Jillian Richardson is "on a mission to make the world less lonely" with The Joy List. Every Monday morning for two and a half years now, she has sent out the curated list of New York City-based events to her over 10,000 subscribers–and she plans to expand The Joy List to other cities soon.
And she's writing a book! Unlonely Planet comes out in July.
So, yes, Jillian is busy, but she thankfully set aside some time for The Lonely Hour. Read our conversation below.
Julia: How did The Joy List come to be?
Jillian: The newsletter was born of my own experience with loneliness when I moved to New York City three years ago.
I purposefully graduated from college early because I was just so excited to move to the city and start my life as a comedy writer. I met with agents and I was on an indie improv team–it was happening!–but I noticed that successful comics did not seem like happy people. Their feelings of self-worth tended to be tied to other people's approval of them, and there was this depressive personality type: "We don't feel totally comfortable being vulnerable with each other, so we'll just tell a bunch of jokes, making fun of each other and making fun of ourselves." I still default to that if I'm uncomfortable, but I didn't want to participate in a community where that was the norm.
Julia: So what about the loneliness piece?
Jillian: My first night here, I was so excited: "I moved to New York City! I'm an adult! I'm going to do so many cool things!" My one friend who lived here was going to take me out. As I got ready, I texted him, and he wasn't replying. After a while, I just deflated. I felt helpless.
Julia: So, there was a plan to hang out and he just flaked?
Julia: Are people flakier these days, in your experience?
Jillian: Good question. I can offer that I think I became so drawn to group events because if I planned on going with a friend and they couldn't make it in the end, I was still going to be surrounded by people.
Julia: I was raised to respond to invites promptly and to commit to my answer. There's something about the "interested" button on Facebook event invites that bothers me, thusly. It's a non-answer!
Jillian: As an event organizer, the "maybe" function is the worst thing ever.
Julia: I wonder if it's degrading good etiquette.
Jillian: Hearing you say that, it reminds me: A lot of my friends and I have been discussing boundaries recently. I'm only just learning how to set clear boundaries with my time, understanding how I want to spend it and when it's okay to tell people "no." But the "maybe" function ties into that discomfort. Saying "no" is kind of like rejecting somebody, so a "maybe" option inflicts less pain.
Julia: I got us off track. Let's go back to that first night: What happened in the end? Did you go out?
Jillian: I just stayed at home. And I cried, actually. It was a sad night, and I felt deeply alone. Then, over time, it struck me: I'm a really outgoing person, and it's really easy for me to go to events by myself and talk to new people, but I still felt this sense of disconnection. I had this moment: "If I got sick, or if I was going through something really traumatic, or if something was happening to a family member, there is really no one in my life who I would be comfortable talking to about that. Do I really have real friends?"
Julia: So how did that lead to The Joy List?
Jillian: I became obsessed with finding events, but, to be honest, I wasn't going to the right spaces at first. Then I went to Camp Grounded, a digital detox summer camp for adults. In three days, I formed deeper friendships with people than I had in my six months in New York City.
Julia: What was it about Camp Grounded that fostered those friendships?
Jillian: They had rules in place that made it easier to have what I would call a quality connection with someone. The rules were: (1) no technology, including clocks, (2) no work talk, (3) no age talk, and (4) no substances. So I didn't know what anyone's job or age was, I was forced to be in the moment, and it was a completely sober weekend.
Julia: What wasn't working at those other events, the ones you attended before Camp Grounded?
Jillian: It's the standard default for most people to go to loud spaces and, shouting over the music, try to talk in a mind-altered state. Bars were not satisfying to me. The conversations had there were not satisfying to me.
You know, something has been lost, where the art of conversation is concerned. I think people feel like they need permission to ask something that's deeper than the standard, "What do you do?" People think it's weird to ask "What's something you're excited about right now?"
Julia: What do you attribute that loss to?
Jillian: We used to have to rely on each other more. We had to be a part of a community to survive. It's so easy to lead individualistic lives now. We go to work, we go to the gym by ourselves, we go home, and we repeat. And that self-reliance is glorified, which is scary to me.
Julia: What's an example of another deeper question you wish people were asking each other at social gatherings?
Jillian: I spoke at Startup Grind last week about why companies should use traditional advertising less and create spaces for connection more. At the end of my talk, I asked everyone in the room to close their eyes. Then I said, "Think about someone who really loves you. Think about how that person would describe you to somebody else. How would your partner describe you? How would your mom describe you? Then, turn to someone who you don't know and introduce yourself from the perspective of that person." The auditorium exploded in conversation. The stage manager said he has been working that conference for six years and had never seen anything like it.
Julia: What's your answer to your own question? How would you introduce yourself?
Jillian: I would introduce myself from the perspective of my friend Duncan. He would say, "Jillian is good at finding something that she's afraid of and then tackling it." One of his favorite things about me is that I had a paralyzing fear of dancing up until a year ago, and I just decided that I was going to keep going to dance parties until I could move on the dance floor. So I just kept going until I felt more comfortable.
Julia: Brave! So how does all of this play into The Joy List?
Jillian: I promote events that have facilitated moments of connection. Our mission is to reduce loneliness in New York City, and eventually the world.
I also host an event called The Joy List Social once a month. The idea is to come by yourself and leave with a new friend. Once you've checked in, a volunteer takes you into the space and introduces you to someone. So, immediately, boom! Permission to talk to somebody. You're both given a prompt, so that you can ask anyone else that same question. Last time, it was simple: "What's something that brought you joy this week?"
Julia: What does the future look like for The Loy List?
Jillian: One goal is to launch The Joy List newsletter and event series in a bunch of cities. People are hungry for deeper connection everywhere, but they don't know where to go for it! That's what The Joy List is for. Another goal is to share a collection of healing resources in each city. Trauma centers, sliding scale therapists, hotlines, reiki practitioners–I want to dig deeper into mental health.
Julia: And your book!
Jillian: Yes! Unlonely Planet is made up of three parts. Part one explains how we got so lonely. Part two shows certain secular spaces that do a great job of creating belonging. As participation in organized religion is going down, loneliness is going up. A lot of people are missing what religion provided: that sense of community and connection and accountability to each other. We're in this weird stage of trying to figure out what new spaces to create, but some people are doing that well. Then, part three explores why we, as a society, don't value community builders very much; how to prevent organizer burnout; and why the reader should, despite all of that, be a space-maker themselves. We desperately need them!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.