Online Conversation | All the Lonely People: Isolation, Connection, and the Common Good
with Ryan Streeter and Francie Broghammer
On April 9th we were thrilled to host author and scholar Ryan Streeter along with psychiatrist Francie Broghammer. Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and is the author of five books, including Transforming Charity, Religion and the Public Square in the 21st Century, and The Soul of Civil Society. Dr. Broghammer is the Chief Psychiatry Resident at the University of California, Irvine, where her academic interests encompass medical ethics, education, spirituality, and human flourishing, and her research focuses on suicide and social isolation.
In this conversation, we wrestle with tough questions such as how to think about reinvigorating relational and community ties that encourage the flourishing of both the individual and the body politic. Ryan and Francie discuss the antidotes to isolation in a time of pandemic and strive to find hope for connecting lonely people in a divided nation at a polarized time. We hope this conversation on America’s epidemic of loneliness and the path towards meaningful connection inspires you to consider how you can further cultivate enduring friendships and engage with your community.
The song is “Bring the Light” by Abby Gundersen.
This painting is Coming from the Mill by Laurence Stephen Lowry, 1930
Transcript of “All the Lonely People: Isolation, Connection, and the Common Good” with Ryan Streeter and Francie Broghammer
Pete Peterson: Greetings from the campus of the Pepperdine Graduate School of Public Policy in Malibu, California. I’m Pete Peterson, the very grateful dean here. And yes, that’s the Pacific Ocean over my shoulder. It’s a delight to welcome you here to the next in our ongoing series of conversations and webinars at the intersection of faith, politics, culture, and policy with our good friends at the Trinity Forum. Hard to believe, but it’s been almost a decade of exploring these topics with our good friends at the Trinity Forum. As one of America’s only graduate policy schools based at a Christian university, we take these topics so seriously, and I can’t think of a better partner than the Trinity Forum in hosting conversations, just like the one that we’ll host today. You know, at first blush, it might not make a lot of sense that a graduate policy school would care much about a topic like loneliness. But for reasons we’ll discuss today, it’s hard to think about a more important intersection than a cultural issue like loneliness and how it’s being played out in our public square. In fact, today’s conversation grows out of an initiative here called The American Project. And two of the advisors on the project are our two panelists today, Ryan Streeter and Francie Broghammer. I’m so excited to hear what they’ll have to say on today’s topic. And who better to moderate this conversation than my good friend Cherie Harder. Cherie, from Malibu, California, back to you on the East Coast.
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Pete, and on behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, I just want to add my own welcome to those of you joining us via Zoom to today’s Online Conversation on “All the Lonely People: Isolation, Connection, and the Common Good.” I’d also just like to thank our friends at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, ably led by their dean, Pete Peterson, whom you just heard from. As Pete noted, this has been almost a decade of partnership between Trinity Forum and the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. And it’s really just been a delight to be able to work with good friends over that decade. If you are one of those people who are joining us for the very first time, at the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space and resources for leaders to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to try to offer a space and resources to not only wrestle with those questions, but also come to better know the Author of the answers.
And one of the big questions that we’ll engage today pertains to a rather unsettling paradox of our time, the fact that we have never been more virtually connected, but we are deeply, painfully, even lethally lonely. Some studies indicate that fully half of us report feeling lonely, rejected, and isolated, and that each succeeding generation reports being lonelier than the one before. Of course, loneliness by this definition is not merely a matter of solitary time or being alone. As, often, solitude can actually be deeply enriching spiritually, emotionally, even relationally. It instead refers to the pain of being excluded, overlooked, disregarded, diminished, and alienated as a result. This pain is both destructive and disintegrating in individual lives, but also in civic life. Even before the onset of this isolating pandemic, loneliness and its attendant hardships contributed to a decline in life expectancy, a surge in suicides, more than a doubling of overdoses, and a spike in deaths of despair.
Which leads us to ask: why is it, in the midst of relative peace and prosperity, we are increasingly alienated, lonely, and depressed? Why has our loneliness grown along with opportunities for virtual connection? And how can we strengthen the ties that both surround us and ground us, that root us to a place and broaden our world? These are obviously big questions and there’s no easy answers. But both of our guests today have wrestled with these questions, both with vigor but from different vantage points, as a doctor and medical researcher who cares for those afflicted with loneliness as well as studies the phenomenon, and as a scholar and policy wonk who has studied the impact of loneliness on the body politic.
