British Columbia·Still lonely

Still lonely? Vancouver's 'loneliest person' 1 year on

It’s been a year since Winston Yuen’s lonely cry for help launched him from an obscure corner of Vancouver’s social media scene to temporary, local celebrity status. But did the initial wave of empathy do him — or the city — any good?

'I think people promise more than they can give,' says Winston Yuen

Winston Yuen's willingness to share his story of chronic isolation quickly made him the poster boy for Vancouver's connection problem. But did it do him any good? (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It's been a year since Winston Yuen's lonely cry for help launched him from an obscure corner of Vancouver's social media scene to temporary, local celebrity status.

His Reddit post entitled "So lonely in Vancouver I don't know what to do anymore," became the launching pad for CBC Vancouver's series Pretty Lonely, and Yuen's willingness to share his story of chronic isolation quickly made him the poster boy for the city's connection problem.

Yuen's tale touched a nerve. Hundreds of people commented, emailed, tweeted and called in response, telling their own stories of loneliness and offering to befriend, adopt or date Winston Yuen, a 30-year-old Burnaby man who has been trying, without success, to make friends since elementary school.

But did the initial wave of empathy do him, or the city, any good?

We caught up with Yuen a year later over coffee to ask if anything had changed since last November.

"Kind of," Yuen said as he shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

He still hasn't found a sustained friendship, despite being born and raised in Metro Vancouver, but after his story went viral he spent New Year's Eve 2018 at a bar with a woman who reached out on Facebook and her group of friends. He began online dating. He has started hiking with a man he met online.

"We would benefit from paying a little more attention to taking responsibility for ourselves and taking responsibility for others to combating loneliness...we're only just learning how to do that," said David Klonsky, professor of psychology at UBC. (Reddit )

Lots of opportunity came his way but he found it hard to transfer the momentum into lasting connection.

He still blames that on what he describes as Vancouver's 'flaky' culture of last minute cancellations.

"I think people promise more than they can give, I think they do that because it's uncomfortable to say "no."

Those are fair points, but before we finished our coffees I asked him a question I've asked many people claiming loneliness in this city: How much of this is down to you?

"Sure there are things I can work on," he said, "but another issue is, I feel, the city."

Learning loneliness

What Winston Yuen calls "the loneliness spectrum," is something most people flow in and out of throughout their lives says University of British Columbia psychology professor Amori Mikami.

Mikami believes there needs to be more awareness of how to intervene when we see ourselves, our loved ones, or even strangers at risk of isolation.

What Winston Yuen calls "the loneliness spectrum," is something most people flow in and out of throughout their lives says UBC psychology professor Amori Mikami. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"I don't think all the responsibility should be on the person who feels lonely," Mikami said. "I think the burden also falls on us."

She finds Yuen's enduring efforts to connect admirable. 

It's easy to get buried under loneliness, and individual efforts to connect can only take one so far.

What is the opposite of loneliness?

Much of the growing coverage of loneliness in 2019 has focused on uncovering the problem, but the antidote, often referred to as 'community' or 'connection,'  still remains vague.

What these terms refer to exactly can be hard to pin down, says David Klonsky, another psychology professor, who studies suicide at UBC.

 

He says there is some public health urgency in gaining a better understanding of "connectedness."

Just as we've been taught to spot the predictors for heart disease in our own bodies, Klonsky believes, we should aim to spot the creeping signs of disconnection.

"We would benefit from paying a little more attention to taking responsibility for ourselves and taking responsibility for others to combating loneliness...we're only just learning how to do that."

Winston Yuen is still hopeful we can get there.

I got a series of texts from him on my way home after our chat. He had dropped his wallet during our photo shoot, a stranger had returned it, declined Yuen's offer of a reward and even offered to meet up again to hang out.

Yuen's final text reads,

"That's what I mean when I think there's a lot of good people in this city but we just don't have the time, or make the effort, to connect outside our bubble."

This story is part of CBC Vancouver's series Still Lonely? Airing on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition from Nov. 25-29, with features on CBC Vancouver News at 6 and cbc.ca/bc

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