Kindness Can: Reflections from the 2017 Campaign to End Loneliness conference

There is growing recognition that loneliness is a serious issue for public health. Loneliness has been labelled as ‘Britain’s epidemic,’ George Monbiot reported that ‘the age of loneliness is killing us,’ and recent research revealed that the ‘last taboo’ is costing £6,000 per person in health costs and pressure on local services in the UK.

Last week’s Campaign to End Loneliness conference, Kindness Can, was attended by a host of service providers and organisations working hard to tackle loneliness, largely amongst older people. From local befriending schemes and coffee mornings, to cocktails and choirs in care homes, and large-scale movements such as the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, there are a multitude of people working hard to alleviate the impacts of loneliness for people in their communities. It was inspiring to hear stories of their work.

But tackling loneliness is not solely the job of organisations and local public services – people and communities also have a responsibility to those around them to be caring and act in kindness. The strength of our community connections and relationships is increasingly being recognised as important for wellbeing. At the conference, Evan Dawson from Live Music Now made the comment that ‘the quality of your life depends on the quality of your social relationships.’

However, this doesn’t mean there is no role for organisations and services in tackling loneliness. This is recognised by my colleague Zoe Ferguson in her recent report The Place of Kindness.

Intuitively, it makes sense that if we care more for each other in our communities, we are less dependent on services. However, it is important to highlight that the concept of an enabling state is not one of a hollow state which simply withdraws and leaves communities to get on with it, and it recognises that there is an unequal confidence among communities to create the power for change.

A number of themes from the conference were about people making small changes to their everyday lives to encourage kindness and connections in their community. Many of these also appear in the Trust’s work on kindness.

  1. Permission and boundaries – Seema Kennedy MP reflected how societal norms can hold us back from engaging with those around us in our communities, and how these norms are often broken down in times of crisis. But why don’t we feel a sense of permission to engage all the time? Our work on kindness explored light touch ways of giving permission to engage and providing boundaries which would mitigate the perceived risk of personal involvement. Food Train Friends in Dumfries launched a ‘Friendly Dumfries’ badge to create permission to start a conversation. Conference attendees may have seen the Coffee Companions ‘Chat Mats;’ a similar concept. While there were some positive indications from our pilot project, those who got involved were open, kind, friendly people anyway. It would probably require a bigger push over a longer period of time to draw in more people and make a real impact.
  2. Social spaces – Seema Kennedy MP also reflected on the need for social spaces to allow people to connect. Our work on kindness looked at the type of places that we have to gather or even just bump into each other, and the impact the nature of those places has on our ability to connect and form relationships. We found that while physical spaces matter, they do not alone promote kindness. The atmosphere is largely created by the people who use, and particularly those who manage, spaces. We also found that social spaces that are important to a community may not be the most obvious (i.e. the community centre). The café at Tesco Maryhill is an important social space for that community. This was also identified at the conference by Janet Morrison from Independent Age, who noted that the local Weatherspoon’s, park, library and corner store can be important places for communities to gather and connect.
  3. Simple acts of kindness – When asked what we would like to see for ‘the future of loneliness,’ one conference attendee said he would like to see more simple acts of kindness, for example smiling and saying hello to someone on the street (or the Tube for Londoners). From our work on kindness, we know that low level interactions – for example, a chat with a member of staff at the checkout, a greeting from a neighbour in the street – can make a difference to the quality of daily life for people who might otherwise be isolated and lonely.

Concluding the conference, the Campaign’s Executive Director Laura Alcock-Ferguson noted that communities are ready to take up the challenge to act in kindness, but that this is not necessarily about random acts of kindness. One of our demonstration activities involved a ‘kindness challenge,’ which largely involved random acts of kindness. We found that whilst random acts of kindness sometimes prompted opportunities for connection that might result in conversation, it would be unlikely that they result in relationships. The key learning from our work seemed to be that the impact of undertaking an act of kindness is in the transformation of the participant rather than benefit for the recipient.

The Trust congratulates the Campaign to End Loneliness on a very successful conference, and we look forward to engaging further with the Campaign’s future work in Scotland and across the UK.

This article was written by By Rebekah Menzies, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust and can be found on Carnekie Trust

9th October 2017