A CONVERSATION WITH MAGGIE HAMILTON
IF YOU TAKE THE TIME to observe, you can’t help but notice all the heads bowed over devices and screens – on public transit … in waiting rooms … along school hallways …
in restaurants … and in homes everywhere. It’s easy to see that we’re becoming more reclusive and isolated as individuals.
But what does that mean for us as a society?
Maggie Hamilton is one of those keen observers. She’s an author and social researcher, with a passion for finding out where our world’s heading – and why. Her latest book,
‘When We Become Strangers’, asks two questions: How does loneliness leaks into our lives? And what can we do about it?
So we sat down for a chat with Maggie to find out …
GRAPEVINE: What led you to write When We Become Strangers?
MAGGIE HAMILTON: We have a real problem of growing estrangement in today’s world – a ‘creeping isolation’ from each other. I wanted to examine this and discover how we can best tackle our epidemic of loneliness.
We tend to think loneliness is kind of a failing – as if you’re either popular or you’re not – and if not, it’s because you’ve got some terrible flaw. But after all the research I’ve done, I see loneliness simply as a series of bad habits we’ve fallen into.
I’m trying to encourage people to become aware of those bad habits so that we can turn things around and connect more profoundly with one another. I’m trying very hard to not make people feel guilty. And I’d prefer to help them discover these things for themselves, rather than having me preach at them.
GV: But where do you start with topics like isolation and loneliness?
MAGGIE: Loneliness – or these ‘bad habits’ – are present in almost every aspect of our lives, so I’ve tried use a series of snapshots to create a panoramic view of where we’re at. We look at personal relationships … online dating … viewing habits … parenthood and childhood … how we over-curate our lives through social media … and work cultures and spaces.
My hope is that readers will discover lots of lovely insights along the way – and. of course, a vision of where we could move to from here.
GV: When Covid arrived, people withdrew from normal social interaction. How has this impacted our wellbeing and our sense of loneliness – even now, when much of the world has opened back up?
MAGGIE: Particularly more recently with Omicron, I’ve noticed that people haven’t bounced back as quickly.
Our habits of isolation have become more embedded: eating alone … bingeing on Netflix … not connecting with people. I feel that we all need to look beyond ourselves and reach out more.
Even though you might be feeling low, do something small to make a difference. If you’re shopping for groceries, for example, pick up a few things for your elderly neighbour. Being thankful and recognising the many people who contribute to the good things we enjoy in life – this helps shift the dynamic to one of gratitude, rather than ‘poor me’.
In Western countries like New Zealand, we’re very good at ‘poor me’ – even though we have the most of anyone on the planet!
GV: What are other ways you’ve noticed in which we’ve become more estranged?
MAGGIE: We’re increasingly losing our ability to converse. Even something as natural as flirting is becoming difficult for lots of young people. We’re tending to live in our own bubbles – and this started happening way before Covid. We’re connecting less with others … we’re living and eating alone more … we’re streaming media for huge chunks of our spare time … we’re not getting out and connecting in community … and we’re tending to live in ‘generational silos’.
When you only mix with your own generation, you end up with a very narrow view of what the world’s about – and you become very focused on your own experience and perspectives. On the other hand, when you’re mixing across the generations, you gain a much more balanced sense of how life is for everybody. Part of that is the sharing of stories, which is something that creates a powerful bridge between us.
GV: In some ways, people have never been more connected than they are today. Far-flung friends and overseas family are only the touch of a button away, and technology should afford us better and more frequent contact than ever before … and yet we’re increasingly isolated from one another. Why do you think that is?
MAGGIE: Social media can make us lazy about connecting, because we get to choose when to connect and disconnect. But while it’s easy to blame devices and social media, I think it’s really the combination of many things, that together contribute to our isolation and loneliness. Affluence, for example … the overwhelming pace of life … financial stresses and strains … the fragmentation of families and community …
The world is also a troubled and uncertain place right now – which makes us all feel wobbly. But if you have strong friendship and community groups, you’re more likely to weather things well when problems crop up – as they always do.
We need to be intentional about creating a village around us … getting to know the names of the people working at our local café … saying “Hi” to the regular customers … greeting our neighbours as we walk around the block …
What we’re doing is building a tapestry of connection that helps us understand our specific world. We get rewarded with these delicious moments of contact during the day. And we also get a greater sense of what’s going on in our community – like little snippets of interesting news, a joke here and there, or something funny that’s happened.
