5 ways to address the loneliness epidemic

“If there is one person on the planet who still is suffering from loneliness and from pain or despair, and we don’t know about it or we don’t want to know about it, something is wrong with the world.”
-Elie Wiesel, author, professor, activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor
Source: Huy Phan on Unsplash.

Loneliness has been getting a lot of attention lately, and rightly so: a growing body of research suggests that it’s on the rise and causes myriad health outcomes. In a recent study, 46% of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling alone, 43% said that their relationships are not meaningful, and 20% rarely or never feel close to people. To make matters worse, these individuals may be more likely to develop heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or depression and to live a shorter lifespan.

As I argued in a Scientific American article earlier this year, the evidence clearly shows that fostering relationships and building community should be a public health priority.

To that end, the San Francisco Hub of World Economic Forum Global Shapers and I recently hosted a solution-focused panel discussion about loneliness among seniors in the Bay Area. Evidently, this topic struck a chord; the event sold out, the room filled up with an engaged, interactive audience, and the livestream garnered over 1.1k views.

The panel took place at the Google Community Space in San Francisco.

While we focused on the successes and challenges that initiatives have experienced when tackling this issue locally with seniors, the takeaways are relevant across places and ages. Here are five themes that emerged over the course of the evening that may be useful as we — as individuals, organizations, and a society — begin building a culture of social health.

1. Use technology to help, not hinder

One of the most common explanations for why loneliness has become such a prominent issue is technology. The logic goes that as we spend more and more time interacting online, the deep, meaningful relationships that we develop face-to-face are replaced by fleeting, superficial interactions that leave us yearning for more. Teens today who’ve grown up reliant on technology may even miss out on developing crucial social skills and emotional intelligence.

Source: rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

So it was surprising to hear from panelist Richard Caro of Tech Enhanced Life that technology can have the opposite effect on the other end of the age spectrum. “What I’ve found is that things like Uber, Lyft, and Facetime are actually incredibly powerful tools for reducing loneliness,” he said, “Some of the apps and products that you don’t really think of as being for old people or for loneliness are the most important.”

This makes sense, given that seniors often feel lonely due to being less physically mobile and therefore more isolated. Ride-sharing services empower seniors to organize transportation themselves, rather than rely on others, and video-calls enable them to connect with faraway loved ones instantly.

Source: Akshar Dave on Unsplash.

Even among Gen Z, it’s becoming clear that technology may not be to blame for loneliness; it’s how we use it that matters. For example, people who use social media frequently are not necessarily lonelier than those who do not, especially if they use it to stay in touch with friends and family or to organize in-person gatherings. Similarly, there are many instances of people connecting meaningfully online who wouldn’t otherwise, such as online mental health therapy where anonymity helps people to more readily open up and seek support.

“The people who say technology has disconnected you from others are wrong. So are the people who say technology automatically connects you to others. Technology is just a tool. It’s a powerful tool, but it’s just a tool. Deep human connection is very different. It’s not a tool. It’s not a means to an end. It is the end — the purpose and the result of a meaningful life — and it will inspire the most amazing acts of love, generosity, and humanity.” -Melinda Gates

The question then becomes: How do we ensure that technology is both designed and used as a tool to facilitate deep human connection? One step in the right direction is Google’s commitment to design products that promote “digital well-being,” which they announced at the recent I/O conference. But there’s more to be done.

2. Connect the disconnected through shared interests

Gathering a bunch of lonely people into the same room to force connection might work for some, but more likely it’ll just be awkward. Instead, the panelists emphasized the importance of uniting people around common interests, values, or hobbies.

This is especially important given that participation in community-based social groups, like churches, neighborhood associations, and sports leagues, has decreased in recent decades. Grassroots efforts that fill this void by encouraging seniors to engage in group classes and activities also create opportunities for friendships to blossom naturally. Plus, if they include active learning, they may also help prevent cognitive decline.

3. Bridge millennials with perennials

“As an 18-year-old, it’s so surprising how much I have in common with an 86-year-old man,” said Anika Kumar of Forget Me Not, “It seems like there’s a huge age barrier to friendship, but there really is not once you find what you have in common and what you’re mutually interested in.”

Laughing about Marie saying that she represents “perennials” whereas Anika represents millennials.

Across the age spectrum, we have much to gain from intergenerational connection. For youth, it’s a way to learn, seek advice, and get guidance from people with a different vantage point. For seniors, it’s an opportunity to share stories and pass on wisdom, from which they can derive meaning and purpose.

In fact, a sense of purpose in itself can be an antidote to loneliness. As Marie Jobling of the Community Living Campaign explained, “People want to contribute. They don’t want to feel like they’ve been put out to pasture and there’s not a role for them anymore.”

One great example of this principle in action is the Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle, Washington. By housing a daycare inside an assisted-living home and planning shared activities, the center combats loneliness while bringing joy to both senior residents and the children.

4. Design with, not just for, the people you’re serving

When I worked at the Harvard Medical School Center for Primary Care on a healthcare entrepreneurship program, we brought in designers from the Stanford d.school to host “design thinking” workshops for our fellows. Step number one, they taught, is empathy: get to know your target user through interviews, shadowing, and research so that you intimately understand the problem you are trying to solve and how it affects users’ lives.

Source: the University of Illinois Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning.

Just as this approach is crucial for designing innovative, impactful products and services in healthcare, it can also be instrumental in designing solutions for loneliness, sometimes with surprising insights: As Marie noted, “We started out by asking people what they needed, but that puts the focus on people’s deficits. More and more we ask the question, what do you want?”

Doing user testing, iterating based on feedback, and measuring clear success metrics will help to more effectively build a culture of social health.

5. Take ownership (call your grandparents!)

Seriously. Go do it. And ask yourself more generally: Are you meaningfully engaging with the people in your life — near and far, young and old, whether family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, or strangers you cross paths with? Or can you do better?

I know I can.


Special thanks to the panelists for sharing their perspectives and for the important work that they do: