DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Chat to your neighbour: it’s good for your mental health – and theirs

DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Chat to your neighbour: it's good for your mental health - and theirs

Most of us feel lonely at times – and while spending time alone has its merits (inventor Thomas Edison famously declared ‘the best thinking is done in solitude’) – there is nothing positive about that soul-crushing feeling of loneliness that comes from feeling like you have no one to talk to or support you.

Unfortunately this is a common problem. In a recent survey of 3,000 Britons, 8 percent said they had no real friends and most of their social interactions were online.

I’m not a very reserved person, but I’m lucky that my wife, Claire, helps me be more outgoing.

And like the 39 percent who said their best friend is their partner, I’d say he’s my closest friend and biggest emotional support (and sometimes my biggest critic).

The problem of loneliness has worsened: four million people in Britain suffer from chronic loneliness and the number who feel lonely ‘often or always’ has risen by almost 20 per cent since the start of Covid, reports the charity Campaign to End Loneliness.

So when you see your neighbor, give them a wave — and chat!

They found that women were more likely than men to report chronic loneliness. This is probably because women tend to live longer, so there are more widows than widowers.

We are intensely social creatures, which is why loneliness has such a toxic effect on us; It can lead not only to anxiety and depression, but also to poor sleep, heart disease, stroke and premature death.

The rise in loneliness is partly linked to changes in work habits, which mean people spend more time at home on computers, and also the closure of bank and post office branches and, as the Mail reports, community pharmacies.

Queuing at a bank or post office, or picking up your prescription isn’t exactly a great social outing, but for many it’s a lifeline; A chance to have a short chat with other people.

Even a brief chat with a stranger can make a difference in your mental health – and the stranger’s.

For example, when I buy my morning coffee, especially if I’m in a rush, I usually order, tap my card in the machine, and run.

But a 2014 study from the University of British Columbia in Canada found that encouraging people to smile, make eye contact and have a short conversation while ordering a cup of coffee not only increased the person buying the coffee, but also increased their sense of belonging, it also added to the happiness of the server.

Similarly, when I’m at a supermarket I always use the automatic checkout to avoid getting stuck in line behind someone who is grumbling with the cashier.

Now a Dutch supermarket chain, delightfully named Jumbo, has discovered that there is a genuine demand by some consumers for exactly this kind of interaction.

So it created special checkout counters, ‘chat checkouts’, where customers and cashiers can chat leisurely without standing behind them, biting their lips and looking at their watches like me.

Chat checkouts have proved so popular that they are being introduced in most jumbo stores

A 2019 study from Florida State University found that getting a pet is another way to combat loneliness, especially if you’ve recently lost a partner.

Don Carr, a sociology professor and lead author, points out that pets not only provide companionship but also unconditional love (well, at least dogs do).

‘You can talk to your dog,’ she said. ‘They won’t tell you you’re a bad person, they’ll just love you. Or you can pet your cat and it’s quiet.’

For many, owning a pet is not practical. Soon robotic versions may be an option – and research suggests they can really help.

In a recent study by the University of Plymouth, robot cats and dogs were given to care home residents.

While not sophisticated, they were cute, made decent noises and moved around a bit

Despite being just a step up from fluffy toys, robotic pets have helped reduce anxiety and depression and have a calming effect.

However, the best way to combat loneliness is to be brave, come out into the world and interact with others.

And it may be easiest to start close to home. I recently interviewed Pamela Qualter, professor of psychology for education at the University of Manchester, who is an expert on the importance of social relationships, and she told me that performing small acts of kindness for your neighbors is a particularly powerful way to reduce your loneliness.

He was one of the lead authors of a trial in which people were asked to do one kind act for a neighbor once a week, for four weeks.

It could be doing something practical like taking out their bins or chatting on the street.

The results showed that not only did this reduce feelings of loneliness for both donors and recipients, it also increased feelings of neighborhood unity.

‘Knowing that your neighbors care about you really brings a community together,’ Professor Qualter told me.

At a time when more people feel isolated, feeling that you are part of a community, something bigger than yourself, is crucial for mental and, perhaps, physical health (now being evaluated in a three-year UK research project called Common Health Assets, which is assessing the impact of community-led organizations on health and well-being).

So when you see your neighbor, give them a wave — and chat!

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