Overcoming Our Loneliness Crisis Through a Culture of Connection
Sunday, May 7th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: America’s loneliness crisis.
KNEAD TO KNOW
Eight people were killed and seven were wounded in a mass shooting at an outlet mall near Dallas, Texas. The gunman was killed by a police officer who happened to be at the mall responding to another call. That means even with a police officer already at the scene of a shooting, a gunman armed with a rifle designed for war can massacre eight people.
The WHO ended the COVID health emergency, downgrading it to an “established and ongoing health issue.” The U.N. health agency’s announcement comes more than three years after initially declaring the coronavirus an international crisis, and marks a symbolic “end” to the COVID pandemic.
Former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was found guilty of seditious conspiracy related to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Tarrio and three of his idiot buddies were convicted of conspiring to block the transfer of power between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, with the aim of keeping Trump in power. Prosecutors have secured seditious conspiracy convictions or guilty pleas for 14 defendants related to January 6.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose that his billionaire friend, Harlan Crow, also paid for his nephew’s tuition. While it’s unclear exactly how much Crow paid, ProPublica’s latest revelation in its investigation into Thomas’s financial dealings found it could have been as much as $150,000.
Overcoming Our Loneliness Crisis Through a Culture of Connection
The U.S. is in the midst of a loneliness crisis, increasing Americans’ risk of premature death and other negative health consequences as we’ve become more isolated than ever. So, what does the research say about the loneliness epidemic? And what can we do to fix it?
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a new report and advisory this week on the public health crisis of loneliness and social isolation currently gripping Americans of all ages, and the devastating health consequences loneliness has on our lives and communities.
“It’s hard to put a price tag, if you will, on the amount of human suffering that people are experiencing right now," Murthy told NPR. "In the last few decades, we've just lived through a dramatic pace of change. We move more, we change jobs more often, we are living with technology that has profoundly changed how we interact with each other and how we talk to each other."
So, what does the data say about America’s loneliness crisis? And what strategies are available to fix it? Let’s dive in.
What the research says:
The HHS report paints a devastating picture of steadily declining levels of social connection for Americans of all ages over the past two decades, finding, on average, Americans spent about 20 minutes per day in person with friends in 2020, down from 60 minutes per day in 2003. The issue is most pronounced among Americans aged 15-24, who now spend 70% less time with friends than they did two decades ago.
Indeed, across every major measure of social connection, Americans are doing worse today than two decades ago:
Even before the pandemic, research showed Americans were experiencing profound levels of loneliness. A 2022 study by researchers at Columbia University found 61% of U.S. adults were lonely in 2019 (pre-COVID), a dramatic increase from the 1970s, when rates were as low as 11%.
The HHS report at discussion found poor or insufficient social connections can have several negative physical health consequences, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and, for older adults, a 50% increased risk of developing dementia. Lacking sufficient social connections also increases the risk of premature death by over 60% and is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Poor social connections also contribute substantially to mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, according to the report.
Technology appears to be a strong driver of the loneliness issue, with one study cited in the report finding people who used social media for two or more hours per day were more than twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated than people who spent less than 30 minutes per day on social media.
Murthy believes social media in particular is driving much of the increase in loneliness, and the report calls on tech companies to introduce protections for children and their activity on social media apps.
ICYMI: I wrote about rethinking our relationship with social media last week.
Why it matters:
While the impacts of social isolation can be profound for individuals and communities, Murthy says there’s a medicine hiding in plain sight: increasing social connections.
The HHS found increasing social connections can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and depression, and communities that have more connected residents perform better on other important measures of population health, like community safety, community resilience after natural disasters, prosperity, and civic engagement.
Murthy’s advisory also lays out the framework for the first National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, offering recommendations that individuals, governments, businesses, and community organizations can take to increase social connection in their lives and communities.
The framework is based on six foundational principles:
Strengthening social infrastructure, like establishing more parks, libraries, and public programs.
Enacting pro-connection public policies in government, like accessible public transportation and paid family leave.
Mobilizing the health sector to assess risk and address issues related to loneliness.
Reforming digital environments to “critically evaluate our relationship with technology.”
Deepening our knowledge through more research into the causes and consequences of loneliness.
Cultivating a culture of connection through our everyday interactions.
Health experts say the final pillar, building a “culture of connection,” is particularly important, since the issue is first and foremost a cultural problem, and not something that can be solved solely through the right electoral politics or policies.
Loneliness also isn’t an issue unique to Americans, but, as the HHS report shows, we’ve been trending in the wrong direction for the past two decades.
The solution really isn’t a mystery, either. Like Murthy said, it’s “hiding in plain sight.”
So, let’s each decide to help cultivate connection. Let’s say “yes” more than we say “no,” let’s welcome people in more than we push them away, and let’s focus on our relationships not just as a thing we have to maintain, but as a source of life and love that helps propel us all.
Let’s live healthier lives and be more together.
Let’s cultivate an American culture of connection.
BITES OF NEWS
Serbia’s President Promised “Disarmament” After a Pair of Mass Shootings
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (pictured above), a populist authoritarian who began his career as a far-right nationalist during the Yugoslav civil wars, promised an “almost total disarmament” after a pair of mass shootings rocked the Balkan nation this week.
