Social isolation

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The Vancouver Sun has a new series of articles discussing social isolation in the big city. Studies have shown that feeling lonely or disconnected from your community and peers can have far-reaching negative effects on health. Having better bonds with your neighbours and community also provides a support network in times of need. With increasing avenues for electronic connectedness, are we losing the real-life relationships that sustain us?

Photo Credit: Original photo by D Sharon Pruitt

I am somewhat sceptical of the “results” presented by the Sun. While they present a good piece of storytelling, much of it is anecdotal. They interview runners who complain that other joggers don’t wave or say hello to them. They find disgruntled homeowners in suburbia who complain of changes that bring fences and roads. I am not the friendliest person in the world, but in every apartment building that I’ve lived in, I have recognized and spoken to my neighbours on many occasions. In several buildings, Brian and I have even had tentative friendships with some neighbours.

In particular, the last story in the series attempted to link our supposed growing social isolation with the difficulty of purchasing a home.


The story featured interviews with various individuals between the ages of 25 and 35. One was a growing family who lamented their inability to purchase a home for their children, having recently had another baby. Another was a 31-year-old West End renter who complained that she would “never” be able to afford a condo, adding that there were “too many cute shoes” she wanted to buy. I am genuinely flabbergasted by their stories. Why did the couple decide to have children if they felt like their current home was too small? Why is the 31-year-old buying so many freaking shoes? What the hell does owning a home have to do with social isolation? :/

I bought a condo in Vancouver at the age of 25 and I can tell you that: (1) I don’t collect shoes (2) I’m not making babies that I can’t afford and (3) Owning a condo has not gotten me any new friends and I’m not sure why anyone would think that it would!

I do agree, however, that a good social network is vital for healthy living. It’s on par with insurance and an emergency fund. Consider cancer or cardiovascular disease. These are life-changing and insidious conditions that affect millions of people every year. And yet, having a good social network has been shown to improve health outcomes for these patients. And it’s not just the feel-good hand-wavy kind of improvement either. When you go through a serious illness, you need to have a social network to help you out with the mundane tasks of driving you to doctors appointments, picking up your groceries and helping you around the house.

But are we going to get better social networks by having more homeowners? No. We get better social networks by actually connecting with people. :/

There seems to be a great desire amongst Vancourites to blame everything on the “lack of housing affordability”. And yes, I do say “lack of housing affordability” in finger-waving quotes because affordability is relative. If you collect shoes, many things are not “affordable” for you. If I eat on a $100 grocery budget, many things suddenly become affordable for me. Do either of those philosophies prevent me from connecting with people though? Not at all! The shopaholic has just as many opportunities to connect to people as the frugal person – you still both have neighbours, co-workers and that guy you see on the bus everyday. It really just depends on your willingness to be friendly and reach out to people, which has nothing to do with the amount of money you have in the bank or the status of your housing.

I felt like the Sun could have explored a lot of interesting issues with this series of articles, so I’m disappointed that they have again degenerated into the “affordable housing” bandwagon. A more interesting take on the issue would have been to explore why people don’t connect more, considering the numerous ways in which technology allows us to connect. I’ve met people I randomly talked to on Twitter, and yet there are still people who don’t want take 10 seconds to shoot off a text and invite a friend out for a drink – for whatever reason.

I suspect those underlying reasons are more interesting and insightful than simply blaming the cost of home ownership.

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Posted in: Philosophy

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  1. Very interesting. Although I’ve always lived in Vancouver I do find that people aren’t super friendly here and most people prefer privacy over community. For instance, I’ve lived in my apartment building for almost a year and I’ve only briefly met a few neighbours. Everyone seems to just keep to themselves. Though I don’t think it would be better if I could buy a house or condo, why would that change things? If anything you’d be more isolated in a house because you aren’t connected to your neighbours by walls or anything.

  2. I don’t read the newspaper any more these days, but it does sound like they were grasping at straws with that article. I suspect the original article was all about social isolation and then some editor told the writer that there had to be more related to trending issues.

    At a glance the two topics wouldn’t seem related at all. Really though, the two issues might really be fueling each other. Being able to afford a home would make someone a lot happier, increasing their likelihood of connecting with people socially. The lack of social contact fuels depression too. So it might be one big cycle that also holds a lot of people back from earning/saving enough money to afford housing.

    • CF says:

      That’s true – it might have been the “spin” that they wanted. I can see what you mean about having a house possibly making someone happier – the idea that home ownership is a “goal” is still pretty prevalent. I’m sure there are people who feel like they haven’t succeeded or whatever if they are still renting.

  3. LOL at the shoes comment. What an idiot.

    When I moved here from the small town in which I grew up, I wanted the anonymity of a large area. I love it for that. I love people not knowing what I’m doing at every turn. I should also mention, and you know this, that I live in a ghetto apartment where my neighbors are either jobless or crackheads, so I avoid social interaction with them as much as possible.

    When I buy a house (and really social isolation has nothing to do with purchasing a home), I want to know my neighbors. Growing up, my mom and the other moms in the neighborhood would have coffee on our porch while we played with the other kids in the neighborhood in the yard. I want that.

    I do agree that homeowners are probably more likely to connect with their neighbors, as they are there for the long term, over renters. However, I know many people who, despite living next to people for years and years, won’t interact with them.

    • CF says:

      We definitely met more people when we lived in our condo versus when we are renting an apartment. I can’t say I wanted to hang out with very many of them… (our crazy neighbour often terrified me with her vigorous, noisy cleaning of my patio). But it does seem easier to get to know other homeowners, as long as you were inclined to be social.

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