April 24, 2019
For many people, the holidays represent the loneliest time of the year. However, loneliness, and the social isolation that often accompanies it, is in season all year long. In an AARP survey of people age 45 and older, 35% reported feeling lonely. In another by the National Science Foundation, one in four respondents of all ages said they had no one they could turn to in times of need.
Humans are social beings, wired for connection not only as a survival mechanism but also as a source of deep emotional and spiritual satisfaction. This explains why efforts are being made across the country to foster a sense of connectivity and community.
Fragmentation and Fear
Scientists have discovered that being socially isolated actually changes brain chemistry: Mice kept in chronic social isolation were deeply fearful and aggressive towards mice they didn’t know; they also overreacted to threats. Among people, isolation has been linked to depression and anxiety, in part because it removes a barrier against the effects of stress.
Feeling lonely doesn’t just affect emotional health. Scientists have linked loneliness among seniors with a greater risk of death, disease and mental decline. And socially isolated children showed higher rates of such cardiovascular risk factors as elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels by the time they were in their mid-twenties.
A lot of factors explain increasing isolation. “There has been a tremendous shift towards assisted living and memory care facilities” for housing older people, notes Helen Riess, MD, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard. What’s more, “the emphasis on individual achievement has led to a self-focused kind of framework.”
Giving Back Locally
Some of the most creative attempts at building strong communities attempt to address poverty and the social dislocation it causes. Helen Riess offered these three organizations as examples:
Daily Table (dailytable.org) is a nonprofit grocery that sells healthy foods, generally excesses and overstocks from other stores, in poor neighborhoods. “This is a colossal act of empathy,” says Riess. The group, which currently operates two stores in Boston, hopes to expand to other cities.
Cradles to Crayons (cradlestocrayons.org) puts together “packages for homeless families and those living in shelters, so that these families have school supplies and clothing,” Riess says. The group then distributes these supplies through local partners in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Wellspring House (wellspringhouse.org) works with people who are homeless, or in danger of becoming homeless, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. “If someone needs a place to stay, they find it,” Riess says. “If they need a car, they find it. They have gotten people off the streets and into schools and jobs.” The group also provides adult education along with
The digital age is another factor. “Social media is hijacking our minds,” says Radha Agrawal, author of Belong (Workman). “It’s our number-one addiction.” One San Francisco State study found that college students who used their smartphones most often reported higher levels of isolation and loneliness (NeuroRegulation 2018).
Riess, author of The Empathy Effect (Sounds True, soundstrue.com/store/the-empathy-effect-1.html), coming out later this month, believes that empathy—the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes—can help overcome loneliness and isolation. “A lot of people believe empathy is an inborn quality; you either have it or you don’t. But we are hardwired to understand other people,” she says. “The more we get to know people not like us, the easier it is to empathize because we realize that we are all part of the human fabric.”
Public libraries have stepped into the void: Storytime hours that draw stay-at-home moms together, discussion groups on topics of interest, meeting spaces for community groups. Some also offer such services as health counselors and aid to the homeless.
Bridging the Age Gap
One way to overcome social isolation is to bring seniors and children together. “Those are two generations that have been artificially separated from each other,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. “They are usually the ones that are ignored or cast aside—they’re told they are done or they are not ready yet.”
A growing number of facilities provide child and adult daycare under one roof, such as the Champion Intergenerational Center in Columbus, Ohio. It represents a collaboration among Ohio State University; Columbus Early Learning Centers, which provides early childhood care and education; and National Church Residences Center, which provides the adult care.
“At the center, both generations help each other,” says program manager Elizabeth Speidel. Client Willie Mayne agrees. “I really enjoy the parties they have. I have fun,” says the 65-year-old retired maintenance man, known around the center for teaching dominoes to the youngsters. Speidel adds, “Willie does a mighty fine job of putting barrettes in little girls’ hair.”
For seniors, a key issue is lost mobility, which often strands people in their homes. “They don’t have a strong connection to the community, so we go into the home and bring that community to them,” says Jenna Hauss, ACSW, director of the ONEgeneration Senior Enrichment Center in Reseda, California. (AARP offers services to seniors at risk for isolation; see connect2affect.org.)
In one ONEgeneration program, cognitively impaired seniors spend supervised time aiding young children: Helping them eat lunch, reading to them. For the seniors, says Hauss, “It makes them feel like they can give back.” Another program pairs high school students and seniors. Hauss says that for the teens, “talking to someone who is older lets them develop a sense that we aren’t so different.”
Speidel has also seen the power of community in action. She recalls a time when two OSU social work students ran a music program with the older adults: “People started standing up and dancing. At the end, one older adult asked the students, ‘What music do you like?’ The student said, ‘We’ll address that next week’ and the older adult replied, ‘Why not do it right now?’ So often we are caught up in deadlines. There’s the danger that we miss out on moments of caring for each other.”
Connecting at Dawn
Agrawal started seeking a community of her own when she turned 30 and realized, “I didn’t really feel a strong sense of belonging anywhere.” She shared her concerns with a friend; their solution eventually became Daybreaker (daybreaker.com), a series of early-morning dance-and-yoga parties. Now active in 25 cities around the world, Daybreaker, according to Agrawal, numbers a half-million participants—and counting.
Becoming Active in Your Community
Looking to not feel so lonely yourself? Here are some simple ways you can connect with others:
Form a walking club
• Go to a park—without your cellphone
• Invite your neighbors over for a simple meal
• Volunteer at your library or school, or with a scout troop
• Go with a friend to donate blood
• Shop in your local downtown area, and get to know the merchants
• Participate in a cleanup day at a nearby park or beach
• Work in a community garden
• Attend meetings of a group concerned with local issues
• Become active in a charity
David Yarus attended his first Daybreaker in New York several years ago, and found that “it just totally blew me away.” Today, the 32-year-old entrepreneur is a regular attendee. “As you walk in, you are awash in this wave of positive energy—people just dancing and smiling and hugging you. You feel instantly loved, at home and at peace.”
Yaris appreciates the lack of alcohol, a common ingredient of evening get-togethers. “At Daybreaker, alcohol is not even present,” he says. “People are just dancing like crazy; it’s just a beautiful sight.”
Chloe Valdary, 25, agrees. She volunteers at New York Daybreaker events; she says the group “destroys the illusion” of togetherness fostered by social media “by bringing you together with other people.”
Young people aren’t the only ones drawn to Daybreaker. Sam Horn, 67, is an author and speaker who travels frequently and has attended Daybreakers in different cities. “How we start our day sets our tone for the day,” she says. “For most people, the alarm goes off, we watch the news, we go to work…there’s nothing about that in Daybreaker. It celebrates life.”
Yaris agrees. After going to Daybreaker, he says, “You take with you such a high of the beauty of life and the magic of the community.”
Agrawal decided to expand on what she learned through Daybreaker by writing Belong, saying, “I wanted to give regular people very easy tools for creating community.” In it, she explains how to find like-minded individuals who share your abilities, interests and values. The idea, Agrawl says, is to “release your DOSE”—dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins, the brain chemicals that nurture connection. She adds that it’s also important to get out of one’s head. “With social media only your eyes and ears are satisfied,” she says. “The best way to feel is through all five of our senses.”
Ultimately, connecting with others is about more than just fending off loneliness and its ill effects. “How can we help each other feel valued, be engaged and find purpose in our lives?” Speidel asks. “Each person, no matter who they are, has something to contribute and something to gain.”