The role of the state and markets in friendship, community life and social well-being

Published —

By Kiffer G. Card, PhD

“Building happy and health communities must be guided by principals of mutual respect, individual autonomy, and community self-leadership.”

Growing Momentum to Address Loneliness

Loneliness is a public health crisis. There is strong evidence showing that being lonely and socially isolated increase your risk of dying early by approximately 27%. Yet, most governments and public health institutions have not taken loneliness seriously. In fact, a recent review of national policies suggests that only the United Kingdom has adopted a comprehensive strategy for addressing loneliness.

Organizations such as The GenWell Project in Canada, the Foundation for Social Connection in the United States, and Ending Loneliness Together in Australia have worked endlessly to raise the profile of potential public health interventions to address loneliness. In the wake of COVID-19, these efforts are finally beginning to be taken seriously. For example, in British Columbia, neighbourhood design and social environments have been identified by the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) as key factors in building healthy environments. Barcelona recently published a ten-year municipal plan to address loneliness.

Interventions to address loneliness don’t only benefit individuals and their families, but can also play a critical role in contributing to civic life by building relationships that cross political and social boundaries. Given rising rates of violence, social distress, and political mal-practice, the need for healthier communal and civic life has never been more apparent.

Whose job is it to address loneliness?

One of the lingering questions surrounding social health interventions is, “Whose job is it to build happy, healthy, and socially-connected communities?” As a social epidemiologist and health services researcher, my answer to this question is: “Addressing Loneliness is Everyone’s job.” There are very few public health crises that don’t require multi-component interventions. For example, to prevent COVID-19, we need big policy changes, such as paid sick leave, environmental interventions, such as changing to air filtration systems, as well as behaviour and culture change campaigns, such as those that promote mask wearing. Likewise, if we want to build happy, healthy, and socially connected communities, we need multi-component interventions that engage policy makers, industry professionals, and citizens at every level and in every community.

The Role of the State in Addressing Loneliness

In the 2020 Canadian Social Connection Survey, which was conducted in the midst of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 67.1% of Canadians said they would support government funding that aimed to address loneliness and 58.7% said they would be more likely to support a corporation that engaged in prosocial interventions.

Of course, some people may scoff at the idea of governments engaging in these sorts of activities? Surely, limits of the state’s role in our lives should be respected. Furthermore, what can the government even do to end loneliness? These are good questions and there is a growing body of literature that aim to address them. For example, some public health organizations have developed “befriending interventions” for people with mental or physical health limitations. These interventions have been, for the most part, moderately helpful. Organizations such as the Canadian Institute for Social Prescribing, are also exploring how primary care providers can help their patients find and build stronger attachments to their communities. It is, of course, unclear how most people would actually feel about being assigned a friend or told by their doctor to attend a social gathering.

One important role of the state might be for governments at all levels to provide more funding for community infrastructure, such as neighbourhood associations, to facilitate more natural social connections. Of course, for these to succeed, people need both the motivation and freedom to spend time and energy connecting with friends, neighbours, and other people living in their community. This means taking concrete steps to free our schedules up for social activity. For example, according to Robert Putnam, every 10 minutes of daily commuting times results in 10% fewer social connections. With this in mind, reducing commute times should be a public health priority, as should ensuring workers have robust opportunities to engage in social activities at work and at home. Governments can ensure these protections and work with employers and human resource organizations to support policies and programs that achieve these ends.

The Role of the Market in Addressing Loneliness

Private companies and organizations also have a role to play in helping consumers and clients build social connections. For example, The Wisdo App, was designed as a novel social networking platform that can help people find and connect meaningfully with others online. Restaurants, Bars, Cafes, Dance Clubs, and many other organizations can also provide venues for social interaction. For example, gay bars, clubs, bookstores, and café’s have historically provided places for 2SLGBTQ+ people with places to connect with one another. Landlords also can play a role in ensuring those living in multi-unit dwellings have sufficient space and opportunity to connect with their neighbours. For example, the Hey Neighbour Collective provides opportunities for landlords to develop the skills and opportunities needed to facilitate social connections at home.

Challenges of State and Market Participation in Addressing Loneliness

While markets and governments can play a role in helping us connect, there are several challenges to their involvement in the social health sphere. First, the issue of equitable access to social participation is critically important. If the market provides social venues at a cost that excludes low-income individuals, for example, then the disparities faced by low income communities will be worsened. On the other hand, if the state becomes too involved in social organizing, it could have an unwanted effect on the political and social health of a community. Given these and other concerns, building happy and health communities must be guided by principals of mutual respect, individual autonomy, and community self-leadership. The market and state should support, but not replace the role that individuals and communities have in building social connections that work best for them. Given that friendship, family life, and community are sacred institutions that are core to human identity, the involvement of markets and governments must be carefully tailored and individuals must be empowered to address loneliness in the ways that are best for them.

Our Role in Addressing Loneliness

Building a happy and healthy community begins with each of us. A few things you can do to help address loneliness and social isolation in your community include:

  • Reaching out to friends and family who you haven’t recently connected with
  • Organizing a get together with those you know
  • Talking to strangers and getting to know your neighbours
  • Volunteering for a community organization or neighbourhood association in your area
  • Email a business or organization in your neighbourhood to host a social event, such as a bingo or trivia night
  • Write your member of parliament or other politicians and encouraging them to invest in social health programming and interventions
  • Sharing this article with people you know, or otherwise striking up a conversation on the topic of social health and connection
  • Following the GenWell Project on their social media channels for more tips, tricks, and resources to build a happier and healthier community.

About the Author

Dr. Kiffer G. Card is the Scientific Director of the Institute for Social Connection and an Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. His research is focused on the ecological, political, and social determinants of health — with an emphasis on understanding how emotional distress and coping responses impact health, well-being, and equity. Dr. Card approaches his work by leveraging community-based mixed methods study designs. He primarily conducts his research among and with marginalized communities, including gay and bisexual men, youth who use drugs, and other populations who experience stigma, discrimination, violence, and social exclusion as a result of their social position and identity.

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