If you printed every article ever written about loneliness, you would probably need a whole room full of file cabinets to house them. Maybe several rooms. Loneliness research seems to be its own industry.
Most of the research focuses on you. What is it about you that is making you lonely? Are you taking the right steps to excise your loneliness?
Now, an entirely different approach is becoming popular. It is about the architecture and design of happiness and sociability. By this way of thinking, the ways our dorms and houses and cities and towns are designed may well have a lot to do with how successful we are at forming meaningful connections with other people.
You can see this new trend in the titles and themes of just-published books. Take, for example, Charles Montgomery’s “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.” It includes an intriguing chapter, “How to Be Closer.” Another example is the cover story of the most recent APA (American Psychological Association) Monitor; it is titled, “Design in mind.”
The fundamental premise of the new science of loneliness and friendship is that certain kinds of designs create the psychological conditions that make social interactions and meaningful connections more likely to occur. The promise is that the exact same person, living in the same place, can go from lonely to meaningfully connected simply by moving one building over to a place better designed to facilitate friendship. In fact, Montgomery tells a story just like this, of a man living in one of those huge tower buildings that had a lot to recommend it (huge windows, awesome views) but left him feeling isolated. He then moved to a townhouse that faced a garden and a volleyball court. Nine years after moving that very short distance, the man describes half of his twenty-two townhouse neighbors as close friends and six of them as people he loves like family.
Anecdotes don’t count as science, but they can be starting points for research (or they can be used to illustrate research that has been done). Comparing the social networks and close friendships of people living in high-rises vs. lower-density dwellings facing spaces where people congregate is the kind of study that can be done systematically.
Other research on designing for meaningful connections includes questions such as:
- What is the best way to design college dorms so that students are most likely to form close friendships and feel a sense of community? A lone study from 30 years ago suggested that suites were better than long corridors, but more recent research casts some doubt on that early conclusion, or at least offers some important qualifications.
- What should the front of your house look like if you want to befriend people in your neighborhood? So far, research suggests that having a front porch is better than having one of those houses whose “face” is mostly a garage. If your front porch is not too far away from a sidewalk, that could help, too.
- What makes certain public places such as cafes and coffee shops particularly good places for meeting old friends and making new ones? Some hints from recent research: providing places to sit outside as well as some shelter and some shade (from an awning, for example).
This seems to be a newly thriving area of research and I think we will be seeing lots more fascinating research in the future.
Sidewalk cafe image available from Shutterstock.