And so it’s a real pleasure to introduce our guests today, Ryan Streeter and Francie Broghammer. Ryan is the director of domestic policies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he oversees research in technology, education, social capital formation, housing, poverty, and public opinion. He previously served as the executive director of the Center of Politics and Governance at UT Austin, as the deputy chief of staff for then-Governor Mike Pence, and a special assistant for domestic policy to President George W. Bush. He’s also the author of five books, including Transforming Charity, Religion and the Public Sphere in the 21st Century, and The Soul of Civil Society, as well as writing widely for a variety of publications, including The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, National Review, and many others.
Joining him as Francie Broghammer. Francie is a doctor and the chief psychiatry resident at the University of California, Irvine, where her academic interests encompass medical ethics, education, spirituality, and human flourishing. And her research focuses on suicide and social isolation. She also serves as a current Leonine Fellow and American Psychiatric Association Leadership Fellow, a member of UC Irvine Medical Ethics Committee, and a board member for Pepperdine University’s American Project. Ryan and Francie, welcome. Great to see you.
Ryan Streeter: Thanks. Thanks for having us.
Francie Broghammer: Delighted to be here.
Cherie Harder: We’re really glad to have you here. So we’re just going to jump right in. And, Francie, given that your research is on loneliness and you do a lot of clinical treatment of those who suffer with it, I want to start with you and simply ask you, what is going on? Why has there been such a rise of loneliness in the last few years? And what do you see as some of the contributing factors?
Francie Broghammer: Good question. Broad question. And I’m going to back it up just a little bit and specify it’s not just the last couple of years. This is something we’ve actually seen going on for the last couple, like, 20 years or so. I would say really a sharp increase. And before we can answer some of those questions, I think it’s really important that we understand what loneliness is and what it is not. Loneliness is not in and of itself social isolation, which many of us have experienced more than we ever thought we would over the last year. Right? Social isolation is an objective state. There are not people around you. But loneliness is the subjective feeling of being alone. You can feel alone in a crowded room, right? And so this is important that we highlight, because what happens when you start feeling that way is that, not far from there, is this inability to find meaning in your life and daily actions. Because if you don’t feel related to people around you—we are relational beings—and so you don’t understand how you fit into the bigger picture at play. And so once you start to lack that meaning in your life, very quickly your environment around you is perceived as toxic. And we see that there’s worse health outcomes, both physically and mentally. And very quickly, you can go from there to a state of what we call despair, essentially, which is suffering in the absence of meaning. And that can lead to things such as depression, suicide, drug overdoses.
And so “what is contributing to this?” is one of the things that you had asked, and it’s manyfold. If there was a simple solution, I don’t think we’d need to have an hour talking about this today. And I promise you, an hour won’t even scratch the surface. But in my research and my clinical work, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s changes happening in every fiber of American life. Time we’re spending at the dinner table with our kids. How much time our kids are spending with one another as they’re growing up and going through their adolescence. How much time we’re spending in church or how much people even start to affiliate with a specific religion. Changes in employment patterns, right? Going maybe more towards a gig economy or people seeing more turnover in the work that they’re doing. Relating with people in the workplace less. For every single person these factors are going to factor in differently. What impacts your 13-year-old girl feeling alone is going to be very different from what impacts the 45-year-old gentleman who feels alone. But the reality is, is it’s not a one-hit wonder. It’s not like things just changed at school and I feel lonely. It’s things are different at church, and things are different at home, and things are different at school, and things are different at work. And all of those things factor in to different degrees for different people.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Francie. Ryan, I’d love for you to jump in because I know one of your research areas of focus has been social capital formation. And just to get your thoughts on what has been happening over the last couple of decades and how it might impact our perceived loneliness or isolation now.
Ryan Streeter: Yeah, to build on what Francie was just saying: the experience of loneliness, of feeling disconnected from others or having social needs that your current relational environment is not meeting—kind of where loneliness comes from—is something that, despite its increase recently, as you talked about earlier, is something that every generation has sort of struggled with. David Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness in 1971 or David Riesman wrote The Lonely Crowd in 1951. Both of them attributed the dislocation of modern life, the enemy, the social atomization driven by large scale changes in our economy and social structures, to be behind this sense that people have of being dislodged from a place of security into one of instability, which also can produce a kind of loneliness. So to put it in historical context, this is a perennial question that we wrestle with. What I think has been happening over the last couple of decades in American life—and even beyond that, as you indicated, Cherie—is a social capital sort of phenomenon and a sort of decline in a number of our communities around the country, just in the health and sort of substance of personal relationships at the local level that people experience when they’re not at work and they’re not at home, when they’re out and about and they’re in their communities, whether that’s in a formal structure, like a church, or just at a corner café where they meet their friends regularly.
