Psychotherapist Traci Ruble believes that everybody — even folks with close-knit friends and family — gets lonely. It can happen anytime, and it doesn’t only happen when you’re alone. You might have felt it at a party with friends; or on a crowded subway watching strangers on their phones; or while you’re spending time with your partner.
But Ruble thinks she’s found a simple way to make us feel less isolated and more connected.
It starts by doing the exact opposite of what your parents likely told you never to do: talking to a stranger.
In 50 cities around the world, volunteers unfold chairs, sprawl out blanks and create a welcoming space in public spaces. Their goal isn’t to give advice and therapize the strangers who sit down. They’re there to simply listen.
Ruble calls her movement Sidewalk Talk — and there’s a reason to believe it’s working.
Loneliness is a societal problem that doesn’t get as much mainstream attention as, say, health care reform. But multiple studies show that feeling lonely on a regular basis may be more harmful to the human body than obesity or smoking cigarettes.
“Belonging is as important to our survival and well-being as breathing. It’s a connection you can’t always get from a text message,” Ruble told City Lab. “As humans, we need eye contact, touch and personal interaction. It’s important not to forget how vital this is.”
Experts have concluded that it’s a pervasive feeling: In a study published in 2018, nearly half of the 20,000 surveyed individuals reported sometimes or always feeling lonely.
Barbara Meyers is one of the many volunteers working with Ruble to help. Every Thursday, she goes to Tenderloin, California, to make human connections with the people who show up. Two years and a myriad of conversations later, Meyers is the nonprofit’s longest volunteer. She’s passionate about supporting folks with mental health issues and saw Sidewalk Talk as an opportunity to spring into action.
“I like it because I think it’s a gift to offer yourself as a listener and to be, I guess, authentically connecting with another human being,” she told the Alternative UK.
“I know that … they don’t have the access to a lot of the mental health system, and if there’s somebody that actually listens to them, that’s a little piece of something that can be helpful to them,” she said. “I know they aren’t getting what they need elsewhere.”
After the Sandy Hook shooting, Ruble searched for ways to connect strangers and bring awareness about mental health. She and her colleague Lily Sloane decided to bring conversations to community centers.
“I wanted to create an empathy movement that extended beyond the walls of my office,” Ruble told City Lab.
In 2015, they gathered volunteers and launched the first day of talks in 12 locations throughout San Francisco, California.
The idea quickly spread, and four years later, the nonprofit has hosted over 12,000 talks in 12 countries.
Each city is structured with a city leader and volunteers. While the volunteers don’t need experience in therapy or trained listening, they all go through a training course. The city leaders are trained mental health professionals who can connect individuals to low or no-cost mental health support.
“I have a fundamental belief that we are all responsible for each other’s mental health,” Ruble told Washington Post. “But this is not therapy on the streets; this is taking one of its biggest tools and bringing it out to the masses. I’m trying to keep the message simple: It’s about listening and belonging. I’m talking about what makes us healthy, and relationships make us healthy.”