We're in the middle of an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, one in two adults in America now report experiencing loneliness. This is devastatingly affecting our personal and collective health and well-being.
"Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health," says U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy. "It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity."
It would be easy — and not altogether inappropriate — to blame this phenomenon on social media or COVID-19. We've been suffering from this condition long before the pandemic or the advent of a like button. For example, Robert Putnam's seminal book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" was published in 2000. The statistic above (one in two adults experience loneliness) comes from a survey conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic.
A sense of community and belonging can be created through either positive or negative commonalities. However, the impact each has on society and personal health couldn't be more different in terms of value and sustainability. Without fail, a community built on a negative will eventually crumble under its own weight.
Take social media mobs as an example: they form based on mutual agreement that someone or something deserves unrelenting ridicule and public humiliation. It feels good to have a community that thinks like you do, even if the group's underlying action is harmful. While aligned, you feel acceptance and kinship — as though you're part of something bigger than yourself. Unfortunately, this camaraderie is fleeting. The mob will soon disintegrate and turn on each other when individual views and opinions on other matters diverge.
"We will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country," says Murthy. "Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will further retreat to our corners — angry, sick, and alone."
Building upon our shared values is the only way to create a lasting and meaningful sense of community and belonging. Our seemingly intractable disagreements and uncontrollable genetic traits should be minimized. Why focus on perceived negatives when we've already achieved overwhelming agreement on authentic positives?
"Each of us can start now, in our own lives, by strengthening our connections and relationships," says Murthy. "Our individual relationships are an untapped resource — a source of healing hiding in plain sight. They can help us live healthier, more productive, and more fulfilled lives. Answer that phone call from a friend. Make time to share a meal. Listen without the distraction of your phone. Perform an act of service. Express yourself authentically. The keys to human connection are simple but extraordinarily powerful."
I had lunch with a longtime mentor recently. He's an older gentleman but active as a bull in a field full of cows. He was recently on campus at a prominent university and happened to trip and fall on some sidewalk steps while hundreds of students walked to their next class. Not a single student or faculty member stopped to help him get up. He said most looked away from him or kept their head down on their phones.
"I think they were afraid to help me," said my friend. What is going on? This isn't a one-off incident or some obscure anecdote. Standing still in the presence of fellow human beings needing assistance has become the norm. It makes one wonder how long a society like this can survive and whether it's worth saving.
A partial explanation may be found in the fact that we no longer trust each other. According to a 2016 poll, roughly 30 percent of Americans felt they could reliably trust other Americans. That number was 45 percent in 1972. What are the odds it's fallen further since? I remember 2016 being a big year for some reason.
A recent study found our social networks (not to be confused with our follower count) are getting smaller, and levels of social participation are declining. Since 2003, the time we spend alone has increased from 142 hours to 166 hours per month. That's an increase of 24 hours per month spent alone.
It's much worse for young people. As parents of teenagers know all too well, to be a teenager today is to be isolated and alone. Since I graduated high school in 2003, the time teenagers spend in person with friends has decreased by nearly 70 percent. The average was 150 minutes per day in 2003. It's now 40 minutes per day.
We know that who we're being has an effect outside of ourselves. If we come to a gathering happy, the odds of everyone else being happy increase dramatically. The reverse is also true: Lonely parents lead to lonely children. Anxious parents lead to anxious children. Isolated parents lead to isolated children.
The national trends are clear.
To solve this problem, the U.S. Surgeon General has come up with six pillars to advance social connection:
1. Strengthen Social Infrastructure in Local Communities
- Design the built environment to promote social connection.
- Establish and scale community connection programs.
- Invest in local institutions that bring people together.
2. Enact Pro-Connection Public Policies
- Adopt "Connection-in-All-Policies" approach.
- Advance policies that minimize harm from disconnection.
- Establish cross-departmental leadership at all levels of government.
3. Mobilize the Health Sector
- Train health care providers.
- Assess and support patients.
- Expand public health surveillance and interventions.
4. Reform Digital Environments
- Require data transparency.
- Establish and implement safety standards.
- Support development of pro-connection technologies.
5. Deepen Our Knowledge
- Develop and coordinate a national research agenda.
- Accelerate research funding.
- Increase public awareness.
6. Build a Culture of Connection
- Cultivate values of kindness, respect, service, and commitment to one another.
- Model connection values in positions of leadership and influence.
- Expand conversation on social connection in schools, workplaces and communities.
Acknowledging I've been generally favorable toward the U.S. Surgeon General, solutions 1-5 deserve severe scrutiny and skepticism. Expand public health surveillance and interventions? Whatever that means, I wouldn't say I like it. The solution is undoubtedly not more government spending and more bureaucracy.
Left to the politicians, the loneliness epidemic will only get worse and more mucked up. The change needs to come from us (as corny as that sounds). We should start by acknowledging each other's existence, serving each other with no expectation of a return, and being good neighbors and active members of our local community.
Putting your phone down and shoveling your neighbor's sidewalk wouldn't take much effort. Depending on your kitchen skills, baking pies or fresh loaves of bread and taking them around the neighborhood wouldn't be too much of a chore. Your local community organizations could always use volunteers.
Put simply, we need to start caring. Not to mention that anything we decide to do will be inherently selfish as we reap the rewards of being an active and connected member of our community. The world could use some positive selfishness right about now.
Let's give ourselves permission to care again.
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