There have been a number of studies. We all know Bob Putnam’s work from a couple of decades ago. There’s been a lot of work since that time showing the shifting nature of civic engagement in America and social capital. And so what we’ve endeavored in our survey work at AEI to do is to not just invent new questions, but to recover some of these old survey questions, do large national surveys, and combine them, to ask the battery of questions that form a loneliness index like the UCLA Loneliness Index. And some of the same questions that someone like Bob Putnam asked years ago on formal volunteering, civic membership, and then some more recent questions on just social relationships, more informal forms of social capital. We mash all those things together, and we find, perhaps unsurprisingly, but I think quite convincingly, that when people are embedded in networks of real relationships, both formal and informal, and particularly when those are rooted in the house of faith, and in a family, you see really low levels of attendant loneliness there.
And so what I think is a big part of the story, which has not necessarily made it into the media narrative about loneliness over the last few years, is that you have a sort of magic equation of marriage, of membership—usually within a religious organization but can be civic—and then just sufficient time in a community. And when you factor all those things together, even young people—who are always the loneliest in a society. We’re always lonely when we leave home and venture out on our own because we don’t really know anybody. We’re new in a community. We just took a job somewhere. It’s not uncommon for young people to be lonely. They’re always the loneliest ones. But when you look at relatively young people who are members, who are married, who’ve been in a place for at least three years, their levels of loneliness on average are about the same as people who are Baby-Boomer age, who are a generation ahead of them. And so I think this body of work that we’ve seen kind of emerging over the last couple of decades on the changing nature of social capital in America is very much related to this phenomenon of real and perceived loneliness in America.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Ryan. You mentioned Bob Putnam and his work Bowling Alone, where he found that actually membership, volunteerism, all these different sort of metrics of civic engagement were declining. But one of the counters to that at the time by several scholars was like, “Oh, there’s probably going to be new ways that we’re going to engage in a civic sense, in a relational sense.” And one of those ways that was proposed is there’s going to be so many new and rich forms of virtual engagement, even things like what we’re doing right now. But one of the things I wanted to ask really both of you but starting with you, Francie, is in some ways it seems like virtual engagement has not panned out to be quite what we hoped in terms of forging relationships and staving off senses of alienation and loneliness. And in particular, I wanted you to comment on a study I had read recently—you probably know far more about it than I do—that looked at teenage girls and depression, and it found that basically between 2010—which is right around the time that more people had smartphones than not in America—Between 2010 and 2015, depression for teenage girls grew 50 percent within a five year period. And not only that, but that the more time people spent on social media, the more likely they were to report feeling lonely or alienated or depressed. So what is it? Why has our social media failed to be that new form of kind of rich social capital and relational incubation? And why is it that we are more lonely when we seem to be more connected?
Francie Broghammer: Good question. And it’s, again, very nuanced because it depends on how we use technology as a means of engagement. Right? It’s one thing to spend three hours alone in your bed scrolling through saying, “Oh, I don’t quite look like that” or “I can’t match this achievement.” It’s a very different thing to get together with a small group of maybe like-minded people, have a very thorough in-depth conversation, catch up on people’s lives, “how are your kids doing?” Right? So it’s not just “social media all bad” because it does depend on how we use it and how often we use it and in which ways we’re using it. There’s actually a fair amount of research showing that it’s kind of a baby bear’s porridge type of a phenomenon. If you can use kind of the right amount, the right frequency, you find that it actually can be supplementary and helpful as a means of helping especially virtual employees feel more connected. But if it’s being used too much or too little or not quite in the right way, we’re not able to achieve that same end.
But with regards to teenage girls in particular, because this is a topic that always comes up, it’s one of the groups that we’ve seen the highest spike in suicide rate in over the last 10 to 20 years here. And everyone goes, “Oh, it must be social media.” Right? What about social media? And the thing we have to realize, especially with young girls, because we don’t quite see it the same in young boys in the same way, is young women tend to internalize when they are experiencing distress, which is why, following a divorce, a young girl might keep to herself, spend less time with her friends, spend more time in her bedroom, things like that, whereas a young boy might be more likely to act out at school, get in trouble for getting in fights, things like that. So young girls are more likely to internalize. And what are they internalizing? They’re internalizing, “Maybe you’re not good enough.” Right? “Maybe you can’t match up when it comes to looking this way or this specific type of accomplishment.”
