Resilience, Peace and Security

These volunteers are fighting the loneliness epidemic by talking to strangers on the street

A business man rides an escalator in the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai September 21, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song

Loneliness can have a serious impact on your health. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Rosamond Hutt
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Resilience, Peace and Security?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Humanitarian Action is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Humanitarian Action

Loneliness is a sad reality of modern life. Social media connects us to more people than ever, yet many of us feel cut off from others.

In the US, health experts are warning of a “loneliness epidemic” after half of Americans – particularly young adults – admitted to feeling socially isolated.

Research links loneliness to an increased risk of depression, heart disease, dementia and even premature death. One study suggests it can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Alone in a crowd

Ironically, crowded cities can be the hardest places of all to find human connection. The German sociologist Georg Simmel observed this phenomenon more than a century ago, writing: “One nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd”.

While there are plenty of apps to help city dwellers make connections, one organization is trying a more low-tech approach to tackling loneliness: “street listening”.

Trained volunteers from Sidewalk Talk put up signs on the street that say “Free Listening” and offer passersby the chance to share their troubles while they listen empathetically.

Psychotherapist Traci Ruble started the “community listening project” in San Francisco, California in 2015, and it now has 1000 volunteers in 29 US cities and 10 countries.

Ruble believes that we, as a society, desperately need more face-to-face contact, which is why Sidewalk Talk volunteers sit in chairs facing the person they’re listening to.

Loading...

“Loneliness shortens our lifespan ... we are meant to be in contact with each other,” she says in a video about the project.

“People have really gotten caught up in looking at cell phones more than faces, and I want to change that.”

She adds that the volunteers “aren’t out there to fix anything for anyone” – Sidewalk Talk isn’t a professional counseling service – they are simply offering “human connection”.

However, the organization’s leaders in each city work in the field of mental health and, if necessary, can put people in touch with low-cost or free therapy services in their local area.

Volunteers at Sidewalk Talk offer ‘human connection’ through listening. Image: Sidewalk Talk

Gen Z-ers feel loneliest

Recent research is helping to challenge the perception that loneliness mainly affects older people.

Image: Cigna loneliness report

A study by the UK’s Office of National Statistics found that young adults are much more likely to report feeling lonely than those aged 65 and over. And in a US survey by health insurers Cigna, generation Z reported the highest rates of loneliness compared to other age groups.

There’s a growing understanding of loneliness not only as a health issue, but a social problem. And governments are starting to pay attention – in January, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the UK’s first Minister for Loneliness.

Have you read?
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Resilience, Peace and SecurityWellbeing and Mental Health
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Why small island states need scaled finance and amplified action

Jorge Moreira da Silva

May 29, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum