The New Public-Health Crisis

What do you think the most serious public-health crisis is right now in the USA? Obesity? Smoking? Addiction to painkillers? All of those are serious, for sure, but the public-health crisis that’s been making headlines lately is … loneliness and social isolation. Actually I’ve been observing this crisis for a long time in the people around me (and also sometimes in myself), and possibly so have you. Loneliness and isolation has been at least a contributing factor, if not the main factor, in the illnesses and deaths of many people I love.

It’s painful to notice how emotionally sparse a person’s life can get, largely because of bad design. (A couple of examples: car-dependent neighborhoods; houses designed to rely on artificial climate control most or all of the time). Although the elderly are particularly at risk, isolation takes a toll on people of all ages.

Many personal actions to address social isolation also reduce our footprint. And the reverse is true too: Many things we do to reduce our footprint can alleviate social isolation. Examples: Starting a community garden; turning off your air-conditioning and sitting under a tree in your front yard; taking an evening stroll around your neighborhood instead of holing up all night in front of the TV; sharing a meal with a neighbor instead of dining alone and consuming more food than you need.

Further Exploration:

Loneliness Kills: A new public health crisis (and what we can do about it). “A little-discussed condition raises the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent—making it a health hazard at least as significant as smoking and alcohol and more so than obesity. Yet many medical professionals haven’t heard about it, and the public remains largely in the dark. …Lack of human contact has serious physiological consequences. Studies show that without human contact our risk of functional decline increases as does our risk of mobility loss. Our risk of clinical dementia increases by 64 percent. These health problems further isolate those suffering from social isolation, threatening a vicious cycle of physical, emotional, and psychological decline.” The authors go on to make several recommendations, starting with elevating our discussion on this topic to a national level.

This TED Talk by Susan Pinker, “The Secret To Living Longer May Be Your Social Life”, is a real eye-opener. The second-most-important factor in longevity is close relationships, and #1 is “social integration” — those seemingly trivial face-to-face interactions in passing throughout the day. Who knew that idly chitchatting with the mail carrier or barista or hardware-store cashier or librarian mattered so much. It surprised me that this fabric of casual daily interactions is a more important factor than close relationships. Further down the list of longevity factors are quitting smoking, boozing, and drugs; and maintaining a healthy weight. Since isolation exacerbates obesity and substance abuse, we can get extra bang for the buck by addressing isolation.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (book by Robert D. Putnam): “In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect. Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.” One of my big takeaways from Putnam’s book is what the author refers to as “the value of weak ties” — people you’re not close friends with, but who are part of your wider circle, such as neighbors and friends of friends. These more distant relationships enrich us in unexpected ways. I experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I was living in an RV park in Austin, Texas. Most of my 16 close neighbors were not people I’d seek out as close friends, but we got great value from one another’s presence. We shared skills, tools, food, and other resources. I already had plenty of close friends in various parts of town, but the “weak ties” with my immediate neighbors — people I would not have sought out, and who would not likely have sought me out, if we hadn’t happened to be living right on top of each other — were a totally separate asset, bringing different benefits.

• You may already be familiar with this poster from Syracuse Cultural Workers, on how to build community. I’ve seen this wonderful poster on the walls in many intentional communities and permaculture centers. The first two suggestions are “Turn off your TV” and “Leave your house.” Yes! A couple of suggestions I would add to update this 1998 poster are: start a Little Free Library in your neighborhood; and set up a Turquoise Table in your front yard.