A story comes to mind of a patient I saw last year in our emergency room actually. She was 13 years old, and she was coming in with suicidal ideation. I spent some time getting to know her. And, you know, “what’s contributing? Where did this come from?” And she said, “Dr. Brogrammer, I’ve never had these thoughts before in my life. But I recently switched to a new school and a couple of people there started an Instagram that was titled ‘Becky Should Kill Herself.’ And within a number of hours, really, it had hundreds and hundreds of followers.” And she’s like, “If all of these people feel this way, maybe it’s something I should be considering. What did I do that was wrong?” And we have to realize that it’s this— being an adolescent is complex to begin with, and then we’re factoring in the distance that comes from social media engagement. Right? You can be mean to someone and not have to directly deal with the look on their face and the feeling that invokes within you. And that allows people to interact in a way that’s less human than they did before. Right? And this is one thing when it happens to a 29- or 35-year-old who has a fully formed prefrontal cortex and can kind of navigate all the nuances of this. It’s a very, very different thing when it happens to a 13- or 14-year-old girl who is more likely to internalize, doesn’t have that prefrontal cortex, and is really going through this period of maturation.
So, yes, the statistic you cited is absolutely correct. There is a direct correlation between, especially for adolescents, time spent on social media and adverse mental health outcomes. There was recently the 2020 Cigna study that was released, showed that heavy social media users—which was defined as two hours or more on social media per day—74 percent of them met criteria for being lonely. Just a year prior to that, it had been remarkably lower, where there wasn’t really a significant difference between light users and heavy users. The study actually was conducted in 2019, released in 2020. By the time it was released in 2020, there was actually a 20 percentage point difference between heavy social media users being lonely—it was about 74 percent—and light social media users being lonely, which came in at about 54 percent. So very, very direct correlation there.
Cherie Harder: Well, Ryan, what are you seeing in terms of social capital formation regarding the use of social media?
Ryan Streeter: Yeah, I mean I think that it’s—like Francie said—it’s not the medium itself that’s the problem. It certainly enables some of the worst of us and can put us in a situation where we’re not engaged in meaningful relationships over here because we’re spending an inordinate amount of time on social media. But the medium itself is not necessarily the problem. We all grew up with our mothers telling us not to get in strangers’ cars. And then when the Internet was invented, we were told not to meet people in person that we met on the Internet. But then we started using the Internet to meet strangers and get in their cars. And we all do that fairly safely. And it’s not a problem. Likewise, people are using social media; a lot of times they’re using it to catch up with family and friends, and as a father with a daughter overseas and a son in schools overseas, I’m thankful for it. It helps us to stay connected in ways that weren’t even possible 10 and 20 years ago. I think what’s important to distinguish here is that it’s really what you bring with you into your social media life that makes all the difference. And young people just haven’t had enough time to develop those networks and relationships over time that provide a certain kind of purpose in their lives. Often they haven’t. And when they spend a lot of time on social media, this is the problem that we— the kind of problems Francie was talking about is what we see.
What I’d like to pivot to just a little bit in this is kind of the role of politics and political ideology and the more performative our politics becomes and that role in lonely adults’ lives. I mean, once we move into adulthood, a significant percentage of people use their digital media to consume either politics itself or the ideological sort of content of the things that their tribe is kind of into. And one of the things that really jumped out in our survey research, which we didn’t go looking for, but was especially interesting, was when we asked those traditional membership questions like Bob Putnam all taught us to look at—do you volunteer at a charity? Are you a member of the veterans club or a sports group or a church? And you look at those membership rates over against people’s loneliness scores, as you would expect, you find that people that are engaged with others in their community in formal ways—and then we look at the informal too, like how many times you talk with your friends a week? How often do you get together with people? Unsurprisingly, people who are involved in their communities are less lonely than the national average. There’s one exception, and that is the people whose only form of civic engagement is politics, so people who say that they only volunteer in political activities. And we ask a whole bunch of questions about that. “Do you display campaign literature?” “Have you tried to get people to vote?” “Do you go around telling people who to vote for?” “Do you have bumper stickers?” These sorts of things. “Do you give money to candidates?” The people who outperform everyone else in that category are among the loneliest people in the country. Now, I don’t know if our politics is just hollowing out our souls or it’s just attracting lonely people these days. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on. Some combination probably of both, but it jumps out in a really, really noticeable way. And so when you look at young adults whose only outlet is political activity, when it comes to their volunteer activities, they’re about seven times more likely to say they’re often lonely than young adults whose main engagement is at their church or at a local charity or some other type of civic organization locally.
