ENCINITAS — A group of North County residents hopes to reduce problems surrounding loneliness with one simple project: free listening.
Since the summer, the group has gathered at Cardiff Kook for a few hours to offer “free” listening to anyone in the public. Passersby can stop and talk about any subject for up to 10 minutes.
Shannon Gilbride, a local marriage and family therapist, said she got the idea of the “Free Listening Project” after learning about “Sidewalk Talk” on CBS News earlier this year. The unaffiliated project has the same goal of solving the epidemic surrounding loneliness in the U.S., she said.
“This past June, a small group of us created a ‘Free Listening Project’ to engage with our community and bring awareness to our country’s loneliness epidemic,” Gilbride said. “Sigmund Freud got it right over 100 years ago when he wrote, ‘Without love, we fall ill.’”
Loneliness is felt by at least 47% of adults in the U.S. and contributes to other health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, depression and even suicide, according to Psychology Today.
“Those feeling lonely at any age perceive others are not listening to them, taking them seriously, making eye contact, and either explicitly or implicitly dismissing them,” the magazine wrote in a February 2019 article. “This perception, whether or not reflective of reality, reinforces feeling disconnected, dismissed, and uncomfortably isolated.”
Moreover, researchers with the University of Missouri found that the bulk of the public are “inefficient listeners,” taking in only a quarter of what we actually hear. The researchers also found that listening worsens as one ages.
With the statistics of loneliness in mind, Gilbride said she and five others decided to test out the “Free Listening Project” in front of the Cardiff Kook where they encountered walkers, runners and surfers along the beach.
“Those who have stopped by have been curious and excited about what we’re doing. We get a lot of honks from drivers driving by,” Gilbride said. “A local college professor chatted with us and affirmed that loneliness is a major issue for many college students. Another person was just glad he could tell someone he was grateful for his girlfriend.”
Gilbride said the public has been receptive because it reminds “folks that listening is a powerful and healing thing.”
“Listening counts,” Gilbride said. “Listening is doing something.”
Jennifer Jones, a Cardiff resident, said she decided to volunteer for the “Free Listening” project because she was interested in the public’s response to a group of people who weren’t soliciting donations or asking for signatures to petitions.
“This art project is reviving the ancient art of listening,” Jones said. “There’s no advice, no fixing, and no judgment.”
Although few passersby chose to talk to the volunteers for the full 10 minutes, Jones said she is hopeful they’ll receive more participants at a future event.
“Maybe next time if the booth is familiar and people are informed, some will try it,” Jones said. “They may like it. If they say yes, we’ll be listening.”
But the volunteers aren’t just listening to people. Gilbride said they also hope to inspire people.
“We’re hoping to inspire people to lend out their listening ears to others in their lives,” Gilbride said. “We’re all just a bunch of little pebbles in a large pond with ripple effects. Maybe loneliness, gun violence and suicide rates would decrease if children, teens, and adults had people in their lives who really listen and care about them.”
If enough people are inspired, perhaps a project such as “Free Listening” will no longer be needed, Gilbride said.
“Hopefully our loneliness epidemic will be a thing of the past and we won’t have to be doing this project in five or 10 years,” Gilbride said. “We believe listening is an act of love. We all need someone who listens.” The next “Free Listening” project is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Dec. 14 in front of the Cardiff Kook. Those who want to talk to a volunteer or learn more about the project can stop by then.