Loneliness is an epidemic, especially in America. The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, and 75% of people say that they’re unsatisfied with their friendships. Bleak, right? As if that’s not bad enough, only 53% of people in the U.S. have meaningful in-person social interactions, like an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with a family member, on a daily basis. This makes me wonder: What the hell is happening in offices? We spend a third of our lives at work! Clearly, most companies are not creating a culture where people are able to form meaningful relationships.
Yet people being lonely isn’t just sad. It’s also terrible for our health. Believe it or not, loneliness is just as tied to early mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an excessive drinker, or being obese. Think about how many times your health teacher lectured you about the dangers of binge drinking when you were growing up. Did they ever mention how crucial intimate relationships are for your well-being? Probably not once. They were too busy telling you how having sex will make you get pregnant and die. (Shout-out to Mean Girls.)
As loneliness is skyrocketing in America, attendance at religious services is plummeting. 39% of Americans ages 18 to 39 have no religious affiliation at all. That number has nearly quadrupled from 10% in the past 30 years. In America as a whole, 22.8% of people are religiously unaffiliated. In addition, 15.8% identify as “nothing in particular.” This religious makeup is totally different than 50 years ago, when most people in the United States relied on a single religious community.
To summarize all of this in a simple equation: A decrease in the amount of meaningful gatherings in America, combined with increased isolation, has resulted in a loneliness epidemic. It’s literally killing us, and we’re not doing enough to fight it.
The solution? Create consistent, healthy congregations that fulfill us in the way that organized religion used to.
At first glance, that statement is probably confusing. When you read the word “congregation,” you typically think of a group of people who gather for religious worship. In fact, if you look in the Webster dictionary, that’s pretty much what you’ll find. Yet if you flip forward a few pages to “congregate,” you’ll find something different.
Congregate: To collect into a group or crowd.
Were you expecting something cooler? Me too.
So, while it hurts my English major heart to do this, I have to disagree with the dictionary. I believe that the act of congregation is about more than people simply existing in the same space. It’s about coming together with intention, and creating the container for moments of healing, transformation, and community.
When we gather together purposefully, we experience a sense of shared humanity. We feel less alone.
Being welcomed into secular congregations has changed my life. These gatherings have given me the space to share what’s on my heart, heal from trauma, repair my relationship with my body, and genuinely feel like I matter. While organized religion could have offered me those same benefits, it didn’t feel like the right place for me. It still doesn’t.
I know that many of you feel the same way. And I’m here to tell you: Just because you’re not gathering around a God, doesn’t mean that you can’t feel like you’re part of a sacred space that can improve your life. You deserve that feeling, and I hope this book will help you find it.
My friend, singer Tim Victor, once told me, “I don’t call myself a gospel singer. I’m a singer. Because church isn’t in the building. It’s in the people. It’s in the feeling of connection. That’s the sacredness.”
As an adult, I don’t belong to any religious institution. Yet I often wish that I had a place I could turn to for consistent connection and spiritual growth. While I’m part of communities that I love, these gatherings are all missing some of the key elements of a healthy congregation:
1) They happen every week
2) The same people show up consistently
3) There is space for vulnerable conversation and deep reflection
4) There is mentorship and spiritual guidance, especially from elders
5) There is an easily-accessible way for members to give back to the community
This is exactly what organized religions, and healthy congregations in general, excel at.
For example, Bible study provides a space to learn and grow in your connection to a higher power. Coffee after the service allows you to connect with your peers. Volunteering offers the opportunity to give back and feel a sense of fellowship with the congregation. Plus, there’s a big bonus — no matter where you move, you can immediately find a place where you share a ritual and similar values.
Like many twenty-something Americans, I don’t feel at home in any organized religion. So I have to ask myself, “Where do I belong?”
It took a long time for me to find the answer, but now I have a community that’s richer than anything I could have imagined. I want to teach others how to find that for themselves, and then take the reigns to create more spaces that foster that sense of connection.
I wrote Unlonely Planet because I want to destigmatize loneliness, and provide a framework for anyone to find and create their own healthy congregation. Those seven steps are:
Deepen the intimacy in all of your relationships, rather than romantic partnership alone. This will make you far more happy and connected.
Creating an alternate universe
Take the time and energy to find spaces that make you a better version of yourself. These gatherings will help you find people who share your values.
Sharing with strangers
Find gatherings that allow you to have conversations with people you don’t know. Sharing with strangers is a way to feel connected to others, reduce shame around what we’re dealing with, and remember that we’re not alone.
Seeking spiritual guidance
Look for people who can guide you on your path, spiritually or otherwise. Three effective ways to promote mentorship are creating intergenerational spaces, modeling new forms of spiritual leadership, and creating community hubs.
Finding healing spaces
Prioritize spaces that can help you heal from your trauma. While this is difficult work, it’s the biggest gift that you can give yourself.
Participate in collective song, dance, and storytelling. These experiences will help you feel connected to others, and also serve as powerful tools to fall back on in times of tragedy.
Stepping into leadership
Create the spaces that you want to see in the world. Gathering people is one of the best ways to feel connected to your purpose and your community.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share excerpts and stories from Unlonely Planet. If you want to read the whole thing, you can purchase it here.
Want to connect? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find my personal website here. connect with me on Instagram or Twitter. You can also subscribe to The Joy List, my newsletter on a mission to reduce loneliness around the world, here. (Bonus points if you sign up to lead it in your city!)
PS. You look nice today.