So there’s something about the humanity of being involved in the lives of others in physical ways, in ways that unite you in a purpose, just like you experience when you’re involved together in some kind of club or a church, that really has a profound effect on us. Much of our political engagement today is sort of disembodied. We spend a lot of time liking, retweeting, organizing through these media. And it’s something that you express less in the way than you would in a true community sort of context. But probably what’s going on here, we don’t have a good way of measuring which types of political engagement is sort of in-person and what isn’t. But it’s very clear that this aspect of our lives right now is having a really kind of deleterious effect on our overall spiritual, moral, and emotional well-being. And it expresses itself in this loneliness factor. So I think there’s something to the kind of relationship between our digital lives and our political ideologies, which is producing something that’s new, something that didn’t really exist a generation ago. And so we’re trying to understand it now, really for the first time.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Ryan. I’m so glad you brought that up. And there’s so much to ask there, because it really is remarkable that political involvement, of all the measures of civic engagement, would be the one that’s not positively correlated with reduced loneliness, sort of richer friendships and relationality. And one of the things I wanted to ask you is, another thing, a trend we’ve seen over the last few years, is that in many ways our political identities are waxing and other forms of self-identification are actually waning in some ways, that we’re becoming more political creatures and that actually our political identities are sort of eclipsing in importance some of our others, at least according to survey data. And so I wanted to ask you what impact you see that playing out and what the implications of that are for the future. And then, relatedly, I kind of wanted to ask you about something that your friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, said, when he had interviewed with us, where he talked about sort of the increasing juxtaposition of political involvement and a form of contempt, that essentially what is kind of binding our political tribes is less a shared sense of love and common purpose and more a shared sense of antipathy for others. Is there something about bonds of antipathy that are inherently far less conducive to friendship and relationship than bonds of shared affection or purpose?
Ryan Streeter: Yeah, great question. There’s a lot in there as well. I mean, you think about just the difference between being in an automobile and walking down the sidewalk. Right? I mean, we all say and do things—or I do; you probably don’t, Cherie—when I’m behind the wheel of a car that I would never say to someone who cut me off by walking out of the store in front of me onto the sidewalk. You add one layer of impersonality between you and another person and you behave a bit differently. And what our political lives have sort of turned into through the intermediation of digital technology is kind of a performative environment where we yell the loudest at people who already kind of agree with us. And it makes it very easy to kind of turn your opponent into an other, into someone who’s just— they’re not a part of your tribe. And that’s really the only way I think you can explain the rise in animosity in our political lives in America. It’s intertwined entirely with this ability to live in our digital enclaves, because the differences between now and the 1970s, when you ask people those questions like you and others have asked over time about whether it would be a problem if one of your kids came home dating someone who is of a different political party, I mean, it’s gotten so divided now in ways that it wasn’t back then. It really is hard to explain outside of this particular phenomenon.
What I would say is, going back over many, many years—I mean, George Orwell wrote about this, you can find this all the way back to the Scottish Enlightenment writers in the 1700s—there’s something about ideology in our politics that really, really gets people energized. It’s a lot easier to turn people out for a march on the Mall in Washington over perceived injustices, climate change, what have you, than it is to turn out people in front of city hall to fix the potholes in their city. There’s something just much more elevating about the moral crusade that you want to be a part of. And we’ve now found ways to keep the moral crusade happening 24/7 in our lives.
What I would say, is part of the reason my colleagues and I at AEI decided to launch some of these large national surveys is we had a hunch that there’s more going on in people’s lives than just politics, despite the fact that we get most animated about what’s happening within our ideological perspective of the world. We’re still parents, we’re still kids, we’re still members of church, we’re still coaches in our kids’ sports clubs and stuff like that. And we wanted to understand kind of what’s actually going on at the community level. And I think that’s where the hope for us is. I don’t exactly know how to remedy the political problem. Arthur wrote a book about it, and we should probably just all go back and read Arthur’s book that you mentioned. And he writes about this a lot. With trying to change that dynamic in our politics, which, as my colleague Yuval Levin has written, is we’ve turned our institutions into performative platforms, trying to reverse that so that they become these places again through which we exercise our duties and through which our character and judgment is shaped.
