In May 2023, the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, declared a “loneliness epidemic” and announced a “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection” to address this epidemic of loneliness and isolation. In an article for the New York Times, Murthy revealed not only his own experience with loneliness, but the sad statistic that at any one moment, 50 percent of the population are experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.
As expected, this loneliness epidemic affects the old, with 40 percent of nursing home residents having had no visitor in the past year. But it also affects the middle-aged, as evidenced in The Boston Globe headline: “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Perhaps surprisingly, isolation and disconnectedness affect the young the most, with USA Today warning that young people report more loneliness than the elderly. Why is community so important and the lack of it so damaging?
We need community for physical health.
Studies consistently show an increased risk of death when people have few social relationships, especially if they are of low quality. Dr. Murthy revealed statistics showing that social isolation increases the risk for premature mortality by 29 percent. The risk of heart disease increases by 29 percent, strokes by 32 percent, and dementia by 50 percent. The overall increased mortality risk is comparable to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Positively, those who have a large network of friends outlive those with the fewest friends by 22 percent. A survey of three long-living people groups found that the top two things they had in common were “put family first” and “keep socially engaged.”
Some studies have shown that those who attend religious services at least once a week have a 25 percent higher life expectancy than those who don’t. Victor Zeines, author of Living a Longer Life, said that’s “probably because church attendance increases social support, a proven life-extender.”
We need community for mental health.
During COVID-19 lockdowns, loneliness increased, resulting in devastating mental health consequences. Young people suffered the most with significantly increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Adults who report feeling lonely often are more than twice as likely to develop depression as adults who report rarely or never feeling lonely. In his book The Friendship Factor, Alan McGinnis wrote:
In my work as a psychotherapist . . . I have become more convinced than ever that a restoring and renewing power resides in friendship. If people availed themselves of the love available to them, many therapists like me could close up shop.
Positively, Dr. Murthy pointed out that being more socially connected can improve stress responses and minimize the negative health effects of stress. George Vaillant, the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed more than two hundred men since the late 1930s to find what makes for the happiest and most fulfilling lives, concluded, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Another Harvard study of well-being among sixteen hundred Harvard undergraduates discovered that the greatest predictor of happiness was not GPA, SAT scores, family income, gender, or age, but social support.
Reflecting on this, professor of psychology Martin Seligman said:
As a professor, I don’t like this, but the cerebral virtues—curiosity, love of learning—are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love . . . Very little that is positive is solitary. Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.
We need community for spiritual health.
If we need community for physical and mental health, how much more do we need it for spiritual health? God made us in such a way that we need relational community to thrive physically, mentally, and spiritually. That’s why He said, “It is not good that the man should be alone,” and made a companion and helper for the first man, Adam (Gen. 2:18). That’s also why He designed the family and the church, which are all the more necessary since sin disrupted our relationship with God and with one another. In His earthly life, Jesus sought out friends, built friendships, and relied upon friends in His darkest moments (Matt. 26:36–46). He even went so far as to die to secure our friendship (John 15:12–15). A core element of God’s design for humanity is that we live in community with one another in the local churches He has established for us (Ps. 122; 133; Acts 2:42–47; 1 Peter 4:8–11; 1 Cor. 12:12–20; Heb. 10:24–25).
Community, however, must begin with God. God is a community of three persons and invites us into His divine community to enjoy friendship and fellowship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ (John 14:1–6, 15–18, 23–24). No amount of marriage, family, church, or friendships will substitute for the fundamental loneliness we will experience if we try to live apart from God. A large part of the Christian hope is that we will live forever in a perfect heavenly community (Rev. 7:9–17). Salvation, the church, and heaven are God’s plan, and they result in physical, mental, spiritual, and—ultimately—eternal health.