Loneliness is classified as a serious health risk that can nearly double one's chances of premature death. Unfortunately, unlike other health risks such as smoking and lack of exercise, loneliness is not as easily remedied. Two Londoners sick of living in a city of isolation came up with an ingenious solution to the problem of loneliness: simply talk to strangers.
“Talk to me” is the brainchild of founders Polly Akhurst and David Blackwell. Recently Sheffield University in the UK conducted a survey, which revealed that 30 percent of Londoners feel isolated and uninvolved in their community, The Associated Press reported. Akhurst and Blackwell were perplexed that so many Londoners felt lonely living in a city with over eight million potential conversation companions. In an effort to do something, the team devised “Talk to me,” a crowd-funded project that encourages strangers to interact.
One of the campaign’s components involves handing out badges with the message: “Talk to me, I’ll talk to you.” The goal is to invite strangers to start a conversation with the wearer, regardless of the circumstances and society’s rules against interacting with strangers. So far, there have been around 3,500 badges distributed throughout the English capital.The campaign has expanded and now holds weekly "Talk to me" socials throughout the city. Here, shy and potentially lonely Londoners are invited to simply interact with others.
One of the social meeting’s happy participants, Will Laffan, is more than pleased with the campaign’s results. "The atmosphere is just completely different when you talk there. The conversations have broadened my horizons," he told the AP. "I used to have difficulties with communication in general, but it's much easier for me now."
Akhurst and Blackwell explained how they have been contacted by people from all over the world interested in bringing the campaign to their city. Although there are small safety risks associated with talking to complete strangers, overall the potential benefits to both mental and physical health are quite remarkable.
John Cacioppo, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, studied the biological effects of loneliness and found that the emotion can bring about hardening of the arteries, inflammation, problems with learning and memory, and even compromised immune systems. “What we see is a consistent pattern where it looks like human immune cells are programmed with a defensive strategy that gets activated in lonely people,” Steve Cole, a researcher at UCLA who also worked alongside Cacioppo, explained to LiveScience.
Immune systems can only protect our bodies so far and are forced to choose between fighting viral or bacterial threats on a daily basis. Many lonely people view the entire world as a “threat,” and therefore have immune systems that go into overdrive battling every bacterium that enters their body. When the time comes to combat more serious threats, such as viruses and cancer, the immune system is shot. According to Cole, this explains the increased rates of cancer, infection, and heart disease that are associated with socially isolated individuals.