That’s a huge task. But one place that we can start, for those of us who care to at least begin at the local level, is to look at what else is going on, because what we found is that there are very real community dynamics in this country which are facilitated by the kinds of communities in which we live, the numbers of organizations in which you can be involved, even the way communities are designed that help people bump into one another, that is really where these animosities fall away. So to that part of your question, I mean, when people are side by side, even if their politics would drive them apart—if they were talking to each other on Twitter, they’d be at each other’s throats—they’re now standing on the sideline of their kids’ soccer game, talking about whether the new math curriculum that Ms. Johnson just introduced is better than the old one and what to do about the fact that neither of them is happy and their kids aren’t learning. That’s where most of our lives happen. We need to talk about it more. We need to cover it more. We need to write about it more. And we need to probably encourage especially younger people to be involved there more. That’s easier to say than to do. But I think that’s clearly going to have to be part of the solution to this overall crisis of isolation and atomization that we’re facing.
Cherie Harder: I want to push into what we can do just a little bit more, and, Francie, as you said quite rightly, we have barely scratched the surface of this. But before we turn to audience questions, we are about to enter a period of reset. At this point, I think it’s nearly 20 percent of Americans are vaccinated. Over the next few months, we will probably start gradually getting out more, returning to work, returning to socializing. And in some ways, we have an opportunity to sort of rethink certainly some of our personal habits, but also some of our organizational processes, procedures, and methods, even some of our structural ones. And so I’d really love to hear from both of you—we’ll start with you, Francie—about what we can do individually but also institutionally, even structurally. And I want to particularly ask about the church as well, in that the church has always been sort of the trellis on which the vine of community grows, not because it’s trying to be a community activist, but because, since our mission is to love God, love others, it’s intensely and intrinsically relational. So individually, institutionally, in terms of our ecclesiology, what should we do? What should we be thinking about as we sort of re-enter a new period?
Francie Broghammer: I’m so glad we’re talking about this because we have an opportunity that when I started doing this research a number of years ago, I never anticipated we would have: this great reset, if you will. And I’m going to piggyback a little bit off what Ryan just said. And you mentioned that our identities have kind of been dwindled down more or less to the political for many people, that identity taking the forefront. And I just have to give a quick nod to Tocqueville here. He put it so aptly, so many years before his time, very prophetic. But in saying that politics—I’ll quote it directly—”In politics, shared hatreds are almost always the basis of friendship.” Right? And what I know from studying human behavior, if it’s this kind of negative place or pessimistic place that we’re coming from as a shared foundation, that is a dangerous place to be. So the most important thing to highlight here is where do we go from here? We’ve got to broaden up our identities again. Right? We are not just a Democrat or Republican. We are Cindy’s neighbor. We are Becky’s mom. We are our mother’s daughter, our daughter’s father, whatever it may be. Right? Our identities are ten-fold, not one-fold or two-fold. And we can’t let any one of them take priority.
What we’ve seen a lot over the past several years is the rise of the political identity. What we have also seen, especially pre-Covid, is that the employed identity was taking the forefront, right? “Oh, I do this for work.” How often do you meet someone and the first question they say is “what do you do?” Right? So we can kind of figure out where people fit. And what we’ve seen during Covid is people had a big sigh of relief early on when they said, “Oh, my gosh, work was infiltrating the home, but home had not infiltrated work in an equivalent way.” And there was something very humanizing about seeing your CEO’s child crawl across their lap in the middle of a company-wide meeting. Right? And so we need to recognize that our steps moving forward are not just, “OK, what policy can we have in place here or there?” But our call, both on an individual and a broader level, are to recognize we are multifaceted beings. Right? And that means—and I’ll quote a really great statistic here; it’s one of my favorites because I think it highlights a point—your risk of suicide directly correlates with how well you know your neighbor two doors down. And it’s not that that neighbor themselves will potentially save your life if you overdosed on medication, but it says something about how invested and ingrained you are in the community around you. So, yeah, it’s volunteering in your kid’s school. It’s spending time ushering and helping people park at church. It’s, instead of just the political hobbyism and the quick Twitter post, it’s maybe getting out and going to your local meeting to talk about the new city ordinances, etc. Right? We are talking not necessarily about politics, but about association and local engagement. And that is what we are all called to do, and that starts on a very, very individual level, I would argue as “small” as spending more time at the dinner table with your kids, asking them about their day. That is the first and the most important school that we have in our country. Right?
