Hello word: Battling loneliness in a new decade

January 21, 2020

By Geoff Frost, UBC Physiatry Resident

Christmas is my favourite holiday by far. I have so many positive memories; time spent with family, playing with a new toy as a small child, excellent food. The positive memories are so vast it is difficult to enumerate them all. As every adult knows, holidays can be a bit of a drag. There are all the gifts to buy, the travel to arrange, the various social obligations to juggle. But nonetheless, I still absolutely love Christmas. There really isn’t anything like time spent around the fire with my parents, brother, and sister. While basking in that warm glow of family love, I experience an emotion that is perhaps rare to those that have grown up in the age of the smart phone. I feel a deep sense of belonging, with a warm sense of contentedness as a result. And while I deeply love this sensation, I cannot help but notice how rare it is in my life. Perhaps the rarity is of my own design, perhaps I don’t have as big or as deep of a social circle as I would like to believe. Perhaps I am not as open with others as I should be. Maybe there is a part of me that I have failed to cultivate that would open up more experiences like this. 

Given my love of Christmas, I’m perpetually shocked at how many people find it to be an excruciating holiday. Christmas, paradoxically, can remind us of all the personal connections that are missing in our own lives. The family that we don’t have that didn’t invite us over for dinner. The friends we don’t have that forgot to send a card. The New Years Party we somehow did not get invited to. And seen from this perspective, I understand the hatred. Being constantly reminded of the social connections I don’t have would feel like a sharp knife pushed into the abdomen slowly.

While it may be tempting to dismiss a sensation of missed social connections as pithy or needy, research seems to suggest otherwise. Landmark studies in developed economies all seem to confirm the same grim truth. Loneliness is a spreading plague. In Canada, 1 in 5 Canadians identify as lonely. In the US, the numbers are even more deflating, with potentially 1 in 2 Americans describing themselves as lonely in a recent Cigna study. Loneliness has a real impact on health. There is an irrefutable association between loneliness and depression, anxiety, and irritability. Other studies show that loneliness intrudes upon the physical realm as well, with higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Some researchers in the field have likened the effect of loneliness to that of smoking 15 cigarettes – three quarters of a pack – once per day. This is no whiny complaint of the smartphone obsessed millennial.   

There are undoubtedly many factors at play: rapid urbanization and the increasing intrusion of technology into our daily lives are certainly two of the key players. Whatever factor you want to blame, what is without doubt is that the way we live our lives has changed rapidly in the past thirty years. So rapidly that perhaps some of our most basic needs and wants have been discarded in a rush to progress.

Whenever I get stuck on a big problem that I cannot quite figure out, I like to reframe the problem through a small story or short example that I can easily digest. So as a I sit here waiting for my flight home to Vancouver at the end of my holidays, I cannot help but turn my mental cogs. My flight has been delayed by two hours, and I am surrounded by other weary travellers who just want to get home after a long holiday away. A two-hour delay creates a unique situation. There are literally hundreds of people sitting in a small area waiting for the same thing, yet there is minimal social interaction. The departure hall at the airport is probably quieter than my high school’s library was on any given Tuesday. And I fully admit to 2_0.pngbeing part of the problem. I have chosen a seat at the end of an aisle, subconsciously minimizing the number of people that might sit next to me. I’ve created a real barrier to interaction by spreading out my coat over the one seat beside me, discouraging others from sitting next to me. I’ve all but shut out conversation by typing away on my laptop while listening to music. Ironically, I’ve chosen to spend the next two hours writing about the scourge of loneliness while doing everything I can to ensure that I avoid a social interaction. And I am by no means the exception, rather, I am the average. A quick glance around the departure hall reveals a family chatting and a couple murmuring to each other, but that’s it. There are easily forty other people within my immediate field of vision that have shut themselves out from the world and are making no attempt at engaging in a social interaction.

Why do we do this? Why do I this? Every day at work I interact with strangers. At work I happen to label them patients, but in the end, they are strangers. And I like it. One of the reasons I became a physician was to end up in a job with daily social interactions. I am writing a blog about the need to overcome loneliness, but the thought of putting away my headphones and striking up a conversation with a fellow passenger appalls me. I am convinced that were I to even try and start a conversation, I would be considered rude or in some way socially incompetent. The more I think about it, I realize that these days I always laugh to myself when a plot point in a movie hinges on a random encounter – two strangers at a bus stop striking up a conversation. To me, the idea of this actually occurring is as absurd as seeing Ironman fly or Poe Dameron take down a Star Destroyer single-handedly. It’s just not realistic.

When I compare myself to my Irish mother the contrast is even more stark. Her cultural norms are so frankly alien to me that were she not my mother I would be surprised by her usually behaviour. She rarely leaves the house without chatting to a stranger. She has an innate ability to start a conversation with anyone, in any situation. And just sort of does it. Almost like breathing. Her family refers to this predilection as the Gift of the Gab. The ability to start a meaningful conversation with anyone that all peoples of the Emerald Isle grow up with. Something I couldn’t possibly understand due to the 1_1.pngunfortunate geography of my birth. I used to laugh at this cultural anachronism. As a teenager, I found it embarrassing. But as I sit here silently surrounded by possible conversation partners I cannot help but reflect on where I find myself. I am bound by cultural norms that imply striking up a conversation with a stranger is an act of bravery. Within my own close family circle, I have a clear example of how absurd this norm is.

Despite all my wise self-reflection, the plague of loneliness spreads. While the advent of smartphones and anonymous cities has certainly forced this, we are not passive vessels. We all have the chance to stare loneliness in the face and retort in the most human way possible: I reckon a simple “hello world” would suffice.


Geoff Frost.jpegGeoff is a fourth-year Physiatry resident at UBC. He currently serves as the Director of Communications at the Resident Doctors of BC and is the host of the Pulse Podcast. Geoff is a professional engineer in Ontario, and prior to entering medicine, he worked as a biomedical engineering entrepreneur.