The first shooting happened Thursday, when a 13-year-old boy killed eight of his classmates and a security guard at his school. The second happened Friday, when a 20-year-old gunman apparently firing at random killed eight people and wounded 14 others.
Serbia is tied for the third-highest rate of civilian gun ownership, at 39.1 guns per 100,000 people (for context, the U.S. is first at 120.5 per 100,000), but it remains to be seen whether the gun control measures Vucic has proposed so far, including a pause on new gun licenses and amnesty to turn in illegal firearms, actually address the violence.
The Supreme Court Has Been Historically Slow This Term
The Supreme Court has decided cases at a historically slow pace this term (October to June), issuing just 13 opinions as of May 1, the fewest to that point of any term in the past century and well below the more than two dozen cases decided by this time in each year from 2018 to 2022.
While it’s indeed been a historically unproductive term, Supreme Court scholar Adam Feldman says the figure should be taken with a grain of salt, since the Court now hears and decides substantially fewer cases than it did in previous decades. For context, the Court heard 205 cases in the 1922-23 term, compared to just 59 this term.
Legal experts say the slow pace could stem from Clarence Thomas needing to check who he’s sold his allegiance to in each case (just kidding) or justices wanting to write separate opinions in decisions, which means they’ll each take longer to deliver. No matter the cause, with over 40 cases left to decide this term, it means we should expect a busy June.
The U.S. Unemployment Rate Reached Its Lowest Level Since 1969
The U.S. economy added 253,000 jobs in April, beating Wall Street estimates of 180,000, according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The nation’s unemployment rate also fell to 3.4% last month, beating the expected 3.6% to reach its lowest level since 1969. On an annual basis, wages increased 4.4%, coming in higher than the estimated 4.2% gain.
April marks the 13th consecutive month reported job gains outpaced expectations, as experts say the strong performance should dampen the prospect of an immediate recession while also lowering expectations of rate cuts in the third quarter.
Working-Class Union Households Have Four Times More Wealth Than Typical Working-Class Nonunion Households
A new analysis by the Center for American Progress (CAP) shows working-class union households hold nearly four times as much median wealth ($201,240) as comparable working-class nonunion households ($52,221), suggesting union membership increases household wealth for working-class families.
The analysis also shows union membership helps close the wealth gap between working-class and college-educated households, finding that while the median wealth of nonunion working-class households is just 17% of that of nonunion college educated households, the median wealth of working-class union households is 67% of that of nonunion college-educated households.
CAP’s analysis also found working-class families of color that are part of a union experience the largest percentage gains of wealth, and working-class families of all races and ethnicities are far more likely to own their home when part of a union.
U.S. History Scores Dropped for Eighth Graders
A new report by the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – known as the “nation’s report card” – shows eighth-grade test scores in history were down in 2022, continuing declines that began in 2014 as a growing number of students fall behind even basic standards.
The NAEP found just 13% of eighth graders were considered proficient in history last year, while 40% scored “below basic.” The average test score, measured on a scale of 0 to 500, fell to 258, down five points from 2018 and the lowest average recorded since the annual assessment began in 1994.
Another NAEP report released this week also showed a dip in civics scores, albeit a more modest one. Both reports followed NAEP assessments released in October that showed declines in reading and math scores among fourth and eighth grade students.
Scientists Observed a Star Eating a Planet for the First Time
In a new study, researchers led by scientists from MIT, Harvard, and Caltech report, for the first time, observing a star swallowing a nearby planet, offering a preview of the fate that awaits our own planet some 5 billion years down the road.
Without getting lost in the weeds, the researchers observed a rapidly expanding star nearing the end of its life become 100 times brighter over just 10 days before ejecting a cloud of hydrogen and dust into space over the next year.
The researchers believe the bright, hot flash, which took place in 2020 in the Milky Way’s disk some 12,000 light-years away near the constellation Aquila, was the final moments of a Jupiter-sized planet being pulled into the star’s ballooning atmosphere. As the planet sank deeper into the dying star’s core, the star’s outer layers blasted away, scattering and settling out in space as cold dust.
3,000+ - The number of guns surrendered in exchange for $500 gift cards at nine buyback locations throughout New York state on April 29, according to state Attorney General Letitia James, whose office coordinated the buyback program.
9 weeks - How long Nebraska state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh (D) has filibustered the state legislature in an effort to keep a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors from reaching a final vote.
54.5% - The percentage of Twitter Blue users who subscribed to the service when it first launched in November but are no longer subscribed as of April 30. That means the churn rate (i.e., the percentage of users who unsubscribe from a service) of Elon Musk’s service is roughly ten times that of the average annual churn rate (5.57%) for subscription-based businesses.
Long Video. Get an inside look at NASA’s new $3.5 billion spacesuits. (16 min)
Short Video. Former President Barack Obama on the role the media plays in combating misinformation and protecting our democracy. (6 min)
Fun Video. Why do we have crooked teeth when our ancestors didn’t? (5 min)
Good Read. Marc Elias on why it’s impossible to out-organize voter suppression. (1,185 words; 6 min)
Neat List. Here are five places you can still find gold in the U.S.
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Written by Ryan Wittler