Addressing America’s Loneliness Pandemic
Isolation, quarantine, and social distance, once terms rarely used, are now part of our everyday language. Over the past year, many of us have experienced all of the above. While governments at every level have grappled with the public health devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, another slow-building pandemic has worsened: loneliness.
Last fall, Making Caring Common at Harvard University conducted a survey of almost 1,000 Americans to gauge their feelings on social isolation and loneliness. Based on their preliminary findings, more than a third of Americans reported frequent loneliness, rising to more than half of mothers with young children, and almost two thirds of young people between the ages of 18-25.
According to the study, loneliness is described as “the negative feelings that emerge from a perceived gap between one’s desired and actual relationships,” a feeling that can affect our relationships with friends and loved ones and our relationship to the wider world.
Alongside the report’s release, Niobe Way of PACH (The Project for the Advancement of our Common Humanity at NYU), Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Rick Weissbourd of Making Caring Common – the Harvard report’s co-author -- published an op-ed in The Hill, calling on the next Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, not just to stem the spread of COVID-19, but also to take on the loneliness pandemic (which Murthy has devoted much of his career to addressing). The overwhelming rise in loneliness in America is fueled by cultural norms that have shaped human relationships for most of the last century. Our culture, the authors write, emphasizes “the individual over the collective, autonomy over relationships, self over the other, and thinking over feeling.” This has led parents, for example, to encourage their children to prioritize achievement and happiness, which means young people learn to focus on advancing their own self-interest rather than caring for others and building a wide community of friends. As a result, amidst the challenges of the pandemic many young people lack the strong social ties that are all the more crucial in navigating difficult times.
Perhaps the best news of the pandemic and the Making Caring Common report is that the universal experience of social isolation during this time has reduced the stigma associated with loneliness. Because we are all spending so much time away from friends and family, most of us are experiencing some degree of loneliness. Though this experience may be especially acute for young people and mothers of young children, it’s something we all know firsthand and have more empathy for now than we did before.
This more widespread experience of loneliness makes this a ripe moment to address its causes and consequences. The Making Caring Common report puts forward three specific ideas:
Give people information and practical strategies for coping with loneliness, helping to identify self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that loneliness can generate
Build social infrastructure – not just physical infrastructure – in our communities and institutions, and,
Foster a deeper commitment to each other and the greater good.
With our heightened awareness of the importance of relationships in our lives, perhaps this relational pandemic will instill in us a deeper commitment to building a relational culture. One question is: how can we help more people realize and embrace the importance of the broad web of relationships that surround us, not just to our individual happiness but to the broader social change we seek to foster. At Einhorn Collaborative, we have long believed that relationships are an essential “active ingredient” in how we create change and in the work of many of our grantee partners. In crafting our new strategy, we set out to give voice to a “Relational Era", where relationships are fundamental to both why and how we do our work.
While social connection is the antidote to loneliness, sustained social isolation and loneliness make people vulnerable to resentment, anger, and even violence – especially toward those we see as “other.” A more relational culture can help overcome loneliness while also mitigating the pernicious effects of political polarization and dehumanization. In that vein, the vision of ushering in the Relational Era is not just about alleviating individual suffering. It’s a deeper commitment to foregrounding relationships in the work of building a society rooted in a deeply felt sense of belonging.
Read the full report here.