How local governments can take action to reduce loneliness

The Surgeon General didn't just wake up one day and decide loneliness was an issue; he had data—oodles of it—to underscore the urgency of this public health crisis.

Loneliness is widespread

  • Statistics on adult loneliness: Nearly 20% of American adults report feeling lonely. Imagine filling up the Rose Bowl Stadium twenty times over—each person in those seats would be grappling with loneliness.
  • Feeling isolated: About 50% of Americans say they sometimes or always feel isolated from others. Half of America! 
  • Young adults: Interestingly, the youngest generation of adults, aged 18-22, report higher rates of loneliness compared to older generations. It's not just a "boomer" problem; it's everyone's issue.

So, the Surgeon General is making it clear: we are, statistically speaking, a nation starved for genuine connection.

Loneliness is a health hazard

Loneliness isn't just something that makes you binge-watch Netflix shows; it's a bona-fide health risk.

  • Mental Health: According to the report, loneliness increases the risk of depression by 64%. It's not just a phase; it's a statistical likelihood.
  • Physical Health: Loneliness has the health impact equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases the risk of premature death by 26%.
  • Heart Health: Loneliness has been linked to a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Your heart doesn't just metaphorically ache; it's physically at risk.
  • Immune System: The report also mentions that loneliness can lead to a 40% increase in your risk of dementia. Yes, it affects your cognitive abilities, too.

Disconnection is a menace to both emotional and physical health, and these numbers don't lie.

By bolstering these sections with more data, we give weight to the Surgeon General's warning. The numbers help us understand the scope and scale of the loneliness epidemic and its tangible impact on health. So, this isn't just about feeling blue; it's a matter of public health that needs to be taken seriously.

What can local governments do?

For communities, the state of our connections also has far-reaching impacts on population health, safety, economic prosperity, resilience to disasters, and civic participation. The scientific evidence leaves little doubt—social connection is an integral part of public wellbeing.

So what is the role of local governments in solving this challenge? As key stewards of public health, governments have many evidenced-based options to strengthen social connection from the policy level down to local community action. Here are some top recommendations based on the Surgeon General’s report:

  • Make social connection a priority. This includes establishing leadership roles focused on social connection (like in health departments), incorporating it into population health goals, and dedicating resources to track it and develop strategies for improvement. Use a “Connection in All Policies” approach that identifies opportunities to address social connection across agencies and policy areas – from transportation, housing, labor, parks and recreation – recognizing that all policies shape our connections.
  • Invest in social infrastructure. This means the physical spaces and local programs like parks, community centers, volunteer groups, public transit, affordable housing, and more that provide opportunities for people to interact and participate in community life.
  • Support community-based organizations already working to foster social connection, inclusion, service, and civic participation. Help them scale evidence-based approaches.
  • Launch public awareness campaigns to fight stigma around social isolation and educate on the scientifically proven health and community benefits of social connection.
  • Incorporate social connection metrics into public health tracking and standardize measurement across jurisdictions. This enables assessing local needs, tracking progress over time, and guiding policy decisions.
  • Fund participatory research to understand the key drivers of social disconnection locally and pilot evidence-based solutions tailored to the community context.
  • Implement appropriate reforms on technology companies to increase transparency, protect consumers, and mitigate technologies that exacerbate social isolation.

Get the full list of 10 recommendations here.

Our physical health, mental health, relationships, education, jobs, safety, and quality of life all depend on our connections to others. By making social connection a public policy priority, governments can create the conditions for us all to live healthier, more fulfilling lives and build thriving communities together.

These will, over the course of time, lead to a robust government that is well-situated to address these needs.

But it will take time, and political will. 

I'm not much for waiting for those things to materialize. To that end, I'd like to offer my own set of interim recommendations: 

Tony's lightweight list of realistic, budget-friendly things government officials can do right now

While considering how you might work on the above, there are small steps we can take to start making progress right away.

1. Identify who cares about this issue now

If you and your colleagues are in a position where you know a lot of people working on different initiatives around town, You might have a unique opportunity to coordinate an effort to address this issue. 

Take some time to think and go through your contacts: who works in the following areas who might be interested in this topic? 

  • Local community organizers / club managers
  • Space managers - coworking spaces, places of worship, cafes, libraries, public spaces
  • Folks who work in elder care
  • Folks who work with youth and teens
  • People who work with the underprivileged and underserved
  • Companies that manage remote teams

There are likely already some people within your reach who are working on this topic or something adjacent to it. No need to start from scratch. 

2. Get those people in the same room together

You don't need a massive formal agenda to start. Simply introducing people from different sectors who are each doing their part to address the issue of isolation will unlock lots of possibilities. 

Find out: 

  1. What they're working on now
  2. What they're working on next
  3. What they need help with
  4. What they can offer help with 

And make sure everyone gets a chance to share contact information with each other. 

3. Highlight the places and programs people can go to for connection

Wherever possible, use your platform to drive awareness about what existing resources are already out there. Ask yourself: 

  1. Who do I know who is already running programming that would be useful to folks who might be searching for new ways to connect?
  2. Which spaces are home to programming and open gathering space? 
  3. How can I be doing more to raise the awareness of these programs and spaces, so people (especially those who are new to town) can easily find them and feel enticed to check them out?

By funneling attention to existing efforts, you give yourself the chance to start making an impact right away—without having to wait to build something new. 

Ready to roll?

I want to work with folks who want to make their regions shining examples of belonging and connection, and who want to see their regions reap the benefits of that investment, in the form of citizens who are happier, healthier, and more productive. If that's you, reach out: tony [at]

I also recommend you check out the Action Guide for Building Socially Connected Communities, which when paired with the Surgeon General's guidance should give you a powerful framework for designing your government to address this issue long-term and put you on a trajectory toward creating a place where everyone feels like they can belong.