Road Trips | Loneliness is ‘As Dangerous as Smoking’. Here’s How Driving Can Help

According to scientists, solitude can be as deadly as a 15-a-day habit...

by Hannah Summers
Jul 9 2018, 10:30am

Eleven a.m. on Wednesday morning and Sarah is fully up to speed on the state of my freelance finances, the end of an eight-year relationship, and my dad’s cyclingaccident. If she’s been listening closely, she’ll also know that I love Bruce Springsteen, hate black pepper, and regularly dogsit a cute-but-smelly pug.

Sarah is not my friend, family member or, er, counsellor. In fact, she is a total stranger. And no, I have not cornered Sarah after a few too many wines: she’s sensibly sober in the driver’s seat, and I’m swigging coffee in the passenger seat. Between us is just a radio, gearstick and a whole lot of life stories. Forget the psychologist’s sofa – this is the perfect setting for a full-on life debrief.

Our meeting, to some extent, is random: we are road-testing Mini’s new Hatch Maker initiative, an idea borne from the back of months of the car brand’s research looking into the state of millennial friendships (in summary: most of us want to make new friends, or be more in touch with existing friends, but doing this is hard).

Road trips provide the perfect forum for deep and meaningful conversations, according to psychologists. Photo: AL Pervomosk /Unsplash

Until July 12th, strangers can head to the Mini website and answer a platonic friendship-designed questionnaire which will help psychologist Mark Coulson (of Channel 4’s Married At First Sight fame) matchmake – sorry, hatch-make – potential new friends.

“Forget the psychologist’s sofa – the car is the perfect setting for a full-on life debrief.”

The pairs will then be sent on a road trip around the UK in a Mini (hatchback, obviously), enjoy a shared experience (Sarah and I slipped into lavender-coloured jumpsuits and went beekeeping) and be part of a journey that will allow them to get to know each other and hopefully become good pals.

Of course road trips are nothing new: friends have no doubt been burning rubber together since the Ford Model T – the world’s first mass-production car – hit the road in 1908 . They’ve formed the plot lines of iconic films and bands have dedicated entire songs to them – try your hardest, but it’s hard to forget Red Hot Chili Peppers’ trip down the Pacific Highway “loaded with snacks and supplies”.

The lavender-coloured jumpsuits provided for beekeeping. Photo: Hannah Summers

They’re also one of the most popular ways to spend our annual leave. According to luxury adventure holiday specialist Black Tomato, the number of road trip requests from customers has increased by 50% in the last year.

They are part of our holidays, habits and on a smaller scale our mundane daily rituals, but are no longer just a means to get from A to B. Instead, in a world of constant distractions, online contact and shirking phone calls, cars are one of the last remaining spaces where we can fully engage in one of life’s simplest and most essential pleasures: a good chat.

While road trips may allow the luxury of time to talk, the main player here is the space. It’s a forward-facing, non-confrontational setting. “Mammals feel threatened with eye contact,” clinical psychologist Linda Blair explains. “It can feel scary, and if you glance away from someone it can look like you’re avoiding them. A car instantly removes that. The driver can only look ahead, so it’s a natural way to reduce the intensity of conversations.”

“The driver can only look ahead, so it’s a natural way to reduce the intensity of conversations.” Photo: Courtesy of Mini

Awkward topics are easier to address, and we don’t feel overwhelmed by someone’s expressions. Travelling while sitting still can also ease us into a sense of purpose, and free our minds up to mull over things, and discuss. The result? We’re more likely to talk more freely and open up.

My road trip with Sarah is just one example of this. My adult life has been peppered with friendship-affirming drives. A trip around the Italian lakes with Allie saw conversation veer from her parent’s divorce, to which Cher hit we were going to blare on repeat for the next leg of the journey (sorry elderly residents of Lake Como). I spilled my anxieties about the beginning of a new relationship before broaching more important topics, like what shape of pasta I fancied for lunch.

The space allows you to switch up conversation to suit your mood in the moment – if it’s heading in a direction you don’t feel comfortable with, then it’s an easy space to change course.

The open road. Photo: Paul Rysz /Unsplash

As psychologist Mark Coulson explains: “In a car there’s always something to talk about, and you can listen to the radio so there are no pregnant pauses. The topic can also freely shift without it being awkward – so if things get too intense for one person, you can make an observation about the scenery, the behaviour of other drivers, or what’s on the radio.”

Beyond the physical space there is a ‘togetherness’ that road-tripping encourages. It’s a team building exercise: as a pair, you make decisions on where to stop, where to go, and how long to drive for.

Shared experiences are reported to bolster our psychological health, but beyond that it also helps develop trust in friendship: in an unfamiliar country and car, I put my trust in Allie navigating us along narrow, crazy-incline Italian roads, and she put her trust in my driving.

You don’t need a camper to go road tripping, but it helps. Photo: Abigail Keenan / Unsplash

Our only argument on the ten-day trip wasn’t with each other, but with the Sat Nav lady who sent us 60 minutes down a dark tunnel in the wrong direction.

Taking time to travel by road with someone also helps you develop your empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ). On a road trip you are encouraged to learn how to get what you want diplomatically, or have empathy for the person you are with.

Sure, arguments can happen – I’ve had friends have major road trip bust-ups over whether the air con should be on full blast or the windows should be rolled down for a fresh, dusty breeze (Car manufacturers have clocked on to this, and many give each passenger seat their own temperature control settings – not that that helps much with windows up vs. windows down).

“Loneliness is responsible for a 50% increase in mortality – making it as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”

Get through those problems though, and your emotional intelligence will ultimately make you happier. “A high EQ is more associated with better health than a high IQ,” Linda Blair tells me. “If your emotional intelligence increases you are more happy, confident and successful.”

It’s this quest for happiness that makes road trips more vital than ever. In the US, one in every five people define themselves as ‘lonely’; in the UK, it’s one in every four. According to recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics, 2.4 million adult British residents suffer from chronic loneliness, which leaves them at risk from diseases brought on by its impact on mental health.

Further analysis of 300,000 people across 148 studies recently highlighted that loneliness is responsible for a 50% increase in mortality – making it as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Road trips can help clear the head. Photo: Averie Woodard / Unsplash

It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by social media. Mini’s research showed that nearly three quarters of respondents felt they were missing out on vital face-to-face time with friends, swapping quality time with screen time.

We see people without being physically present, and engage with people in peculiar ways – lolling at new online friend’s posts on Instagram, getting behind strangers’ Twitter rants and slinging likes at barely-friends’ wedding pictures.

That’s just for starters: we’ve all been guilty of avoiding difficult conversations by resorting to rushed messages on WhatsApp, and spiralling into an anxious hole if we don’t get the reply we want – if the person replies at all. We are more connected than ever, but ironically lacking true connection.

“Part of the reason why we are so lonely is that we misunderstand our devices,” Blair tells me. “Social media can be great for many reasons, but it’s a source of information not connection.”

For a more meaningful connection the physical presence is essential – and whether you realise it or not, a basis of that connection is smell. You know the way you want to tear one person’s clothes off and not another’s? That’s smell too – and it’s something that also helps create friendships: parts of our brain only respond to the scent and touch of another person.

“Ultimately, in order to really feel like you have a friend you need to smell them,” Blair tells me. And the best place for that? Not a coffee shop, park or all-inclusive beach resort in the Caribbean. But the front seats of a car.

Hannah Summers is a freelance journalist based in London. Follow her on Twitter .

Mini’s Hatch Maker initiative is live until July 12th. Sign up to win a road trip with a new friend around the UK.