GFPs, this week’s section is going to be in two parts. It’s been inspired by a podcast I happened to listen to last week called The Happiness Lab
, specifically, an episode called “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude
.” We are going to end on a gender data gap, but I must warn you that we aren’t going to start there, because the whacking great gender data gap this episode sported was not the first thing I noticed about it. And I want to start off talking about that initial reaction, because it ties in with some other non-gender-data-gap-although-still-data-gap-related thoughts I’ve been having recently that I’ve been thinking about sharing with you for a while.
I’ve not listened to that many episodes of The Happiness Lab yet, but the general gist so far is how much we get wrong about what will make us happy. This particular episode focused on how we think we prefer not to be around other people, when in fact not being around other people makes us, well, extremely unhappy. (In this podcast’s defence, it came out in the B.C. times, when that point wasn’t as blindingly obvious as it may seem to us now – although it’s perhaps not blindingly obvious to all of us and that’s kind of what I want to talk about.)
One famous happiness study
from 2002 concluded that “Good social relationships might be a necessary condition for high happiness.” Another 2002 study
(by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Danny Kahneman no less) looked at which daily activities made people feel happiest and socialising came out on top, ahead of eating, shopping, watching TV and even relaxing, which pre-pandemic might have come as a shock to me, an extremely lazy person who would basically always rather be in bed.
By contrast, “Feeling isolated is said to be as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” explains Dr Santos.
If loneliness had a health warning, it would sound like this: may cause increased risk of inflammation, disrupted sleep abnormal immune responses to depression, anxiety, high stress levels, early cognitive decline, alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, suicide, even early death.
As Dr Laurie Santos, the podcast host concludes:
Just being with other people makes us feel good. Even if those people are strangers.
It’s this strangers point that really hit me, because that’s the kind of interaction that we have been most starved of: the seemingly meaningless minor short-lived interactions we have (or had) with strangers every day. These interactions are, it turns out, extremely important. As Nick Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, put it to Santos: “Happiness isn’t about the intensity of experiences that we have. It’s about the frequency of them.” (Remember crying the first time you got to go out and buy a coffee after lockdown? This is why. Oh….was that just me? 😬)
Anyway. Listening to this on the other side of a pandemic where almost everyone in the world has, to a greater or lesser extent been “feeling isolated” got me thinking about how comparatively little airtime the serious impact isolation has on our mental and physical health has received over the past two years. It got me thinking about how and why this particular data gap came about.
My initial working theory, developed back in January 2021 or so when I was personally suffering some quite serious lockdown-induced mental health effects, was that the policymakers who drew up these laws didn’t ever have to live by them – and not just because of all the cheese parties we now know were being hosted at Downing Street
, but rather because the nature of their jobs meant they never really locked down at all.
The first lockdown in Britain, where we were essentially under house arrest (allowed out only to buy food or for our one-hour-allotted-exercise-time and god forbid you speak to anyone or sit down on a bench) was not one that was experienced by politicians and other policymakers.
They may well have experienced many other pandemic-induced negative effects, including some that we didn’t, but one thing we can say is that they did not lack for human interaction. They did not experience the isolation felt by the rest of us. Perhaps this partly explains why any discussions we did have about the negative impact of lockdowns tended to be dominated by the economy.
By raising this data gap I am not saying that any of the UK lockdowns were not needed or ultimately justified (and for the record, I have obeyed every rule, no matter how painful, which is more than can be said for Boris Johson
What I am saying is that the mental and physical health effects of isolation were almost wholly absent from this discussion, and they shouldn’t have been. I am saying that this data gap matters. And I’m saying that as we continue to find our way through this “new normal,” whatever it ends up looking like, this is something we need to be thinking about a whole lot more than we are right now.
So that’s data gap number one, but I promised you a gendered data gap and here it comes.
So there I was, nodding away furiously as Dr Santos and Professor Epley discussed how our interactions with strangers were super important to our wellbeing, and, uh-oh, sirens blazing, here comes that pesky gender data gap antennae ruining everything for me as usual.
The antennae started twitching when Professor Epley started to tell Dr Santos about the findings of a series of experiments he conducted into whether talking to strangers was a positive experience for people.
