Research shows how to make better personal connections in an online world.

Loneliness could be the world's next biggest public health crisis - and attending live theatre performances may be a way to avoid it.

Dr Laura Haughey, a senior lecturer and convenor of Theatre Studies at the University of Waikato, says a good portion of people's lives are now lived through a screen, social media posts have replaced face-to-face conversations, online 'friends' have superseded traditional friendships and email eliminates the need to physically speak to one another.

"Warnings are being sounded about the mental health repercussions," she says. "In fact it's been suggested loneliness could be the world's next biggest public health crisis as it raises our cortisol levels, affects our quality of sleep and contributes to depression," she says.

Haughey says humans have always been inherently social creatures and asks how it is possible to balance social media use with real-life social interactions and experiences.
She believes attending live performances is one important way to nuture our humanity and make genuine connections.

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"Oscar Wilde regarded the theatre as the greatest of all art forms," she says. "He described it as 'the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being'.

"Theatre is a space to share stories, to examine the human condition and to learn about each other and the world we inhabit."

Haughey says watching a concert or performance on screen doesn't produce the same level of connection that being part of an audience in the same room with the performers does.

"Being part of a group that's larger than ourselves is important," she says. "There's something magical when whoever's on stage is making, performing or creating at the same time an audience is receiving that performance.

"Watching through a screen is not the same. Once a live performance has started you can't pause it; you are there in the room and there comes a palpable exchange of energy."

In 2017 neuroscientists from University College London discovered live theatre can synchronise the heart beats of an audience after monitoring the heart rates and skin response of selected audience members while they were watching the Dreamgirls musical.

They found dozens of people responded in unison as their pulses sped up sand slowed down at the same rate.

Dr Joseph Devlin, head of experimental psychology at the London University says usually a group of individuals will have their own heart rates and rhythms, with little relationship to one another.

"But during experiences with heightened levels of emotion, people's heart beats can become synchronised, which in itself is astounding," he says. "Experiencing the live theatre performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience in the audience members."

Haughey's own research has confirmed the power of live theatre to connect people. Recently she created international theatre performances with deaf and hearing actors and audiences – creating an opportunity for learning, connection and for an audience to come together.

She says given theatre is proving such a powerful tool, employers shouldn't underestimate the value of skills that arts and social science students naturally acquire during tertiary study.

"Creativity, problem solving, provoking, disrupting - the confidence to stand up in front of other people and display genuine 'presence' when speaking - the hugely transferable nature of the skills you can get from an arts degree is exciting."

Theatre studies graduates also explore mindfulness to overcome loneliness and anxiety says Haughey.

"When an actor steps on stage they have to be really present in that moment and share part of themselves with the audience. We teach our students to be 'in' their bodies and to raise their awareness of their body's capabilities; it can lead to a much healthier approach to life."