Is friendly public transport the answer to the loneliness epidemic?

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(Victor Rodriguez, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content


When was the last time you spoke to a stranger on the bus?

Research suggests that efforts to tackle social isolation should start with public transport. Talking to people in the next seat can not only make you feel better, but it actually improves your health and well-being.

In the UK, the BBC ran a day-long experiment on 14 June – Crossing Divides On The Move – to get people chatting on buses and trains, with the support of transport companies.

Trains had designated “chat carriages” set aside for those who wanted to talk to their fellow travellers. A bus company handed out “conversation starter” cards, encouraging passengers to “share a smile”.

One bus operator went as far as to hire actors and poets to facilitate on-board conversations. And even the notoriously reserved passengers on the London Underground were encouraged to speak to one another.

Is tech to blame?

Some people blame technology for increased social isolation. An international study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of people in the US and half of the UK population thought increased use of technology was a major reason why people have become more lonely.

But the study also showed that social media was not more likely to be used by those who felt socially isolated.

In cities the world over, commuters tend to avoid eye contact with their neighbours, preferring to bury themselves in reading, texting or listening to headphones.

“Humans are among the most social species on the planet. Nevertheless, from trains to airplanes, strangers may sit millimeters apart while completely ignoring each other, treating one another as objects rather than as sources of well-being,” according to Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, behavioural scientists at the University of Chicago.

A study published in the British Medical Journal found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by roughly a third. Loneliness is also linked to stress, depression and suicide.

One in 10 Europeans are so isolated they never meet friends or family, which has coincided with a rise in single-person households. And more than a third of people experiencing loneliness in Japan say they have been isolated for more than a decade.

Image: Kaiser Family Foundation

Talking – towards a new normal?

Some people’s preference for solitude is even more baffling in light of analysis that shows people tend to like you more if you speak with them. “Having conversations with new people is an important and rewarding part of social life,” according to Dr. Gillian Sandstrom of Essex University, who has researched the impact of chatting on public transport.

“We found that people systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company, an illusion we call the liking gap. Our studies suggest that after people have conversations, they are liked more than they know.”

Emily Kasriel, Head of Editorial Partnerships and Special Projects at the BBC says the Crossing Divides campaign is part of the Corporation’s mission to promote social inclusion. She says she hopes talking to strangers will one day become “business as usual” for UK commuters.

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