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Loneliness Goes Viral


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It feels strange and a little silly to think that in today’s society - where we are constantly surrounded, both on and offline - we could be lonely. Yet, the aftereffects are visible to anyone who looks. Stress, depression and anxiety are rising and consumers are turning to trends with a built-in social circle: wellness, spiritualism and board games– anything to facilitate social interactions. We want more than social media originally offered. Because, when you think about it, how can likes and comments on social media add up to a functioning support system?

We are programmed on a genetic level to seek out human interaction. Evolving as pack predators we are vulnerable alone, and so surround ourselves with a herd or ‘tribe’ as a survival instinct. We actually feel physical pain when we see ourselves failing at it. Thanks to our prehistoric ancestors, (the early men who found safety in numbers), social rejection stimulates the same areas of the brain as physical pain, successfully treated with painkillers. Loneliness is even a health risk, more so than smoking and obesity. We have an inbuilt pack mentality, without a pack and this hurts us on a cellular level. Loneliness changes the structure of white blood cells, making us more susceptible to illness, inflammation, and high blood pressure.

The recent loneliness epidemic seems to be generation-specific. It mostly affects 18-34 year olds, according to the Mental Health Foundation- even more so than the elderly (Cigna, 2018). Younger generations seem to be getting worse at talking to people: a recent survey found 65 per cent of millennials feel insecure during face-to-face interactions, with 30 per cent cancelling or avoiding social events, afraid they will be socially awkward. Millennials who spent their teenage years fielding three-way calls will now panic when their phones ring – according to 02, the phone function is now only the fifth most used app on a smartphone, after browsing the internet and playing games.

It’s not surprising this epidemic has mainly hit younger generations when you consider the part technology – especially smartphones – has to play. In some cases technology can give you more: Skype and FaceTime allow for ‘technopresent’ family members, and online communication can create and foster real and meaningful relationships - we all know someone who met their now-husband through an app. But advances that once sought to mediate communication can only do so at a reduced quality, and although we are constantly connected, we are rarely truly intimate with one another.

Using social media in place of deeper interaction can also risk you letting friendships fall by the wayside. With apps like Instagram and Facebook, you can feel part of someone’s life, when in fact you’re no more than a spectator, watching a carefully curated collection of their best moments. Relationships can easily and quickly be reduced to an exchange of likes and comments, without anything truly meaningful.

While the majority of Facebook users have hundreds of friends, we rarely speak to them, and only see 4.1 of them as ‘dependable’ in a crisis. The brand has acknowledged this risk, and tries to step in to suggest you message someone you haven’t spoken to for a while. In their Messenger service, Facebook now use bots to suggest times and dates to facilitate meeting up in person, and can highlight areas that you and your friends have in common.

On top of that, loneliness is contagious. People are 52 per cent more likely to feel lonely if they’re directly connected to other lonely people. This is because lonely people fail to notice positive social stimuli from others, so tend to withdraw prematurely, cutting off potential connections. This not only serves to isolate themselves, but also the people around them. According to Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a single lonely person can “destabilize an entire social network”, as each person affected begins to ‘transmit’ loneliness. The Internet, to which we turn to alleviate our loneliness, can therefore intensify and spread feelings of isolation, meaning that loneliness has gone – in every sense of the word – viral.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. We are working out ways to approach one another again: book clubs are on the rise, as are supper clubs and board game nights – events all carrying the promise of phone-less connections. Brands are taking advantage of this trend, and those who succeed are successfully navigating the shift from corporation to community, and helping consumers to find or create a tribe of their own.

  • Bringing together their consumers, beer brand Brewdog noticed a crossover in interests between beer and cycle enthusiasts. Armed with this knowledge, they teamed up with Strava, to create their social club ‘Chain Gang’.

  • With the success of dating apps, developers have now turned to friendship, with the creation of Hey! VINA – ‘the Tinder for (girl)friends’ - , and Solo Girl Squad: whether you’ve moved to a different city for work, or just find it hard to connect, Solo Girl Squad has your back with their supper clubs and ‘friend-dating’, while Huggle casts a wider net, bringing together people who frequent the same places.

  • Since dating has become gamified, playing into – and sometimes enhancing – our reduced ability to interact, Crushh aims to help those who find it hard to connect, giving a text analysing service, to asses hidden meanings in messages, and gage how people feel towards each other. Their website also features texting tips, and helps to enable courtship to pass into the digital age.

  • Wellness brands offer opportunities to meet up and build communities. Whether through Nike’s Run Club, or Rabble’s playground-inspired HIIT workouts that often include pub visits in their cool-downs, fitness is providing many consumers with a tribe.

  • The opportunity to connect stands, not just for brands and consumers, but their employees too. Nando’s is a fantastic example of brands who do this well: living up to their tenet of ‘above all, family’, they invites employees and their families to dine at the restaurant chain on Sundays and holidays, to meet the families of other Nando’s employees, and create one big community.

Piece by piece we are re-learning how to connect with each other. And in the meantime, if Facebook suggests you message a friend, why not? They could need it as much as you do.

#mentalhealth #worldmentalhealthday #loneliness

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