what I loved is that he said, independence is the beginning of the end of interdependence. And once that happens, we're left with the loss of meaningfulness and in the end, utter boredom.

Erik Gandini:

What I found really striking...this is a very wise man, who wrote a lot and studied a lot about the idea of the modern human being the modern society, modernity. And what he pinpoints I think, is a very simple idea that you become good at things you do a lot. And in a similar way, if you don't do things, if you don't train yourself, in other things, you become less good at that. And what I mean by that is like, spending time with people socializing, living with people, people who are not exactly like you, people have different opinions, different ideas, it's an everyday training that we're losing, because of the opportunities we have living by ourselves and socializing through social networks, which are risk free, as he said. So, we're losing the everyday muscle, you could call it, of a socially interacting life. Interdependence, he meant, is also the recognition that you're not a super human, super strong person who never needs anybody else. That's almost a narcissistic, I would say Trump-ish attitude that you're never wrong, you never need anybody else, you're super human.

[MUSIC]

Jeremy:

What's going on in Sweden as a result of this phenomenon?

Judy:

Well, one of the biggest ventures is Colive. Basically, these are co living hubs that have popped up all over Sweden. These are affordable shared living spaces for young people. So you have a private bedroom, but all the common spaces are shared. And it has been a very successful initiative and a necessary one in dealing with huge numbers of young adults aged 16 to 24 who are treated for psychiatric illness in Sweden.

Jeremy:

I'm guessing the long dark winters don't help?

Judy:

No. Which is why having some company under your roof, to talk to. have dinner with etc., has its advantages. And I just want to add that a startup called No Isolation has been campaigning for the government to also appoint a loneliness minister.

Jeremy:

That's interesting...All right, so where are we off to next?

Judy:

Oh, we go 10,000 miles from New York to Brisbane, Australia. And maybe that's why the audio quality was a bit of a challenge. But speaking with Carla Gerbo, the co-founder of the Loneliness Project, certainly was great.

[MUSIC]

Carla Gerbo:

So the Loneliness Project started back in 2019. And at that stage, some research had come out from one of the universities in Australia, looking at loneliness. And it concluded that back in 2018, one in four adult Australians were experiencing loneliness. And this statistic really stuck with me, because there have been a few times in my life, where I had experienced loneliness. But a lot of the research seemed to be pointing to older Australians, or young Australians. And I wasn't in any of those groups. And a lot of my colleagues, a lot of my friends who are in the same boat as me, we're in our 40s, and 50s, but we were experiencing social isolation and loneliness. And we didn't know we could talk about it, we were embarrassed by it. And it was impacting on our lives, on our health, on our finances. And there was a lot of stigma associated with that. So it wasn't until I read this report that I thought it's actually okay to talk about this. And we need to talk about this. So I gathered a few friends together, female friends, who I knew had gone through some transitions in their own lives. And we have never used those types of words before loneliness, social isolation. So we started brainstorming and saying, well, what can we do here in Brisbane, and Australia? And for us, what we wanted was very much to have a community . So, this is why we started the Loneliness Project. We wanted to talk about the stigma that is loneliness. We wanted to talk about the research that's out there. And we want to look at opportunities to bring communities together to find solutions.

Judy:

Since you started the Loneliness Project, has there been more traction? Has there been more awareness of it? Has anyone stepped up to the plate?

Carla Gerbo:

Yes, there has been all of those things. There's much more recognition that in the mainline, the mainstream media are talking more about loneliness. There's still so much stigma associated with it, though. And more recently, after a couple of months ago, when the Japanese government announced that they will create a Minister for Loneliness, there has been more discussion in Australia on potentially having a Minister for Loneliness here. A minister that would talk about the things that we've just been talking about right now, talking about not having the stigma associated with it, about being able to bring people together to ensure that there's not the social isolation and loneliness. And we would like to see it very much at the community level. People need to almost learn how to socialize again. We used to walk down the street and say hi, and so on. We were involved in institutions, the church or whatever, and we just don't have a lot of that any longer. So we would very much like to see a lot of campaigns at a very local level. And just simple things like a program called 10 Hellos. During your day, say hello to 8, 10, 12, or however many people. Just say, hi, as you're walking past, or at the supermarket, at your barista. If you see someone in a beautiful top, just say, "Hey, that's a beautiful top. You look great in that!" And just start those micro conversations. And we've lost that art of doing that.

Judy:

So, the project -- is it called 10 Hellos?

Carla Gerbo:

Yes, that's going to be our project. So we've just started talking to an artist and we're looking at a campaign of art around 10 hellos, as well as encouraging people to join when they're out and about. Something so simple.

Judy:

Yeah, I think that's just a wonderful idea. And it's so easy to implement and to promote.

Carla Gerbo:

But we really believe in the topic. We believe as well, that a lot of the group's...I'm sorry, I'm not being critical. There's a role for everyone. But groups seem to very much focus on telling government what the problem is, or telling researchers what the problem is. There's not a lot of groups actually talking to people who are lonely. And this is what you're doing with your beautiful podcast, beautiful case studies of people, that I just absolutely love each and every episode that comes out. So I very much want to be a triangle. If you want to talk to government, talk to researchers, make sure we've go the right information. But really have projects that are people oriented.

[MUSIC]

Jeremy:

I love the 10 Hellos project. Such a wonderfully simple way to get people to connect.

Judy:

You know, it's actually interesting that we've been banging on quite a bit during this podcast, about reaching policymakers and trying to institute almost a societal shift. But our guest today really underscored the importance of community involvement, making real changes at a level where ordinary people can actually benefit from these efforts.

Jeremy:

But it's going to be interesting to see as we come out of this pandemic, if America will finally recognize the importance of connection, and more than just recognize it, actually address it by building policy around it. I mean, why don't we have a Minister of Loneliness in this country? Seriously, what has this year been for if not to appreciate and value how incredibly important connection is to the individual and to this country?

[MUSIC]

Judy:

We hope you'll join us next week for our episode about urban loneliness. I'll speak with three young professionals who are confronting this issue by helping to design cities that focus on improving social life, community and well being.

Jeremy:

Is Anybody Out There? was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.

Judy:

This episode was produced and edited by Christian Sawyer. Music by Seaplane Armada.

Jeremy:

If you're enjoying this podcast, and we hope you are, please rate us on Apple Podcasts.

Judy:

And do subscribe wherever you download your podcasts.

Jeremy:

For more information about what you heard today, please visit theconnectory.com. Let's stay connected.