The US needs a Secretary of Loneliness

The US needs a Secretary of Loneliness
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A year ago last month, I welcomed former UK Prime Minister Theresa MayTheresa Mary MayThe British election will show the undeniable power of nationalism Is Corbyn handing Brexit to Boris Johnson? Boris Johnson is under pressure to stand up to Trump on climate change MORE to a community center tucked under a bridge in rapidly-changing south London. She was there to meet younger and older neighbors who were enjoying a quiz hosted by the charity I run, and to launch the world's first ever government-level loneliness strategy.

As May mingled with octogenarians and millennials and shared local trivia over tea and biscuits, her strategy was being met with a mixture of derision, gratitude and curiosity. For critics, loneliness was nothing more than a natural and episodic personal emotion — an unavoidable part of the human experience like longing, anger or fear — and certainly no place for government policy. For supporters, government intervention was a welcome new tool in the battle against a long overlooked social problem reaping havoc over a creaking public health system.

Others wondered: How would the strategy work? Who would be accountable? What are the factors that are driving loneliness? And can we really make people less lonely? 

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A year later, we have some answers. For one, community-led initiatives do work: from local book groups to chatty cafes to pet projects, small activities that bring people together are increasingly shown to help people feel more deeply connected to their communities. A study of my organization, The Cares Family, has shown that older and younger people alike feel less lonely, more connected across generations, and a sense of belonging to "part of something bigger than themselves" as a result of sharing time and new experiences with one another.

Such community projects need funding and joining up, and that’s where government can play a role. In the UK, a dedicated Loneliness Minister has been appointed to drive policy change across transport, housing, health and other departments, with £22million committed to community initiatives to tackle the epidemic. "Social prescribingis directing people most at risk of loneliness from social services to neighborhood activities.

Local firefighters running routine safety checks are asking neighbors if they need help expanding their social networks. Doctors in our National Health Service have become more keenly aware of the health implications of feeling chronically alone, including the increased likelihood of strokes, heart attacks and dementia.

But loneliness isn’t just a personal or public health crisis. It’s also a political crisis. On both sides of the Atlantic, globalization, gentrification, de-industrialization and digitization have estranged us from each other. We have fewer opportunities to interact with people from different backgrounds and life experiences — people who are not like us. That has made us more polarized, in our communities, our media and our politics.

That’s why our leaders need to be at the vanguard of the discussion on how we will find connection in a disconnected age — connection that can lead to things that we should all value, no matter who or where we are: empathy, community and feeling part of our changing world rather than left behind by it.

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But the mainstream of our political debate in 2019 has remained dominated by symptoms of our malaise — Trump and Brexit, impeachment and backstops — rather than its causes. In our forthcoming national elections, politicians in the US and the UK need to put that right, with a more honest analysis of the past and more powerful narratives of togetherness for the future.

This is not to say that our shared loneliness crisis will be fixed by governments alone. Each of us can do our bit within our own communities — to take a moment to chat with neighbors, to be there for others in times of challenge and change, to ask checkout assistants and bus drivers, "how’s your day?," instead of withdrawing behind headphones, self-service checkouts and smart phones.

Still, our politics can be enriched by tackling the big, complex themes at the heart of what it means to belong in the 21st century. Because without lasting political leadership, those millions of connections at the local level won’t amount to the change we need in our systems and cultures that are driving us apart.

Alex Smith is founder and chief executive of The Cares Family, an Obama Fellow, and an Encore public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.