The Power of Opening Up – a Reflection from the Loneliness Lab, by Jake Heitland, Commercial Manager, Lendlease

by Johnny Clayton on Friday, 14 February 2020

On a sunny morning last October, I was off the tube at London Bridge and making my way to the first day of the Loneliness Lab — a five-day design sprint understanding the issue of and possible solutions to loneliness in London. Admittedly excited to be out of the office for a few days, I was more curious to see what this all meant and a little bit nervous about what it might entail.

I should mention that this nervousness was mostly coming from a bit of a vulnerability hangover after saying “sure” to being interviewed ahead of the Lab about my personal experiences with loneliness — I had my photograph taken and somehow agreed to have this, along with my audio story shared with 100+ attendees in some form of opening exhibition.

I arrive at the Lab, tick my name off the list, look left and immediately see the biggest picture of myself I’ve ever seen set on a large easel. I am invited by the lovely ladies who originally interviewed me to join the exhibition by putting on some silent-disco-esque headphones and explore the space.

Out of the 15 or so portraits that were on display and the 2-minute audio clips of each person’s experience on loop, I felt my skin start to crawl and eyes begin to well up as I noticed the sound coming out of the headphones was in fact my own voice. At this point, I was half-way through saying how loneliness for me was sitting in my bedroom at 17 thinking (and at that time, believing) that life was not worth living — bringing back the moments just before attempting to take my own life where time slowed and feeling so utterly alone, was able to convince myself that no one would care if I wasn’t there the next morning.

While the audio and portraits were kept anonymous, my now full-blown crying, plus accidentally wearing nearly the same outfit that day as in the picture, gave some pretty good clues to those around me also listening that it was indeed me in their ears. Part of me wanted to run out of the place and go into hiding but as I scanned the room with panicked and watery eyes, I slowly noticed that some of the eyes looking at me were also crying and a few others even approached me for a hug (very un-British, I know…).

I can confidently say that I have never been more vulnerable in my entire life but towards the end of the audio clip, my pre-recorded self kindly reminded me how proud and thankful I was to be 25, openly queer, living in London on a sponsored visa, working on an issue dear to me and most importantly, alive.

All of this within the first 10 minutes.

This set the tone for what was an amazing week of learning about and understanding loneliness, how detrimental it is for our health as humans (being chronically lonely is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!) while offering a chance to connect meaningfully with others from across industries and generations by listening to their own experiences with loneliness. And ultimately, having the chance to come up with and test real world solutions in the time it would normally take to organise a single meeting in corporate la-la-land.

So what happened?

As the diverse group of 30 sprinters set out on day two, we self-sorted into small teams based on curiosities and interests. Partnering up with Laetitia (a bad-ass social economist at global consultancy firm, Arup), we looked at the design and operation of student accommodation and its impact on loneliness and mental health.

We set out across south London university campuses trying (sometimes awkwardly) to get students to talk to us about loneliness and their experiences in halls. Using our £100 budget, we even set up a pseudo sitting room on some benches complete with pillows, cardboard coffee table, lamps, some art you’d find at grandma’s house and of course, biscuits. In between weird looks and confused faces, students were surprisingly keen to open up as we heard horror-story after horror-story.

Feelings of isolation and loneliness, “clinical” or “jail-like” designs with fluorescent lighting to match, no ability to personalise spaces, general lack of mental health support with disconnected approaches between universities and halls operators, terrible programming of welcome events all based around alcohol and no help if there wasn’t a space for you in halls (falling into the ether of London’s private rental market), just to name a few.

At its worst, we were told of friends only meeting because they were both self-harming in the bathrooms and impossibly sad stories of suicides.

Our hearts ached at the thought that organisational negligence and the physical design of buildings were potentially creating new issues or making existing struggles worse during an already difficult transition period in these students lives.

One death is way too many, especially when these young adults are meant to be growing, learning, exploring and shaping into the future humans our world needs.

What left us inspired and optimistic was that despite engaging with such a heavy topic, when asked how halls could be improved, everyone was full of ideas and wanting to make the experience for the next student a better, more connected and less lonely one.

Recognising our immediate inability to tear down and build new and improved halls, our learnings culminated into an idea called Hack Your Halls — giving students at the beginning of each year a creative hack-box to personalise and improve their living spaces, decorate shared spaces together, agency to create their own events alongside literature on and wayfinding to university-specific mental health support.

Since October, both of us have had to return to our day jobs but we have shared our experiences and stories with various university executives to influence change, spoke with students to inspire a terms worth of projects based on the Hack Your Halls concept and currently setting up a London-wide workshop with universities and accommodation providers to address the critical gap in mental health support and poor design.

The Lab has also offered opportunities for me to continue this work in other ways joining separate yet connected work streams to tackle workplace loneliness in partnership with the British Red Cross and Burohappold — hosting workshops in all of our offices, with findings informing a wider survey reaching c.1,000 people and organising a literature review of current research in order to begin testing physical interventions across our companies and beyond.

In partnership with housing association, Clarion, a separate team of us are taking the collective learnings from the Lab and beginning to apply them to how we better design and operate both new and existing residential buildings through the lens of loneliness and community building.

What I’ve learned

Across all of this, I’ve seen that no matter who the demographic is or what design was in question, there was a key issue running through all of this — in an “I’m fine/it’s fine” culture, there are still all sorts of stigmas and social barriers preventing us from opening up, being vulnerable, sharing our feelings and experiences with loneliness or simply being unable to tell a friend when we aren’t okay.

And yes — I know opening up, being vulnerable and letting others in can be scary, go against cultural norms and feel wildly unnatural (like crying in front of a room of co-workers/strangers).

However, from my experiences over the last 10 months I’ve come to understand that a bit ironically, loneliness is so core to our human experience it creates something that, when given space and permission to be acknowledged and shared, can reconnect us in powerful ways and make space for meaningful, healthy relationships with others but also ourselves.

For me, the Loneliness Lab turned out to be so much more than a 5-day design sprint to design out loneliness in London. It was a personal challenge of acknowledging and opening up about my own experiences to fully realise the power in being vulnerable and it’s potential to help others feel less lonely. This work has also shown me how loneliness does not discriminate and that I’m not alone in experiencing the feelings, struggles and stigmas — helping me gain a deeper sense of empathy for every human on their own journey to a fulfilling, happy and socially-connected life.

So open up, be nice, ask people how they really are, actually listen and realise your own power in being vulnerable as I feel that in doing so, we can collectively tackle loneliness, make us all more resilient to the mental health rollercoasters of life and perhaps create a new, more connected and more meaningful way of living in our cities.

Because we all deserve a life worth living.

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