Buying friends and hugs: how the loneliness epidemic is becoming a business


One of these summer weekends, Tracy Ruble and 20 others sat in empty chairs on the corner of a San Francisco street, waiting for anyone who wanted company to talk to. Quickly, the idea came to life of its own. Adam Paulman, meanwhile, participated in a “hug party” in nearby San Diego, where about 30 people paid $20 (about € 18) to touch without any sexual intentions. As these initiatives proliferate, health officials are warning that there is an “epidemic of loneliness,” a condition more harmful than obesity and as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Well-known statistics match this picture: more than half of adults in America think no one knows them, and 46% admit they feel lonely, often or even always.

There are no differences by gender or origin - the differences in this chapter are determined by age. The so-called generation Z of digital natives feels the most alone. An obvious reason will be hyper-connectivity, but according to the sample presented, there is no relevant variation between those who use social networks a lot or little. The factor that defines whether the person feels more or less alone is how often they have face-to-face personal relationships. And the dramatic thing about all this isolation is that it can have fatal consequences, as Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University, warned during a statement before the US Senate in 2017, in which she underlined that this is an ongoing problem to make it structural.

Market responses to this question did not take long. Among the first is CareMore Health, which offers a program called Togetherness on health care for the elderly and people with limited resources that treats loneliness as a condition that can be diagnosed, prevented and treated. In practice, it consists of weekly telephone calls, home visits, personal encouragement and community programs. Since then, supply has continued to grow: Take the case of Chuck McCarthy, who created The People Walker, explaining that their service is a response to companies that invest millions of dollars to make people feel alone at a screen. "When someone is walking, not on social networks, not watching streaming services, playing games or buying online," he says, quoted by El País. All of his walkers go through a request and verification process. Of course, the place is guarded during that day.

There is also Rent a Friend, which has been in the US for ten years and has over 600,000 "rented friends" in various countries around the world. Users pay between five and ten euros per hour and the following protocol is simple: to be in public places, to have the mobile phone handy, to tell an acquaintance where they will be and what time they should return. The idea comes from entrepreneur Scott Rosenbaum, who was inspired by a Japanese application where people paid to have someone - a stranger ... accompany them to a funeral or family dinner after a divorce. Rosenbaum explains that users talk to several candidates first and then when they find what they are looking for, they hire their services. Here, unlike hug parties - night gatherings created 15 years ago - the goal is to meet people and bond, Paulman says.

Therapist Tracy Ruble acknowledges that the fact that there are so many initiatives to combat loneliness “demonstrates how big the problem is and what led her to found Sidewalk Talk - the idea of genius that made her gather some friends and sit down in the street, in front of empty chairs, for those who wanted to talk to them to do so. Such was the success that the experience quickly became an organization, rooted in many countries - and only two episodes actually negative, Ruble acknowledges. However, and not wanting to judge who chooses to pay for services that live off what is considered a disease, that expert has no half words to get to the heart of the matter: "what is needed is for most people to receive decent wages. When you have two and three jobs to make a living,