Written by our Founder and CEO, the Celebrations Pulse letters aim to engage with our community. By welcoming your ideas and sharing your stories, we want to help you strengthen your relationships with the most important people in your life.
The loneliness epidemic is widespread, and its impact on our well-being is staggering. According to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, more than half of all Americans report regularly feeling lonely or isolated. And it’s having an impact on all areas of their health.
In his latest advisory “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” Dr. Murthy reported that adults lacking strong social connections experience a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease, a 32% increase in stroke risk, and a 50% jump in the risk of developing dementia.
The solution seems easy: Just reach out and connect with someone in a meaningful way. Still, the loneliness epidemic continues.
Everyone has the power to reach out to others, make connections, and help end this epidemic. But we must also recognize that many of the institutions that promoted social connection in the past have weakened, and that’s making the job of ending the loneliness epidemic all that more difficult.
A case in point: Church
Before the pandemic, an average of 34% of U.S. adults said they attended religious services at least once a week, according to a 2023 Gallup survey. From 2020 to last year, the number dipped to an all-time low of 30%. (The number was nearly 50% in the 1950s.)
The statistics suggest millions of people are no longer experiencing the benefits of religious services, which range from spiritual and behavioral guidance to social events.
I had an opportunity recently to discuss the implications of this change with New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has written extensively about his experience with loneliness and his own religious journey. He noted that all religions have a consistent set of time-tested rules:
I think the withdrawal of religion has had very negative effects. Religion teaches you the ideal – if you’re Catholic to be Christ-like, and that’s just a beautiful example to be a man who made his life about self-sacrificial love.
But churches, synagogues, and mosques have something else in common: The physical congregation. When someone dies, for example, everyone knows what to do. They gather, celebrate the life of the deceased by sharing stories, and support each other through the difficult time. David pointed out another role:
“It used to be if you were lonely or didn’t know how to deal with your friend’s depression, you would go to your clergy and say, `How do I do this?’ And your clergy would offer you advice.‘
My experience echoes David’s observations. When I was a kid, my parents would walk a few blocks to church every Sunday morning. It’d take about 10 minutes to get there but about two hours to get home. They and their friends would talk outside of church and then move to a house, where they’d drop off one of the couples. Then, they’d move to another house and say their goodbyes. The group would get progressively smaller until just my parents returned home hours later!
Our fraying social infrastructure
Religious services aren’t the only hubs of community connection that have experienced a decline in recent years.
As a young man, I spent a lot of time at the local bar – but not as a customer. It served as a gathering spot for our sports teams and a storage spot for all our gear. Like the TV show Cheers, it was a place where everyone knew your name. It made you feel whole and served as a place of connection, where people interacted with other people and, in the process, built new relationships or strengthened existing ones.
Town halls, offices, and social clubs like the Elks or the Rotary played a similar role. The infrastructure for making and keeping friends was simply more robust back then.
Today, those physical spaces of connection are nowhere near as popular, just like places of worship. And the pandemic only accelerated this sad trend: Look no further than the near-empty offices and downtowns during the workweek.
The infrastructure that helped us socialize years ago may be diminished, and that may explain the persistence of loneliness. But it doesn’t mean we can’t revitalize them or create new ones – as long as we make an effort.
Making new connections
Our world has changed immensely just over the past 10 years, and much of it has made our lives easier. I would never suggest turning back the clock, but as we move forward with our digital tools and screens, we need to be cognizant that many people are feeling less connected and lonelier as the march of technology impacts the social structures on which our communities and society were built.
I’m a big fan of the tech, but it’s important to remember its limitations. Yes, it makes certain types of connection easier, but it’s also easy to think that a “like” or a quick comment is enough to foster a meaningful relationship. Or that speaking with a person via a screen is just as powerful as conversing in person. Something is lost in the analog-to-digital translation.
The solution for some people may be to seek out churches, community events, recreational centers, or social clubs that still exist. For others – whether they’re lonely or know someone who is – the solution lies in simply reaching out and connecting beyond the “like” button. By all means, continue to interact on social media and send text messages and emails, but don’t forget to follow up with an in-person get-together whenever possible.
Amid the bells and whistles of the new age, let’s not forget that we have always been – and always will be – social creatures.
All the best,