When we do this in an organic way, we feel comfortable and nurtured by it. And, when we’re making connections, we’re also doing the same thing for others. These can be tiny, two-sentence connections. But they’re moments of joy and possibility.
GV: Tell us a bit more about loneliness. Besides the obvious downsides of loneliness – like the damage to our mental wellbeing – what other risks have been identified?
MAGGIE: Loneliness is now understood to be a huge health concern, putting people at a similar health risk as heavy smokers and people who are struggling with major obesity issues. Professor John Cacioppo, one of the world’s foremost loneliness experts, said that one-in-four people now have nobody with whom they feel seen and heard …
So we know that loneliness is widespread. But it’s not about being unpopular. Loneliness is about lack of connection. And the opposite of loneliness isn’t popularity – it’s being connected with a group of people with whom you feel seen and heard – and people you’ll sit with and listen to as well.
Strangely, research shows that popularity itself is a route to loneliness … A University of Virginia study followed people from school into adult life, and they found that the popularity of the ‘Queen Bees’ of the social groups was very much based on status – having the right gear and the right look and doing the cool stuff – which is quite a competitive way of relating to others. When those popular people got into adulthood, they were often the ones who struggled most with relationship and workplace issues, anxiety and depression.
The people who fared well were the ‘bridgebuilders’ – those with the ability to get on well with everybody in the class: from the really popular kids to the ones who were overlooked because they were considered weird or different. These bridgebuilders were the ones who had a deeply meaningful adult life, because they’d developed wonderful relational skills – and they were able to have that connection to others no matter where they were, regardless of what they were doing.
So they never felt alone.
GV: I’ve read that experts have noticed a decrease in empathy and a rise in narcissism (not great traits for combatting loneliness!). Why do you think that is?
MAGGIE: Interestingly, psychologists have recently identified wealthy, private school kids as being an ‘at-risk’ group. Often, it’s because these kids’ parents (for a whole variety of reasons) don’t have time to put into their kids’ lives, and their kids end up engaging in risky behaviour.
It’s subtle, though: you’d often look at these individuals and think that they’ve got it all together. They seem to be travelling fine … they have a great sense of entitlement … and they’ve got all the gear. But that’s often just a façade – it’s all ‘stuff’. And their behaviour is their ‘shield’ to help them meet the world.
If you’re reliant on the acceptance of others to feel good about yourself, then you’re in survival mode, because you never arrive – you never really feel that you’ve finally made it and been accepted. Every week there’s some new ‘must-have’ gadget … every season brings new trends … and there’s this endless cycle of trying to keep up.
A drop in empathy tends to happen when you’re in survival mode.
GV: So what can be done? How can we improve empathy levels in society?
MAGGIE: There are some really simple things, starting with family life. If you’re reading a book, nestle your kids into you … if you’re watching something together, snuggle together … create those spaces for safe physical contact and nurture. It’s very natural and intuitive, but we’ve somehow lost sight of the value of loving touch.
When a friend’s hurting, it helps a lot just to put a soft hand on that friend’s arm, or to gently rub their back if they’re telling us something difficult. Often people need a simple, loving gesture to show that they’re not alone.
I think it’s helpful for all of us – kids included – to be exposed to a wide variety of people: different generations … different backgrounds and cultures … different financial means from ourselves. Getting to know others who are different from us builds curiosity and understanding. The more we can embrace diversity, the richer our lives will be.
GV: So how can we do that? How can we embrace the diversity around us and build a sense of community?
MAGGIE: I live in a big apartment building, with over 240 households – and residents in the building have regular potluck dinners. Whoever’s free that evening is invited to just come and bring a dish.
THE SPICE OF LIFE!
There’s a great range of people – from those in their late 20s to people in their 80s … people who are working and others who’ve retired … and a wide range of cultures. It’s created an immensely happy community.
We’re not without issues – because humans always come with issues. But those evenings create so much joy and connection.
Another thing that we do with a group of our friends is what we call ‘Friday Foragers’. We go to various parts of the city where different cultural groups live, and we deliberately choose a humble, ‘Mum-and-Dad’ restaurant, serving ethnic food. They usually have very basic décor, with Formica tables … but the food is amazing, and the people we meet are life changing. They talk to us about the food, and they tell us their story.
