COOK, GROW, READ YOUR WAY TO HAPPINESS

Loneliness is an epidemic with far reaching fingers, deeply affecting hundreds of thousands of Australians; in fact, some studies suggest chronic loneliness is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. For mother and lawyer, Mea Campbell, this was the impetus to create her for-purpose organisation, Connected AU. What started as a pen-pal project has now grown to include online hobby groups, reaching beyond our preconceived ideas of what it means to be lonely. The organisation not only eases loneliness, but helps to connect, inspire and embolden those looking to add richness to their life.



Life’s rhythms can sometimes take us by surprise. The wax and wane of new chapters can be confronting. A busy work life gives way to a newborn and a too-quiet house. Identities are swallowed by the babble of young children. The loss of a parent or a lifelong partner sends shock waves through our routine. Empty nesters. Redundancies, divorce, disease. Moving suburb, city, state. Days that simply look different to how they once did.

Thank goodness for technology, I say. For all its evils, there are so many corners of the world wide web where daffodils grow and crockpots simmer fragrantly and books enchant with intrigue and mystery. Where people mingle freely, unrestrained from the ties of geography, life-stage, pandemics or culture. There’s fun and freedom in that intersection, and it’s the sweet spot Connected AU is harnessing.

The work began with the Letterbox Project, a national pen-pal network coined in the dark nights of lockdown 1.0 in 2020. Founder, Mea Campbell wanted to provide solace and connection to the chronically lonely and the most vulnerable; the elderly and those living with disabilities, estranged or uncherished. It captured the imagination of the country and exploded, with nearly 20,000 people signing up to send and receive letters.


But the organisation is not just catering for the lonely. It’s also bridging social gaps through its four online hobby groups, which serve literally everybody and a balm to the soul during these often weird times. Monitored by Connected AU staff, the groups offer a space safe and inclusive to all.


“We have a book club, a cooking club, a gardening club and a social club, that provide animation, connection and learning, for those who might be lacking something but also those who simply want to add more colour to their life,” Mea says. “Whether they want to learn more about composting, connect with likeminded souls, read books they wouldn’t normally pick up or have a glass of wine with a new social circle from the comfort of their living room. The groups are simply so fun, uplifting and positive.”



With weekly newsletters, thoughtfully curated resources including articles and videos, engaging group chats and a monthly virtual meeting, it’s an immersion in joy. With the occasional guest speaker – like Sunrise presenter Edwina Bartholomew and author and designer Samantha Wills – members say the groups are something to look forward to.

“Not everyone who joins is necessarily lonely – some join because they love to share their hobbies, or want to learn more about gardening or step out of their comfort zone with their cooking,” Mea says. “Many are beginner gardeners or cooks, or use the book club as motivation to read more or connect with other bookworms. We also have quite a few mothers who find it hard to get out of the house with babies at their feet. This is a chance for them to do something for themselves.”

One such mother is 31-year-old Annie*. The mum of four joined Connected AU’s social group to connect with others who find themselves in similar boats.

“I am constantly surrounded by people, but motherhood can be so lonely and isolating. My youngest two children are 13 months apart and getting out of the house with two cheeky toddlers constantly with me is really hard. While we try to find a good balance of staying home and heading out, isolation and loneliness is a big part of being an at-home parent,” Annie says. “I love the newsletters, information and the live chat. I get so excited for the virtual meeting at the end of the month!”

For Annie, these virtual friendships are as real and vivid as those in person.


“Connecting with people is so important for mental health. I’ve managed to make some of my closest friends through the internet and believe those relationships can be just as special as traditional friendships”

“Having a platform to connect with others that is monitored by admin is such a useful tool, especially for vulnerable populations of people.”


THE EXPERIENCE OF FEELING UNSEEN


Author and podcaster, Cathrine Mahoney is an upcoming special guest for the social club. She has known the bite of unexpected life-change – and found the antidote online.

“When my marriage ended and my son was only five, suddenly I was on my own a lot. Connections online made me feel that I had a network of people. I did different hobby courses and I signed up to learn different crafts and it was just so nice to meet people with similar interests. And they’re still people now, all these years on, that I’m connected to. I haven’t met a lot of them in person, but they feel like family,” she says. “Since COVID-19, Zoom has really shown its importance. I’ve had business meetings, done meditations and had coffees, all over Zoom. The way that technology connects us now is so needed. It’s one thing to hear a voice on the phone, it’s another thing altogether to see a voice on the screen.”

Clinical psychologist Miriam Kirmayer is an expert on loneliness. The researcher recently wrote, ‘Loneliness has less to do with being alone and much more to do with the experience of feeling unseen.’ Mea agrees.

“I join the monthly virtual meetings, and it’s extraordinary to watch the changes in people. I’ve seen member’s whole moods change; they go from withdrawn or quiet, to animated and chatty,” Mea says. “That’s what we’re all looking for. Connection sustains us. It breathes life into our days and makes everything that little bit better. Who doesn’t want that?”

*Name has been changed


{words: Emily Herbertphotography: Clancy Paine}