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Loneliness kills – we need to find ways to reconnect

(Credit: Igor Stevanovic / Alamy Stock Photo)

Dr Vivek Murthy

4 min read

We have become a lonely world. Alongside all the benefits of modern culture and technology have come growing loneliness and isolation. This represents a pressing public health threat that all countries must now address.

Not only do loneliness and isolation raise the risk of anxiety, depression and suicide, but they also increase the risk of physical ailments including heart disease, stroke, dementia and premature death. Moreover, the mortality impact associated with social disconnection is on a par with smoking daily, and even greater than that which we see with obesity.  

No one would argue that smoking and obesity are not important public health issues, yet we have not approached loneliness with the same urgency and investment. This needs to change.  

Human connection is as essential for our wellbeing as food and water. When we are deprived of this vital component, it negatively impacts not only our health but also how we show up at work, how we perform in school, and how we show up for our family and our communities. Communities that are more isolated and alone are also more prone to fall victim to division and polarisation.   

These are concerns that should unite us all. Loneliness threatens the foundation of a healthy, functioning society. Over thousands of years, we evolved to depend on one another and to find strength in numbers. History and science have shown us that we are better off when we have trusted, healthy relationships of mutual concern.   

A number of factors are leading to the loneliness and isolation we are facing today. Covid-19 undoubtedly exacerbated loneliness and isolation for many people, particularly young people who describe themselves as “ageing backwards” in terms of their social comfort and social skills during the pandemic. Many of them are still trying to get back to where they were pre-pandemic.   

Loneliness threatens the foundation of a healthy, functioning society

But even before the pandemic, we were growing apart. In many communities, there has been a decades-long decline in participation in the institutions that used to bring us together, including faith institutions, community service organisations, and recreational leagues.  

Technology has also contributed, shifting more of our interactions online, stealing invaluable time and attention away from in-person interactions, and making interactions with community members in the grocery stores, shopping centres or the cinemas much less frequent as we can get most of what we need from the comfort of our homes.   

While technology has been a boon in many respects, we have failed to account for or mitigate its harmful effects on healthy social connection and community. As our friends are replaced with followers and confidants with contacts, we have become lonelier and more isolated. And it is making us ill.   

The good news is we have the power to rebuild social connection. Policymakers can invest in social infrastructure – the policies, programmes and structures that support healthy relationships. This can include supporting community organisations that bring people together, creating “third spaces” for people to gather, and enabling the health care and public health systems to better identify people struggling with loneliness and connect them to community resources. Schools can continue efforts to make learning and social time phone-free, and workplaces can be more intentional about creating programmes and activities that foster relationships and in-person connection among colleagues.  

Finally, as individuals, we can all recognise that small steps can make a big difference in how connected we feel. Whether it’s simply picking up the phone when a friend calls, spending 15 minutes a day reaching out to someone you care about, or helping one person each day – we can all do a bit more to fight loneliness in our lives.  

Loneliness has become one of the defining challenges of our time; one that affects all ages and socio-economic groups and now threatens the health and wellbeing of society. By committing to make building social connection a priority for our communities and for the world, we will take a giant step forward in ensuring we are stronger, healthier and more resilient.

Dr Vivek Murthy is the United States Surgeon General

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Connecting Communities

Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

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