Lately we’ve also begun to get to the neighbourhood early to visit the local shops. The variety of teas, spices, pickles, breads and other delicacies that we’ve never experienced is just incredible. We all come out with bags of delicious things to enjoy over the days that follow. And coming home on the train is like the end of Christmas day – we feel full, in every sense of the world.
And that’s what life’s about: connecting and experiencing.
Both the potlucks and the foraging dinners are relatively spontaneous activities, and both keep things simple and real. Sure, there’s a time and place for spending days cooking and preparing for a special event – but neither of these things require that kind of investment.
GV: In your book, you mention that the loss of ‘the village’ has made parenting more difficult in the 21st century. How does this loss impact mums and dads?
MAGGIE: So many parents these days don’t live around extended family – and, usually, both parents are working very hard before they have their first child. This means that the mum, in particular, often finds herself at home in a community where she has no strong connections. Added to this is the fact that parenting has become very competitive – which adds to the sense of isolation. As does the pressure of social media, which makes us believe we always have to put our shiny-self forward.
There’s this feeling you can’t admit that maybe you’re not coping as well as you’d like … or perhaps you’re not enjoying parenthood as much as you’d hoped … or maybe financial stresses are adding to your sense of feeling overwhelmed and unhappy …
GV: So what can be done?
MAGGIE: It helps to surround yourself with friends who are real – who you can be honest with if you’ve had the day from hell, or if your parenting struggles are really weighing you down. This gives you the chance to be there for one another with a meal on the doorstep or a non-judgmental ear.
It’s also so valuable for parents to have friendships with individuals or couples who are older – who can provide a bit of experience and perspective (and humour) in the thick of parenting woes. Older people tend to be good listeners, because they’re at the stage of life where they’ve got that space in their heads.
It’s helpful to find surrogate grandparents who can offer support and perspective – not just on-demand babysitting! If we can share our journey together with older generations, we can also learn more about the path ahead for ourselves: the freedoms and joys, the sorrows and challenges. And that’s invaluable.
GV: Parents these days also have huge struggles with managing screen time – for their children and for themselves. What are some of the pitfalls of device-use? And what are some remedies?
MAGGIE: It’s too easy for people of all ages to get into a vicious cycle with boredom and scrolling. They become addicted to their phones and other devices – and the problem is growing.
Families need to take breaks from the digital world and develop a relaxation culture away from screens. That means that we as adults must be very strict with ourselves – we have to teach our kids to navigate boredom, so they remember to just go outside and muck around.
We need to have books and art-&-craft supplies on hand, and also allow our children to just do nothing.
When we’re out, we should encourage our kids to connect with the environment around them. “Look at that strange tree!” … “Can you see that bird?” … “I wonder what the history of that old building is?” It’s a matter of gently peeling back the layers with our kids, so it becomes natural for them to be curious and engaged.
The problem with screens, though, is not just how much we’re on them … it’s also what we’re doing – what we’re watching. For example, reality TV shows have become more common, and they’re contributing to our sense of isolation and disconnect from one another.
GV: How so?
MAGGIE: A lot of reality TV is psychologically cruel. It’s all about setting people up and increasing the drama and dysfunction through manipulation and other tactics. For viewers, by repetitively watching these kinds of interactions, we’re actually laying down a pattern for how we behave with others. And because reality TV judges everyone as winners or losers, we can begin to view people that way.
In my opinion, reality TV is detrimental to the participants and damaging to its viewers. These shows erode our faith in human nature – we become blind to the miracles, the random acts of kindness, and all the other bits of goodness and light in the world.
GV: What about teenagers and young adults? How are their increased reliance on screens and virtual worlds impacting them?
MAGGIE: There are experts everywhere discussing that challenge: how to help young people, who’ve grown up in a sort of ‘battery hen’ existence, to connect with the world at large. These 18-to-25 year-olds are very comfortable with their own story, talking about themselves and their ideas – but they struggle when they get into a workplace. In most work environments, it’s a give-and-take: you need to value the experience and input of other people, and you need to be comfortable with having your own ideas challenged.
But young people of the digital generation have lived a super-sheltered life, and they’re having trouble dealing with the natural messiness of life.
