Darryl Cooke, co-founder and executive chairman of the fast-growing international firm gunnercooke, explains why he decided to open a bookshop in Manchester to help combat the loneliness epidemic.
Unseen, unrecognised, untreated. Linked to a 25% higher risk of heart disease and cancer, 32% higher risk of a stroke, and 40% higher risk of Alzheimer’s. A bigger killer today than obesity, which claims at least 2.8 million lives worldwide.
The statistics paint a sobering picture – but maybe not the one you think.
Loneliness is set to be one of the biggest health challenges that we will face over the next 50 years.
Society and lifestyles have changed in such a way that making connections with one another appears to be easier than ever. Yet we find ourselves amid a mental health epidemic, a lonely century spanning communities, cities, and regions.
And for the chronically lonely there is an intrinsic tendency to withdraw from their friends, family and loved ones despite attempts to reconnect.
Research has shown that lonely brains detect social threats twice as fast as non-lonely brains: a chronically lonely person’s first reaction in a social setting is to flee for their own self-preservation. They will avoid and distrust people who reach out to try and form a connection, even if the person was previously a trusted friend or loved one.
Square mile philosophy
I’m a firm believer in the idea of the “square mile” – that within the square mile of where your company is based, every issue that society faces will be present. Realising that loneliness was such a deep issue in our society, I knew that there had to be something I could do in my immediate vicinity to help.
This is how the House of Books & Friends bookshop came to be.
House of Books & Friends is located on King Street in Manchester, just a few doors down from the gunnercooke head office. The bookshop is a Community Interest Company, meaning it seeks to benefit the community rather than private shareholders.
The approach is threefold: firstly, every penny of profit goes to charities focused on combatting loneliness. The shop itself acts as a friendly space for people to meet and work, and alongside this we are linking charities and community groups (from crafting clubs to walking groups) with the bookshop so that those who are socially isolated can find a potentially life-saving connection.
The bookshop also recently joined the “Chatty Café” scheme, which means that once a week there will be a volunteer in the café who is there to chat if anyone needs it. It’s small things like this that can make a huge difference to people who are feeling lonely.
We need to help give people a space to bond, chat and form human, face-to-face connections over a coffee and a slice of cake, or a shared love of a great novel.
Reading has the power of being able to connect people physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. With reading having the ability to make people feel a part of something and not feel so lonely, we believe that bookshops can be a really powerful tool. This is why we aim to open similar bookshops in all 12 of the cities that gunnercooke holds an office in, throughout the UK and worldwide.
Because House of Books & Friends is a Community Interest Company we are able to fully embrace the square mile philosophy.
We want to keep community and charity centre of mind to make sure our stores put local people first. We want to keep growing our groups that meet in them and to continue to host exciting events.
The work doesn’t start when I leave the office. At gunnercooke we give our lawyers command of their own time – step one in the search for happiness.
When you have flexibility and control of that most precious commodity, it’s natural to want to give back and enhance the quality of our own life as a result. The gunnercooke foundation, which works with the leaders of over 80 charities, is a vehicle to this, but it is our people that are in the driving seat.
What can you do?
I would encourage you to think about your own square mile. What, in your immediate vicinity, can you do to help? We all have responsibility, and as leaders we have the ability to influence. Think about what you’re passionate about and the unique skills that you or your company possess. There will be something you can do.
And remember that we can all do something just by learning to talk to everyone we meet, on the tube, or in the supermarket. You never know where it will lead.
Connect with Darryl Cooke via LinkedIn