On a broader level, where do we go with our organizations from here? We’re seeing data coming out that most people, when they’re saying, “OK, when I transition back to work, what is important to me? Well, I don’t like being 100 percent isolated.” Right? Being home and only having technology as a means of communication isn’t ideal. But there’s something about the flexibility that I have that allows me to drop the kids off at soccer or attend a webinar in the middle of the day and catch up later if I need to that’s very freeing and allows me to feel more dynamic and multifaceted as an individual. And so we’re seeing a strong preference arise for flex-scheduling, right. Giving people this freedom to use different parts of their identity in different ways throughout the day. And I think that that’s something, if we use that as a key concept, recognizing that we’re not just employees 40 hours a week, 60 hours a week, 80 hours a week, but we also hold these other identities, and how can we protect space for those that will keep us on the right path as we make decisions about how to best move forward as we reopen.
Cherie Harder: Ryan?
Ryan Streeter: Well, now that Francie mentioned de Tocqueville, I can’t not pile on there, and I would just add that one of the things that’s interesting when you go back and read him was his observation that Americans, when he was walking around in the 1830s, were individualistic and materialistic. He was concerned about this aspect of what he was seeing in America. They said that Americans, they’ll build a house and won’t even get the roof on it before they sell it. They’re always eager for gain. They’re pushing themselves forward, they’re materialistic, they believe in the individual. And in many ways, his whole description of the civic life of America was his way of showing that this is a really important way to counter that or channel it. Or it’s not that individualism is bad, it’s that, when you live within a real community, it gets channeled in the right ways. The energies of productivity are helpful rather than destructive. And of course, he observed that religion in America was a key part of that. And so we’re fond of quoting him because he helps us understand what the fundamentals of a really healthy public square are. And in his case, in the New England towns, those were real places with an actual church and other stores and shops and places where people met together and solved problems.
And so to get to your question, Cherie, about the church, I think we’re at a point in the United States where religious leaders across the country should really be asking this fundamental question again about what the church’s responsibility is to the public square, kind of its own public theology of involvement again. We’ve gone through times in our civic life together in this country, not just in the last couple of decades, but actually the last couple of centuries, where from time to time religious leaders get together and they try to answer that question. And I think we’re at a point where we really need to do that. What does it actually mean for a church to own some piece of the public square where they are? Rather than becoming vehicles to try to own the political opposition, which unfortunately has been happening, I think all too often.
I mean, it’s just been startling in our own survey research, as well as that of others, to see that, right now anyway, when it comes to conspiracy theories in American public life, white evangelical Republicans right now are the most conspiratorial body in this country, however you want to cut the way they respond to questions. And I’m not suggesting that pastors all across the country from the pulpit are communicating these things, but it has become— our political ideologies, our political paranoias, our political anxieties have been so intertwined and interwoven with our ecclesiastical relationships that they’ve been very hard for people to disentangle. And I think if really our religious leaders aren’t asking a question about “what does it mean for the church to be salt and light in the public square these days?” in a way that’s not just political, but is in a way that’s much more true to what our community actually needs and consists of, if we’re not doing that, then I think the forces of kind of political energy are just going to keep pulling the church in this direction, which I don’t think has been healthy for American public life. So block by block, city by city, across the country, a renewed interest in this discussion of what the public square means for church leaders and congregants is, I think, really, really important right now.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, as we mentioned, we only scratched the surface. But we are going to turn to questions from our viewers, which often is one of the most interesting parts of this hour. And if you’re joining us for the first time, not only can you ask a question—and you do that just by going to the Q&A box at the bottom center of your screen and entering it—but you can also “like” a question and that helps us have an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. And I see that there has already been many questions that have come in, several questions about grief and suffering. Nicole Peepenrink asks, “What role do you think comparative suffering plays in our increasing sense of loneliness? It seems that as we empathize with each other and ourselves less, we feel less understood by others.” And we’ve had another guest also ask, “What’s the impact of those who are suffering from grief when you speak of loneliness?” Francie, why don’t you take a crack at that cluster of questions?
