Feeling Lonely? Where You Live Matters

How can we create a more social world?

Hey, it's Aniket! 👋 Welcome back to What's On Your Mind?: my bi-weekly newsletter that gives you insights into your mental wellbeing - backed by academic research and domain-expert opinions. This is my third issue in a series focused on social connections 👫

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Human beings are social animals. And it's been that way since our species lived as hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors were born into tribes of 50 to 150 people, and they stayed with them for their whole life. We depended on each other for survival, and we ended up creating tight friendships because we were near each other all the time (also known as propinquity). Even in modern times, propinquity is one of the largest predictors in the formation of friendships. Think about high school with the coloured braces you regret having 😬 - most of your friends were probably classmates because you saw each other nearly every day.

Yet, for all our sociability, we can run into times of loneliness (⬅️ my article on how loneliness works, which you should read first). And it can be hazardous if it's long-term and leads to the chronic loneliness trap. But not all loneliness is created equal. Your tendency to be lonely can be different depending on environmental factors: like the country you live in, the makeup of your local community, and even your type of home.

Country

Different countries record different levels of self-reported loneliness. And there's no single answer, no single variable, as to why loneliness varies so dramatically across the world. Societal factors, such as demographics, socioeconomic prosperity, population health, and culture, can make it challenging to find meaningful connections.

No place illustrates this more than Europe. For the most part, countries in Eastern and Southern Europe are lonelier than countries in Western and Northern Europe. Among older adults, loneliness rates are low in Denmark, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. But loneliness is much higher in Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Poland. In Greece and the Czech Republic, loneliness is significantly attributed to a higher percentage of unmarried men and women. Meanwhile, socioeconomic troubles combined with poor health strongly contribute to loneliness in Italy and Poland. Less lonely countries don't suffer from these problems as much. And contrary to popular belief, countries that are seen as having more individualistic cultures are not lonelier. Remember, enjoying alone time (AKA positive solitude) does not equal loneliness.

Asian countries also have unique societal factors contributing to loneliness. In China, family and collectivism is a fundamental support system for the elderly. And a lack of strong family connections is a common source of loneliness. In Japan, a million young adults completely isolate from society by refusing to work and avoid all forms of physical contact over a long-term (at least six months) - a phenomenon known as hikikomori. Researchers say this is attributed to not only mental disorders, but also cultural issues such as overprotective parents and a sink-or-swim educational system.

Community

You can separate communities into two general categories: urban (cities) and rural (towns and villages). And there is conflicting research on whether urban or rural life is better or worse for someone's tendency to be lonely.

Urban areas seem like social hubs: there are people everywhere, homes are close together, and there are many places to meet people like parks, gyms and bars. But they're also so busy and full of people going about their day-to-day lives. It's easy to feel anonymous and have empty and meaningless interactions ("nice weather today, huh?").

Rural areas look like social deserts: there are fewer people, large swathes of land can separate homes, and there aren't many communal spaces. Yet, they're tight-knit due to social scarcity and inherently focus on the quality of connections rather than quantity. Everyone depends on each other because there aren't a lot of other people to rely on.

There's no clear-cut answer on loneliness and urban vs. rural life. However, when it strictly comes to the design of our cities, decisions in the urban planning process sway the likelihood of residents becoming lonely.

For one, the more dense a city is, the more likely residents will feel lonely. In the UK, a person's self-reported loneliness increases by 2.8% for every additional 1,000 housing units (apartments) within one kilometre of their home. And this likely happens because of a perceived lack of privacy given so many people around us, producing social stress. If you feel like you constantly have an audience watching you, you might feel insecure and think less of yourself. And this hurts your chances of connecting with others. Propinquity is great - but to a limit.

As well, the presence of green spaces can discourage loneliness. Green spaces such as recreational parks, dog parks, and public gardens serve as friendly places for social reconnection. In Australia, adults in neighbourhoods with at least 30% green spaces have a lower chance of becoming lonely than those with less than 10%.

Housing

Even the type of home you live in can affect your potential for feeling lonely. The biggest culprit of lonely buildings are high-rises (apartment buildings over five stories high). In Britain, flat-dwellers report feeling more lonely than house-dwellers. Across the ocean in Vancouver 🇨🇦, 39% of high-rise residents report feeling alone (versus 22% for detached home residents). Similarly, 31% of high-rise residents say they have trouble making friends (versus 22% for detached home residents). High-rise tenants are also less likely to know at least two of their neighbours, engage in fewer chats with them, are less likely to do small favours for them, and are generally less trusting of them.

Most high-rises are not designed to host warm social interactions. When you think of single-family detached homes in the suburbs, you have driveways, front and back lawns, sidewalks, and parks nearby. All these spaces are large, open, and often communal, which invites casual conversation as you head to and from your house. A simple "Hey neighbour!" in our driveway brightens our day because we feel known and acknowledged. Life in a high-rise is different - you take a tiny elevator up to your apartment, get off, and go directly to your home through a narrow hallway. Conversations in the elevator are virtually non-existent because you often don't see familiar faces since density is so high. And hallways are just commuting tunnels - it's no place that makes you think, "this is where I want to spend time with other people and strike up a chat." It's no surprise you end up unknown and just a number - "the person from apartment #713".

Designing a Social World

We're so used to living a particular way of life, and it takes some knowledge-building and mindfulness to realize how lonely it can be. As individuals, we can make specific plans to connect with others (like reaching out to an old friend for a coffee), but policymakers, urban planners, and builders can use thoughtful design to encourage social interaction and improve lives.

Take Seattle architect Grace Kim, who co-founded Schemata Workshop - an architectural practice focusing on social equity. She created Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing, a collaborative housing building where she and her family lives. Every part of the building is designed to facilitate community while balancing privacy found in typical homes. The top four floors of the building have nine apartments with a full kitchen, living room, and 2-3 bedrooms. Every home looks into a shared courtyard where adults and kids play and chat, there's a shared rooftop garden, and people talk to each other on balconies. The building also has a community room with a large kitchen for 30, and residents dine together three times a week and cook for each other in teams. In her TED talk, Grace says that the building's collaborative culture helps people be intentional about relationships. People care for each other: they plan group activities, watch each other's kids and borrow each other's cars. People of all generations, from all different backgrounds, support each other as if they're part of a greater family. While cohousing is a model that may not be liked or suited for everyone, it shows great promise in minimizing chronic loneliness.

Thoughtful anti-loneliness design goes beyond creating a brand new style of apartment buildings. The Loneliness Lab, a British design think tank, believes community-building can be done even with tinier design changes. Creating wider hallway corridors and more open lobbies in apartments with warm lighting and comfortable seating makes mini communal areas - increasing the likelihood of chance conversations. Dedicating traffic-free space and creating more cul-de-sacs encourages play between children and friendliness between parents.

A similar philosophy can apply to the work environment. Places for shared interests such as meditation spaces and gyms help employees bond. On-site childcare humanizes workspaces and makes them more inclusive for parents. More breakout areas designed for relaxation reduce workplace stress and aids in friendship development.

Even public areas can be improved. Having more pedestrianized zones with wide pavements and fewer cars makes people feel safe and creates a third place. Community-generated art puts locals at the forefront of design and fosters welcomeness. And establishing a governance structure to facilitate events and address community needs allows for broader participation. Across all the spaces we spend our time - home, work and public areas - there are always opportunities to prevent loneliness and cultivate camaraderie.