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Can a Social Network Cure the Loneliness Epidemic?

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The Loneliness Epidemic in America

America’s kids are lonelier and more isolated than they’ve ever been. Recent research studies using the UCLA Loneliness Scale have confirmed it, and you can read about them here. In fact, a recent Cigna study asked over 20,000 Americans about loneliness and social isolation. The results have been published and action steps are now being taken federally and at the state levels to address this broad-based and burgeoning epidemic.

For many, loneliness and social isolation are not just subjective feelings, but they are seen as more of a long-standing chronic illness or enduring pain that impact well-being and daily life functioning. Over 50 percent of the general American public experiences feelings of disconnection and being left out sometimes or always.

Whether lacking close friends, not experiencing meaning in their relationships or simply feeling isolated from others, the loneliness epidemic has already created a ripple effect. Documented health studies have monitored the correlation of loneliness with a higher risk for coronary heart disease, stroke and a negative influence on genetic heritage and the immune system. Social connections and feelings of connection are also cited as useful data for determining the quality of life and overall health of the individual according to the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2014.

The Association between Social Capital and Loneliness

We can address our current loneliness epidemic through the understanding of the necessity for social capital. Current social capital theory says that social networks have value. Typically, as physical capital refers to value of physical objects and human capital on the qualities of individual lives, social capital refers to the value of social connections among individual social networks. Researchers now agree that strong, healthy and socially enjoyable relationships are important throughout a lifetime. Studies from the National Institute of Health have found that having a variety of social relationships can help to reduce stress and heart-related risks. Strong social ties are linked to having a longer life. Conversely, social isolation and loneliness are linked to poorer health, depression and an increased risk of early death.

Countless academic hours have been devoted what a lot of humans inherently know to be true: that healthy relationships with friends and family are good for them. But that knowledge doesn’t change the fact that we feel intensely lonely and isolated nearly every day. So the question becomes, how can we build more social capital to maintain healthy relationships and have positive interactions within those relationships?

Here are some practical steps you can use to building your social network and add to your social capital: 

  • All it takes is simply one other individual to start building the asset of your social capital.
  • Live in a community where you regularly have conversation with your co-workers and neighbors. We become vulnerable to destructive habits and desires when community, connection and trust are not ultimately being experienced.
  • Create space within your schedule to call a friend or neighbor and pursue intentional relationships in community. Create space within your schedule to call a friend or neighbor and pursue intentional relationships in community.
  • Pursue a village of diverse relationships. Whether introverted or extroverted, social contact with those that have a different temperament, emotional presentation and/or social vibe than what you are used to can go a long way in creating a better sense of connection.
  • Adjust your screen time on devices with face-to-face contact similar to adjusting how much you eat according to your appetite. Social contact with others helps navigate the distress of loneliness and pain of disconnection, and it can be important to restrict screen time for greater well-being in favor of more face-to-face contact with others.
  • Allow your child to interact more with teachers and school staff and help facilitate the home-school-community partnership. Studies from 2011 showed that great teachers and related staff in the social network of children impact their likelihood to attend college, earn more as adults over a lifetime, and be more likely to pay it forward and impact their own future sphere of influence.

Building Relationships through Social Networks

In 1916, L.J. Hanifan (State Supervisor of West Virginia’s rural schools) wrote the following about social capital:

“…those tangible substances (that) count for most in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit. The individual is helpless socially, if left to himself. If he comes into contact with his neighbor, and they with the other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of its neighbors.”

Sociologists since Hanifan’s time have stated that having a social network can be altogether important for sustaining the quality of our lives, helping to find jobs, experiencing friendships and having shoulders to cry on.

Treatment planning, alongside personal health and wellness, helps to address the social isolation and disconnection epidemic. Having individual and collective social capital is a vital way to protect our personal senses of belonging and well-being.


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Recommended Resources

  • If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda
  • Connecting: Healing ourselves and Our Relationships  by Larry Crabb
  • Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships by Daniel Goleman
  • Conversation Tactics: 43 Verbal Strategies to Charm, Captivate, Banter, and Defend by Patrick King
  • Everyone Communicates, Few Connect: What the Most Effective People Do Differently by John Maxwell

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