3 years of fighting loneliness
Given my background in innovation I often get the question; “What problem would you solve if you had your own company?”
There are endless problems in this world, but only a few bug you. I know my answer, I know my problem.
My problem to solve is loneliness.
I actually already have my own organisation trying to make this world a bit less lonely. But I never shared it with anyone. Till now.
So why now? Because I feel there is such a taboo on the topic. We don’t like admitting we are feeling lonely.
But when I spoke with friends, family and strangers — it became apparent to me that we are all struggling with loneliness from time to time.
I sure did.
I currently have 500+ monthly readers on this platform. And if there is only one of you getting some value from this post, then it’s absolutely worth it.
Let me share my story, the projects I started and the lessons I learned.
What is loneliness?
Let’s start at the beginning. Loneliness is a feeling, it has nothing to do with the number of people around you.
We all relate. You can be surrounded by others and still feel alone.
Loneliness comes from an unmet human desire to deeply connect. Loneliness is a feeling. One of the most painful of all.
We can connect with strangers
The good news is that we can connect with everyone. We are all alike. We all went through similar experiences, similar hardships and hate, losses and love and grief and glory as everyone else. Only the context differs.
And it can be awkward to start real conversations with strangers. People are looking at their phones and are shocked when you start talking to them.
How do we start conversations in a world where everyone is watching their phone?
When you have a dog, people will start petting it. When you are reading an interesting book, it’s easier for strangers to say something.
Starting conversations becomes easier with a sign, a sign that invites other people in.
I created signs. I created a set of (organic) shirts with questions on the back. And yes, I walked around Valencia wearing them.
This was my invitation.
With a little bit of help, we can connect with everyone.
Friendships happen along the way
But I realised that I don’t want to connect with everyone. It’s humanly impossible to form deep connections with everyone. We need boundaries.
And some people are made for us, and others are made for others.
I am not wearing those shirts anymore and sleep in them instead.
Friendships most naturally happen along the way. I had to learn to focus on the things I intrinsically love doing. I started noticing that my people will naturally be there too.
Meetups are great. Pottery classes, surfing lessons and painting courses. Yoga. Hiking and workout groups. Coworking spaces. Museums and concerts. Those are my places.
In order to know your places you need to know yourself. Focusing on yourself first can help with connecting with others later.
Friendships require time
A real connection is not formed after one conversation. There are no shortcuts to love. It takes time.
We live in a world that seems to be more and more about instant gratification. You can get a date with a few swipes, a meal delivered in a few minutes, and a new video every 15 seconds.
But connections take time. Time and effort. It requires commitment.
In the last few years, I lived in multiple cities for a few weeks. I met tens of loving and interesting people and had deep conversations, but we simply lacked time. It was never long enough to build a truly meaningful, lasting connection.
Because at the time we would arrive at something deeper, I would fly back home.
We all remember those starts with a lot of potential, but never got the chance to grow into something more.
The answer is not an app
Connections require presence. Without your phone or any other distractions.
When we used to get bored, we would go and visit friends, now we consume content. And social media is an amazing invention, allowing us to connect with the whole world. But chatting to a friend via Instagram or Whatsapp is not as powerful as a hug or watching each other in the eye.
The reason is in the chemicals that are released in your body. Your phone is mainly giving you dopamine. Every bleep, notification, ad, and incoming chat is giving you little shots of this highly addictive chemical.
But when we are looking for connections, we are craving oxytocin. A chemical that is released when we make physical contact, hug, have sex, smile at each other or see babies.
It’s a mismatch.
The obvious solution to fight loneliness is by starting another app where you connect people to each other. But I don’t want another dopamine app. I believe that everything digital is doing more harm than good to this problem.
I don’t want to count the number of matches, I want to count the number of hugs.
It is a skill
It can be hard to have deeper conversations. We can float comfortably at the surface level, without exploring the depth of the ocean. Having deep conversations is a skill. And skills can be developed.
I created a card game for expats and their parents. A card game that allows them to have deeper conversations in a fun and structured way. Because it’s hard living in another country and only being able to talk over the phone.
The card game has 100+ questions and different colours for different levels of depth.
Blue are the starter questions. Questions about their day or what they are looking forward to next week. Red are life questions, with topics such as dreams and fears. 5 colours in total, 100+ questions to ask.
We can all have deeper conversations, we just need to know how.
I have only printed this card game for personal use and given it to friends. Feel free to ask for more information.
Just like going to the gym, one vulnerable conversation is not going to grant you instant deep connections. You have to consistently practise.
I experienced first-hand that playing a card game will get boring over time. Just like couples will experience that their date nights often turn into watching Netflix series for hours on end.
Together with Hallmark Europe, I came up with Surprise Night. A monthly guarantee for 3 hours of quality time as a couple.
Surprise Night is a dating box, including everything for a lovely date at home. From all the tools you need, a matching Spotify playlist and a little booklet with questions. Every month a new one, delivered at home, personalized and including little hints building up the suspense in the weeks prior.
We unfortunately had to stop the pilot a few months in because of strategic reasons.
Luckily, you don’t need to have a date box. But you do need to dedicate time to each other without any distractions. Prioritize quality time.
You will always feel alone
No one will truly understand the depths of your thoughts and experiences. I still feel alone. Misunderstood. Weird.
But I am more comfortable with it. It makes more sense. No one can look into my soul, and even my best friends will sometimes think I am a complete idiot. That’s okay.
There is nothing wrong with you.
We will all always feel a little bit alone. Befriend yourself. You are the only one that will always be around. From start to finish.
Over the course of the last three years, I created a question card game for families, started dating again, travelled alone for months, created “hey stranger t-shirts” and date surprise boxes, gave away kind post-its to strangers, and organised surprise weekends.
I don’t struggle with loneliness as much as I used to. Actually I barely feel lonely anymore. But I am lucky.
Studies show that more than 30% of people under 30 regularly feel isolated and alone. Leading to all kinds of societal and health issues.
The world is waiting for a solution.
But maybe we are overcomplicating it. Instead of trying to build a company, we should simply look up from our screen a bit more, smile at strangers, give each other more compliments, ask questions, be present, and try to truly connect. Be positive and go first.
And it all starts by breaking the taboo. Acknowledging that loneliness is a serious problem.
Seeing our similarities instead of differences. Turning strangers into friends. One at a time.