Reclaiming Precious Hours Lost on Devices
- Make time with friends and family device-free
- Switch your phone to ‘silent’ whenever possible
- Turn off pop-ups and sound-prompts
- Stow laptops and devices during your daily commute and enjoy the ride
- Delete or prune the number of social media apps you use
- ‘Follow’ only those you truly care for on social media
- Unsubscribe to all but essential emails
- Place (and stick to) strict time limits on your favourite online games
- Decide on a regular time each evening to put away your devices, and don’t take your phone or laptop to bed
- Treat yourself with one device-free evening a week, and plan occasional ‘unplugged’ weekends
(from ‘When We Become Strangers’ – by permission)
GV: Okay. Being addicted to our screens and overly-reliant on our devices is obviously harmful, making us more lonely and isolated. But what can you suggest by way of remedies? How can people find their way back to connection and social intimacy?
MAGGIE: There are lots of goods ideas out there. And some great initiatives, such as the UK’s #ScrollFree September… They have various levels that you can engage with during the month: you can be a Busy Bee and commit to avoiding social media during work hours … you can be a Social Butterfly and swear off social media whenever you’re attending an event … or you could be a Night Owl where you switch off your devices from 6pm every evening. They also have options for going Cold Turkey or Sleeping Dog (no internet overnight).
People who’ve participated in the #ScrollFree September campaign have found that they’ve got a clearer headspace. And they have far less anxiety – because they’re not constantly checking in on social media, or worrying about how they’re coming across in their Facebook or Instagram feed.
I’ve heard back from people in other parts of the world who read about this initiative in ‘When We Become Strangers’ – and decided to set up their own screen-free challenges. They’ve reported tremendous benefits from that, and many have disengaged from some media platforms as a result.
I also think we’ve really neglected the Great Outdoors! Recent findings around spending time in nature are astounding. One study demonstrated that a 40-second glimpse of the greenery was enough to reset the tired brains of participants doing intellectually demanding work. Another found that patients who have a room with a view of nature suffer less pain and recuperate more quickly post-surgery than those who don’t.
Yet another study looked at kids in a classroom with full-spectrum lighting (which is the same lighting found in nature). They grew something like five centimetres taller; they suffered nine times less dental decay; and they had fewer behavioural issues than those learning under normal classroom lighting. Nature is powerful!
So when you’re next feeling stressed – go and take a short walk in the local park!
Powerful Ways to Reconnect
- Eat with Others – dining together has real benefits; find some easy ways to connect, and ditch the sense of isolation
- Share Family Meals – family meals help build social skills and connect with those you love
- Eat Together at Work – shared meals help grow morale
- Make it a Habit – find effortless ways to get together, like a regular breakfast catch-up or picnic dinner
- Monitor Your Mood – be aware of when you feel vulnerable and isolated, and get moving – reach out, go for a walk, ring a friend, indulge in a hobby
- Cherish Your Local Café – even a casual coffee catch-up can keep isolation at bay – this is how we grow community
- Put Your Explorer Hat On – visit a part of your city or local area you don’t know well
- Share A Movie With A Friend – whether at a cinema or at home, shared viewing changes the whole dynamic, and can make your day or weekend.
(from ‘When We Become Strangers’ – by permission)
GV: Any final tips for Grapevine readers who are suffering from loneliness and isolation?
MAGGIE: Yes – for sure! There are so many things we can do to break the bad habits and reconnect. For example, we can reach out with our voices! Earlier this year, my aunt in the UK was dying, and as I couldn’t get there, I sent my cousin short messages of support and inspiration. One of those was a voice-message of me reading an amazing little poem about life … Unbeknown to me, the last thing my cousin did for my aunt was to play her this voice-message; and at the end of the poem, my aunt took a deep breath and passed away.
I had no idea when I sent my cousin the message that it would end up being that final gift of comfort for my aunt … a loving voice that she knew from across the planet, from someone she loved and someone she knew she was loved by. But that’s the power of the human voice.
To be present in those moments is just such a gift, and something we really mustn’t lose sight of.
All these possibilities are just a heartbeat away. Instead of feeling sad and lonely, we need to invite one or two others into our life … and suddenly we find that life has a bit of a sparkle to it … then we invite one or two more.
It’s not rocket-science – it’s about reaching out and tasting these possibilities!
WHEN WE BECOME STRANGERS IS AVAILABLE IN ALL GOOD BOOKSHOPS. TO FIND OUT MORE, VISIT MAGGIEHAMILTON.ORG