The Epidemic of Loneliness

The Epidemic of Loneliness

We’re so used to policymakers debating, championing issues, and crafting legislative solutions (hopefully) that we don’t always think about the other dimensions they bring to their roles and lives.

Last week, I was reading the Washington Post editorial section, (one way I treat myself by leisurely consuming the entire front section of the Washington Post over a nice cup of coffee). A headline caught my eye, Our Epidemic of Loneliness, written by George Will, as a review of Sen. Ben Sasse’s new book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal.” The title itself is pretty appealing these days…but the topic is even more intriguing than you would think, beyond the headlines of the day.

Sen. Sasse explores the evaporation of social capital—the satisfactions of work and community. The basic premise? That what we think of as connectedness—sharing messages on Facebook, texting at all hours, tweeting, and finding other creative ways to think we are work buddies because we share our LinkedIn profiles (which by the way, used to actually be an effective tool but has lately led me to folks who simply want to sell me something) is really just filling time that we are NOT using to actually connect with others.

Sasse goes on to lay out the proposition that this disconnectedness— that we attribute to being connected, but not really—is leading to a loneliness epidemic that is weakening our historical reliance on community and family. That loneliness—more than cancer, obesity or heart disease—is our nation’s number one health crisis and has a huge impact on our life expectancy.

A lot of what he writes really resonated with me…in the early ages of television, we found a lot of commonality or at least ways to engage because there were frankly a limited number of programs to watch. Today, with access to more than 500 channels or the ever-expanding world of YouTube and random internet viewing of clips, we aren’t even watching television in the same room anymore. We are carrying around our devices, ensconced in our own world of entertainment, and not laughing out loud with one another. My youngest daughter, Kelsey, and I do our best to break this social pattern and last night got a movie on demand that was stupid and hilarious all at the same time. We had a spectacular evening together sitting on the family room couch, eating Thai food, and laughing out loud. I’m sure that was not only good for my body, but also my soul.

If this is truly an epidemic, how do we acknowledge that technology is here to stay but find ways to harness it for the good? It brings to mind some recent conversations with Bill Esbeck, executive head of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, who has been laying some amazing groundwork to figure out ways to kick-off a pilot project harnessing technology to actually combat loneliness for senior citizens. How can you bring in the best your community has to offer—exercise classes, cooking courses or even quilting groups—connecting those who are homebound together using the technology powered by broadband? I think there is a lot there and I am excited to figure out new ways to work with Bill and WSTA to explore it further.

And I would love to talk more to Sen. Sasse about his vision for accepting the way we connect today and how to use technology to add richness and authenticity to those interactions so while we can’t all “go home” to Fremont, Nebraska again, we can find a way to create real connections in the digital age.

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