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A recent meme showcasing single-person benches in a Helsinki park amused people across the world making fun of Finns who enjoy their solitude. On International Volunteer Day, December 5th, Helsinki’s single-person benches get a counterpart, creating space for new encounters. The Buddy Benches are also raising awareness of a global issue: loneliness is a public health threat that needs to be addressed.
Finnish desire for personal space went viral as Helsinki’s single-person park benches gained global attention on social media. Although the city claims the benches aim to prevent disorderly behaviour, the benches were quickly dubbed online as the “introvert’s dream”, reinforcing Finland’s introverted reputation abroad.
On the International Volunteer Day, December 5th, the benches fostering personal space got buddy benches that state a simple yet significant question: “Would you sit down with me for a moment?” Behind this initiative is HelsinkiMissio, a Finnish organisation combating loneliness for the 140th year in a row. The initiative highlights that while many people may seek solitude, for some, sitting alone is the only option.
“In honour of our anniversary and the International Volunteer Day, we want to highlight that Finland also has a strong sense of community. That’s why we brought buddy benches to the Pikkuparlamentin puisto park, where strangers can encounter each other and connect like friends,” says Hanna Falk, the Volunteer Program Manager of HelsinkiMissio.
Finns are often depicted as melancholic and reserved, avoiding contact with strangers. Even if Finnish self-irony allows for playing with these stereotypes, many people in Finland also unintentionally end up alone. Studies show that one in ten Finns experiences loneliness. Loneliness consumes both the mind and the body. That’s why it is a collective responsibility for all of us to reduce loneliness. It can mean small actions and encounters in everyday life. One way is also to become a volunteer, as it reduces the loneliness of both the volunteer and the recipient, clarifies Falk.
The surge in loneliness has become similar to a widespread epidemic, profoundly affecting individuals and society. Studies reveal that chronic loneliness is as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes daily, and the overall effects of loneliness increase the risk of death by up to 26 percent. Loneliness poses a significant health risk for the elderly and leads to growing distress even among school-age children and students.
The rise in loneliness is a concern worldwide. The WHO recognizes it as a global health threat, and countries like the UK and Japan, have appointed ministers to address it.
HelsinkiMissio aims to establish a national loneliness strategy in Finland and integrate the assessment of the impacts of loneliness into decision-making processes. Recognizing the loneliness-reducing effects of volunteer work is crucial to ensure adequate resourcing for the future.
HelsinkiMissio is a politically and religiously unaffiliated social organization. The organization’s mission is to reduce loneliness and enhance well-being throughout Finland. The goal is that no one is left alone.
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