Combating Loneliness: 'Happy to Chat' Benches

At PathNorth, we are always looking for something on the brighter side of life. Recently, I was struck by an article appearing in the Washington Post about a British detective with the Avon and Somerset Police in Western England. Detective Jones, as you will read, in working with an elderly widow who had been scammed out of about $31,000, realized that she did not mind sending the con man money because she was so lonely. She otherwise would not speak to another person for weeks on end!

Detective Jones’ solution to combatting loneliness in his community—the creation of “the ‘Happy to Chat Bench.’ Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello.” What a great way to make a new connection!

Loneliness is an ‘epidemic.’ According to the former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, loneliness contributes to depression, obesity, drug and opiate abuse and countless other illnesses. A 2015 study found that loneliness and social isolation is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). Wow!

Reading this article made me think of Elizabeth Campbell, a remarkable friend of our family, an educator who used her own non-obvious idea to experiment with television – initially from a high school library in our neighborhood – as a novel way to reach students and enliven learning. That experiment eventually became WETA, Channel 26, Public Television in the Washington, D.C. area and it launched public television across the country.

Elizabeth Campbell was a gracious but determined pioneer, and her husband, Ed, was a courageous lawyer and hero of mine who despite death threats agreed to take on the case in the 1950’s that broke the back of ‘massive resistance’ to integration in Virginia. Ed lived to be 97 years of age (Doug and I helped him publish a small book he wrote, entitled Musings of a 95 Year Old). Elizabeth lived to be 102. 

Around Christmas time every year until she died, Mrs. Campbell would rise from her seat toward the front of church and recite a poem her father (a Moravian Bishop in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) taught her as a child. It went something like this: 

“Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light.
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, Jesus bids us shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.”

The story of Detective Jones’ small step to tackle loneliness in his town struck me as another example of a person like Elizabeth Campbell, someone trying to "light a little candle in their small corner..."


Bob Woody serves as managing partner of Elgin Capital Partners and is a PathNorth board member, heading the finance committee. Bob and his wife Nan reside in Arlington, Virginia and have four children and nine grandchildren.