By Aysha Teja
Humans survived and thrived as a species because of our ability to connect. In our modern, technology-driven world, it seems we have forgotten how to be together–and how meaningful it is for us. According to the 2021 Canadian Social Connection survey, 24.1% of Canadians reported feeling lonely a moderate amount of the time or all of the time. Loneliness is not only widespread but harmful. Studies show loneliness can increase a person’s risk of death by 26%, elevate annual healthcare costs by an estimated $6.7 billion, and cost employers billions annually due to absenteeism, lower productivity, and voluntary turnover (e.g., a 2017 study estimated £2.5 billion lost annually in the UK). But even more importantly, loneliness takes away one’s sense of connection and belonging, one of the most meaningful experiences and greatest joys of being human.
To combat the effects of loneliness we need to design solutions that meaningfully connect people to each other. Many times, our own defence mechanisms and external time pressures and commitments get in the way of us taking the time to build meaningful connections even when we yearn for it. This is why when developing solutions designed to foster meaningful connections we need to be thoughtful and intentional. In the remainder of this post, I discuss four core design principles to develop programs that bring people together meaningfully and provide case studies from across the country.
Our ancestors’ brains and bodies went on high alert whenever they were separated from their tribes, to prepare them for potential predator attacks, exposure, or starvation. The stress that isolation put on their bodies motivated them to rejoin the tribe, where they would be safer and feel re-regulated. Today, our bodies and nervous system react similarly when we are feeling disconnected, but our modern-day infrastructure enables us to organize our lives in a way that helps us tolerate or ignore the loneliness, at least on the surface, thereby exposing our nervous systems to prolonged stress. To counteract this, embodied activities such as singing, running, or performing theatre together help us feel closer to one another. In fact, research has found that when we try to sync with others musically, such as keeping the beat or harmonizing, we tend to feel positive social feelings towards those with whom we’re synchronizing, even if that person is not visible to us or not in the same room.
Toronto-based Choir! Choir! Choir!, a weekly drop-in singing group, is all about harmonizing since it started in 2011. Unlike traditional choir groups, it is open to anyone who wants to attend and perform even if all you feel comfortable with is singing the “ooooohs” and the “aahhhs”. Regulars and newbies alike describe the feeling of belonging to something greater and the power of their voice blending into the whole.
It takes time to build meaningful connections. University of Kansas researcher Jeffery A. Hall found that it takes adults approximately 90 hours to go from acquaintances to casual friends and 160 hours to go from casual friends to friends. This is why when designing solutions that help people connect meaningfully, it is critical that it meets regularly over time. On the flip side, as someone looking to develop more meaningful relationships, it is important to attend events multiple times, even if it feels uncomfortable at first. Research has shown there’s a “mere exposure effect” – that is, our tendency to like people increases when they are more familiar to us.
The motto of the Parkdale Road Runners, a running group in Toronto, is Every Body Welcome. Every Damn Tuesday. This group which has been running for 11 years meets every Tuesday at 7pm in the parking lot of a fitness club in the west end of the city, all year round, no matter the weather. The crew’s consistency and inclusiveness is what brings the 100+ runners back weekly as well as creates a safe space for newcomers to join.
People who feel disconnected are more likely to be self-critical and withdraw and are less likely to join an activity at which they feel less capable. Currently, many group activities are costly or require a skill such as athleticism or musical ability. When designing programs that are set out to build meaningful relationships it is essential to emphasize at the outset everyone is welcome and it is not required to have a specialized skill.
Men’s Shed Canada, a self-organized and peer-led group for men, notes the only qualification to join a group is respect. The low barrier to entry thus creates a wide range of groups that meet diverse needs and interests including but not limited to woodworking, cooking, bike repairs, music and yelling at the television during the playoffs. The outcome of Men Sheds in their own words is “friendship, camaraderie and a space where you can be without judgment”.
Connection is one of the joys of being human. And yet loneliness is often stigmatized and people feel shame in admitting they are lonely. It’s important that offerings do not further shame or stigmatize individuals but instead elicit joy and remind them they are worthy of feeling connected. Each of the groups listed above does this well. It was common when the Choir!Choir!Choir! session ended for the evening (pre-pandemic) the group would spill out onto the streets of Toronto and continue singing. Runners describe the elation they feel after completing a run and/or seeing their progress. Members of the Men Shed describe how belonging to the group reminds them of their purpose after retirement.
It’s also fascinating to note that each of these groups has supported its members and communities in times of need. The members of Choir!Choir!Choir! raised money and contributed to the funeral costs of their longstanding members during COVID and in 2015, they also fundraised $70,000 to sponsor two Syrian families to Toronto. Members of the Parkdale RoadRunners have talked about how they’ve supported each other in times of health crisis and transition.
The impacts these organizations have on individuals and communities reinforce the need to educate, empower and catalyze human connection in Canada. Seeing Canadians around the country taking the lead to create opportunities for people to meet and build meaningful relationships in their local communities serves as a reminder that anyone can do this and we can all be part of the solution to creating a happier and healthier Canada. Take action by joining a group that meets regularly or starting your own. Use the tips here and check out the other resources on The GenWell Project’s website or social platforms for how you might start. But the most important thing is to begin.
Below is more information on how to join any of the groups referenced in the post:
Find the route for the Parkdale RoadRunners