Are we more lonely? A panel discussion at Leeds International Festival of Ideas 2021

Leeds International Festival of Ideas is a celebration of new ideas and innovation. The event, which began in 2017, brings world-leading thinkers, creatives and pioneers to Leeds to share their thoughts and discuss the world of tomorrow.

The first panel session of the 2021 festival was held on Monday 13th September at City Varieties Music Hall. The session, which was chaired by Deborah Frances-White, brought together a panel of five powerful women, who dissected the important but often ignored topic of loneliness and sought to discuss questions such as whether we are lonelier, and what we can do to sustain a life filled with love and companionship.

The Panellists

Deborah Frances-White is a stand-up comedian, writer, presenter and coach, who is probably best known as the co-founder and host of The Guilty Feminist podcast. She took to the stage first, cracking a few gags to engage the audience, and then introduced the rest of the panel. Alix Fox was introduced as a writer, broadcaster, strategist and creative consultant, with a passion for relationships and sexuality. Her confident and slightly brash character hit me first, and I was intrigued to hear her thoughts on the evening’s topic.

The next panellist who was brought to the stage was Bolu Babalola, who is a London based writer, best known for her books Netflix & Chill, and Love in Colour. I liked that she described herself as a ‘romcomoisseur’ and was looking forward to hearing her take on loneliness, considering her focus on romance and love. The third panellist was Emila Van Hauen, a Cultural Sociologist and one of Scandinavia’s most sought-after keynotes and TEDx speakers. I was excited to hear how Emila’s research and life experiences had shaped her view on loneliness and I was looking forward to seeing how that might contrast with the views of the other panellists.

Last to join the panel was Dr Melrose Stewart, an MBE awarded physiotherapist, who is probably best known for her role in the successful Channel 4 documentary, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. With lots of experience of working with older people, I was hopeful that Mel would bring a contrasting view to the other panellists.

The Topic

Over the last 18 months or so, so many of us have all experienced loneliness in one way or another. But when that loneliness is pervasive and longstanding, it can be a killer, with research suggesting that it can increase the risk of death by over 25%. There are far too many people who are suffering from loneliness, and worryingly, the number of people affected seems to be increasing. For the majority of the pandemic, I lived alone, and so, like many others, I experienced loneliness on an almost daily basis. However, I was fortunate enough to have lots of family and friends who called regularly and as soon as we were able, I went out running, walking or cycling with others to reduce my isolation. However, I did see and feel first hand, how hard loneliness can be, so I was ready to listen to other people’s perspective.

The Panel Discussion

Deborah kick-started the discussion by asking the panel for their thoughts about the differences, if any exist, between loneliness and solitude. They discussed how solitude can be good for us, giving us time to think, focus on our thoughts, and reduce stress. But, when that alone time is forced upon us, as it was for so many during the pandemic, it can lead to loneliness, and when that lasts a long time, it can lead to depression and hopelessness. Mel made an important point, which the panellists considered, relating to how it is also important to be able to take moments of loneliness and flip them into moments of nurturing solitude. She emphasised the need to develop coping strategies to take time to consider ‘what if’ so that we can be prepared for moments of loneliness.

Another topic covered by the panel that struck a chord with me included the role of technology in helping to reduce loneliness. Social media was a key topic of discussion, with many of the panellists highlighting that it can both help to keep us connected and yet also lead to greater isolation. Deborah explained how WhatsApp had enabled a group of queer women to support each other throughout the pandemic, offering them a lifeline out of loneliness.

Robots were also discussed, with Alexa getting a mention. I found my Google Home helpful during the worst of the lockdown, as I was always able to get some noise going and at least had something to talk to whenever I wanted to. However, this highlighted how technology, such as social media can increase feelings of disconnection, for instance by being made to feel inadequate or, as Bolu stated, it can lead to unhealthy comparisons such as those related to body image.

The panel took the audience on several diverse discussions related to loneliness but also explored some of the diverse forms that companionship can take. Bolu explained how she is close to her neighbours and how she treats one of them like a grandma, something that she realised she had taken for granted pre-COVID. Deborah also gave an example of how she had developed a good relationship with her neighbour over lockdown, saying how she had enjoyed sharing cake over the bins.

My Take on the Event

I enjoyed hearing the panellists thoughts and opinions on loneliness, solitude, relationships and companionship, in particular about balancing our time to ourselves with our time connecting with others, and Mel’s point about loneliness being good at some points in our lives, especially since it allows us to appreciate our time with others more.

However, I did feel that there was little opportunity for debate. When some alternative thoughts were mentioned, they were quickly quashed, which was a bit frustrating and left me wanting more. I wasn’t sure why the panel was quite so female focussed, especially since loneliness affects men more, according to the statistics. I think it could have helped to have had some more opportunity for audience participation, with more questions posed and responded to by the panel.

Despite these slight negatives, the overall event was good and gave me some food for thought. It was also good to visit City Varieties, one of Leeds’ gems. I’m looking forward more than ever to attending other Festival events.

Dr Gemma Bridge

Gemma, who works at Leeds Beckett University, has been writing for over 10 years and loves to share what's going on in and around Leeds. She is also an international athlete, artist and the creator of Leeds Food Guide. You can find her on Instagram at @GLB_racewalk or @Leeds_FoodGuide

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