These experiments involved asking people on trains to either find a stranger to talk to or to sit in solitude, and then to report on their experience. The study found that, wildly contrary to people’s expectations (people almost uniformly thought they would hate talking to a stranger on a train because duh), the experience of talking to a stranger was almost uniformly positive – and more positive than getting to sit the f*** in peace. So, perhaps not so duh as we might think.
But what about the
poor sod lucky chosen one they spoke to? Well, the experimenters thought about that too, and they conducted a further experiment where two participants had a 10 minute break in the middle of unrelated tasks in a laboratory experiment and again one person was either asked to speak or not speak to the other participant. After this experiment both the talker and the talkee were interviewed about how they felt about the interaction and, again, everyone had a better time interacting than sitting in silence.
And this is where the gender data gap comes in. While the methods sections of each experiment all stated that they collected demographic data on their participants, and asked them to report on the demographics of the, there was no evidence that they applied any gendered analysis to this data whatsoever.
Did it, for example, make a difference if the person initiating the conversation was female? Did it matter if the person being spoken to was the same sex as the person initiating the conversation? Who knows? Who cares! 🤪
There was also no apparent appreciation of the difference between being spoken to by a fellow lab volunteer in a ten-minute break, versus being spoken to on a train by a complete stranger about whom you have zero contextualising information, where you could be stuck for hours, and where the stations you get on and off at may well reveal personally-identifying information.
To be clear, I am not disputing that interactions with strangers can be pleasant – indeed as I’ve noted above they can be far more than pleasant. What I am saying is that you can’t (or shouldn’t) make blanket statements about the pleasantness or otherwise of having a stranger speak to you on public transport without incorporating a gendered analysis and an awareness that many women are wary around men they don’t know.
As I wrote in Invisible Women on this topic,
Women are often scared in public spaces. In fact, they are around twice as likely to be scared as men. And, rather unusually, we have the data to prove it. ‘Crime surveys and empirical studies from different parts of the world show that a majority of women are fearful of the potential violence against them when in public spaces,’ explains urban-planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. […]A UK Department for Transport study highlighted the stark difference between male and female perceptions of danger, finding that 62% of women are scared walking in multistorey car parks, 60% are scared waiting on train platforms, 49% are scared waiting at the bus stop, and 59% are scared walking home from a bus stop or station. The figures for men are 31%, 25%, 20% and 25%, respectively. […S]tudies from around the world find that fear of crime is ‘amongst the most important reasons women choose not to use public transport’. (IW, pp.52-53
And as I also wrote in Invisible Women, women’s fear is not irrational, no matter what the official gender-data-gap-ridden statistics say. Women have good reason to feel this fear – not least when they are on public transport:
As women navigate public spaces, they are also navigating a slew of threatening sexual behaviours. Before we even get to the more serious offences like being assaulted, women are dealing on a daily basis with behaviours from men that make – and are often calculated to make – them feel uncomfortable. Ranging from catcalling, to being leered at, to the use of ‘sexualised slurs [and] requests for someone’s name’, none of these behaviours is criminal exactly, but they all add up to a feeling of sexual menace. A feeling of being watched. Of being in danger – and in fact these behaviours can easily escalate. Enough women have experienced the sharp shift from ‘Smile, love, it might never happen,’ to ‘Fuck you bitch why are you ignoring me?’ to being followed home and assaulted, to know that an ‘innocent’ comment from a male stranger can be anything but.
A recent Brazilian survey found that two-thirds of women had been victims of sexual harassment and violence while in transit, half of them on public transportation. The proportion among men was 18%. […] A 2016 study found that 90% of French women had been victims of sexual harassment on public transport; in May that year two men were jailed for an attempted gang rape on a Paris train. A 2016 Washington metro survey found that women were three times more likely than men to face harassment on public transport. In April that year a suspect was identified in an indecent exposure incident on the Washington metro; a month later he had escalated to raping a woman at knifepoint on a train. In October 2017 another repeat offender was arrested on the Washington metro: he had targeted the same victim twice. IW, pp.54-57
So, you know. Before we go around merrily telling people to initiate chats with strangers on trains, maybe we should just clear up this teensy little gendered data gap about whether the anxiety many women will feel at being approached by a strange man on public transport really will be outweighed by the positive impact of a human interaction.
Maybe it will! And that would be great! But it sure would be good to know for sure, wouldn’t it?