Stopping for a chat
Thanks to our digital devices, humankind is more connected than at any other period in its history. At the same time, loneliness has become as ubiquitous as the mobile phone. It’s been described as the “epidemic” of the modern age, “a silent plague of civilisation”. And it’s harming our physical and mental health. Loneliness is linked to poor emotional wellbeing, and can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, even premature death. Indeed, in an effort to tackle the growing phenomenon, in 2018, the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
Ashley Jones, a police officer working in the west of England, came up with another solution to tackling loneliness: the “happy to chat bench”. Jones devised the idea after working on a scamming case. A man was calling an elderly woman every morning pretending to be her friend. Eventually, he conned her into giving him £25,000. When speaking to the woman, Jones was saddened to hear she didn’t mind parting with her money. “Otherwise,” she said, “I would never speak to another person for weeks on end.” Talking to her “was a revelatory experience for me”, Jones told the New York Times. Prompted into action, the police veteran contacted his superiors to discuss the idea of designating a park bench where strangers would be encouraged to chat. The idea was given the go-ahead and a bench in a local park was adorned with a sign that read: “The ‘happy to chat’ bench. Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello.”
In just a few days people began responding to the invite. “Fantastically, this has begun to gain traction,” says Jones. So much so, a further 10 chat benches have appeared locally in areas commonly frequented by older citizens. Other police forces around the UK have also pushed the initiative and there are now more than 40 chat benches around the country. Individuals in the United States and Australia have also shown an eagerness to replicate the scheme. “All who participate gain a positive outcome from getting involved,” says Jones. “The chat bench removes that invisible social barrier that prevents people from saying ‘hello’.”