Over the past half-century, there is only a handful of topics that the Surgeon General has named as national public health crises. Those have included in-depth reports and warnings about smoking, the spread of AIDS, depictions of violence in pop culture, drunk driving, obesity, and gun violence. With a new advisory released in May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is sounding the alarm about another issue that requires urgent, broad-based action: loneliness and social isolation.
The advisory includes a sweeping account of why social connection matters, national trends in connection (spoiler: it’s mostly a story of decline), and the effects of social connection and disconnection on individual and community health. The Surgeon General also puts forward a holistic national strategy for advancing social connection, bringing much-needed rigor and concreteness to a topic that could come across as abstract and difficult to address.
An advisory from the Surgeon General, even one that goes from naming a crisis to explaining how to address it, could have its moment in the spotlight and get lost in the noise. How many reports and strategic frameworks are gathering digital dust in your web browser? Yet as a recent New York Times article lifts up, the history of such advisories is cause for hope. Surgeon General Luther Terry’s 1964 report on the harmful effects of smoking was the impetus for swift policy change and gradual shifts in perceptions around smoking. As a side note, an oft-cited report likens the risk of premature death from social disconnection to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
The Surgeon General outlines six pillars to advance social connection, with specific recommendations within each. The pillars include: strengthening social infrastructure in local communities; enacting pro-connection public policies; mobilizing the health sector; reforming digital environments; deepening our knowledge; and building a culture of connection.
We cannot assume that the publication of this new advisory will, on its own, spur change. It will take concerted focus and collaborative action among many actors, from government to the healthcare industry to businesses to philanthropy to the media to individuals. In other words, every sector, every entity, and every person can be – and must be – part of the coalition for connection.
With the crisis of connection animating all of our work at Einhorn Collaborative, we are eager to do our part – from the first three years of life into adolescence and adulthood. In our Building strategy, which I lead, we are delving more deeply into work around social connection, alongside the work we have engaged in for years around pluralism and bridging. It is clear to us that strengthening pluralism and social connection go hand-in-hand, instead of being disparate areas of focus. I talked about this interplay in All the Lonely People: Why Americans’ Isolation Is a Threat to Our Democracy.
As with the surge in philanthropic interest and ecosystem-building we have been a part of to strengthen pluralism, we now see growing commitment and cross-sector collaboration to advance social connection. The 2016 election and its aftermath focused attention and mobilized unlikely alliances to address the challenges facing our democracy. In a similar way, the pandemic brought the crisis of connection into sharper relief and reinforced the need for more robust responses.
Building on work we have done with a range of partners to foster and amplify the science, stories, and practices of social connection, we are supporting efforts to convert the Surgeon General’s advisory into progress on the ground. This includes a partnership with the Foundation for Social Connection, the Harvard Human Flourishing Program, and Healthy Places by Design to create an Action Guide for state and local leaders to advance social connection across many facets of community life.
As part of that initiative, we are excited to participate in the Building Connected Communities gathering in October. A key ingredient in marshaling the resources and building momentum to tackle a complex problem is to help people focused on different pieces of it see how their work is part of a larger shared endeavor. This event will, among other things, illuminate and map the terrain of various efforts afoot to advance social connection. It will also bring together researchers, community and government leaders, students, social entrepreneurs, journalists, and funders from across the country to understand the challenges, lift up solutions, galvanize commitment, and spark collaborative action.
It is fulfilling to focus on strengthening social connection through my work and to partner with talented and passionate people leading the charge, in part because I see it as a societal imperative. I also find it rewarding because I can apply many of the insights and practices in my own life, from parenting to fostering connection with people across lines of difference.
I am taking to heart the section of the Surgeon General’s advisory on “what individuals can do.” If I could make strides across even a few of the recommended actions – to invest more time in nurturing my relationships, minimize distraction during conversations, actively engage with people of different backgrounds and experiences, seek help during times of struggle, and make time for civic engagement – I would no doubt experience the power of connection more palpably. I would also do my small part to help those I engage with every day – family, friends, colleagues, neighbors – feel it more too.