Francie Broghammer: So grief is a difficult, difficult thing, both to experience for yourself and to accompany someone else who is experiencing grief. And I’ll start with the comparative suffering piece of this, because I think Victor Frankl actually illustrates this beautifully. He said suffering is kind of like bringing a candle into a room. The light will fill up the room no matter how big the room is. Right? It just kind of diffuses into the atmosphere. So it’s hard to say “my suffering is greater than or less than your suffering” because everyone’s suffering is so individualized. Right? And so, so often I’ll work with patients and they’ll say, “Oh, I feel so depressed, but I shouldn’t because I have a roof over my head and I just graduated from a great school” or whatever it might be, but that’s not how suffering works, right? If only you could feel better because someone else is worse off. The reality is, is what we’re called to do, to live in community with one another and to associate, one of the things that makes it so difficult is we’re called to bear witness, whether it’s to grief or another form of suffering. And bearing witness, as I’ve come to appreciate in the field of psychiatry, oftentimes just means sitting with uncertainty and not being able to solve a problem. Ryan mentioned de Tocqueville and how we’re incredibly individualistic: “Here is a problem. I can solve it. We can move on now.” Suffering and human nature is not something that can be solved. It’s something that can be borne together, and that is what we are called to do.
So when you look at all of the research and the phenomenology surrounding grief, it’s not going in and telling someone who’s grieving, “It will be OK. It’ll get better with time.” It’s actually sitting there with the individual, allowing them to process what they’re experiencing, which is very difficult to do when you’re just sitting there feeling helpless. And with time as people begin to process the grief that they’re going through, they will actually lead themselves to seeing these are the good things around me. Right? If you have someone whose spouse dies unexpectedly, and all the neighbors are coming out of the woodwork and saying, “look how great your kids are that they’re here to support you,” that doesn’t do anything. Actually, in some ways it can make the suffering worse for that person because they think “I should feel better than I do.” But if that person is in a company to an extent that they can say, “Wow, this is really, really terrible” and they can kind of lift their head up and say, “Isn’t this amazing that my kids are here to support me during this time?” There’s something very healing in that process, but it has to be come to individually, which means we cannot rush it. We cannot give people that solution. When we talk about the art and the importance of association, we’re really talking about accompanying during difficult times.
Cherie Harder: So we also have several questions about the role of the church and communities of faith, and, Ryan, I think I’ll direct this one your way. A Chris Marlink asks, “How might people of faith connect with those who are absolutely hungry for community but have a deep suspicion or a wound related to faith? It seems that the growth of the ‘nones’—that is, people with no religious affiliation—has a lot to do with the growth of those who struggle to reengage with the church. They want community, but there is a lot of baggage for them.” And then, relatedly, Anne Scherrer asks, “What can the church do to help young people who are the loneliest, especially since young people are leaving the church at the fastest rate?”
Ryan Streeter: Yeah, wow. Well, I think that one really important thing to note is that there are a lot of very sociable people out there who are also lonely, who are disconnected from their communities. They may not look like it, but they are. And so I think there’s an opportunity to essentially create environments for people that may not want to darken the door of a church just yet, but are kind of hungry to be with others, even in informal social settings, and to use that as a way at the community level just to build relationships with people. I mean, we found that there are people who actually report very high levels of engagement with friends, with people in their community, but they also register really high on our loneliness index. And when we break America into four groups, we have people that are not engaged civically, who also are not engaged socially very much. And then we have people that are engaged civically but not socially. That would be like the condominium president or the neighborhood busybody who goes around and tells everyone what to do but no one really thinks has any friends. Then there’s the people who are really not engaged civically, but they’re very engaged socially. This is a big group. There are people who really are not part of formal structures of volunteering, membership associations, but they’re very sociable. They get together with a lot of people. They have a lot of friends. They connect with a lot of people. You can’t make the assumption that this group of people is also not lonely. There are a lot of people who are seeking outlets to fill their social needs because that’s all that they really know how to do to deal with this kind of lingering loneliness that they have. It’s only when you add on membership or engagement within organizations or associations in your community that you see people sort of fully flourish. People that are really sociable and engaged in their communities a lot, who aren’t lonely, still aren’t as happy in the various ways we measure happiness as those who are very sociable and also members. Right?
And so I think there’s a lot of opportunity to build on people’s professional networks to bring people together around common purposes like the professions or vocations or common interests in the community, and rely on them to invite their friends who just keep showing up at the bar after work on Fridays when they all get together at the corner pub or whatever—when we can do that again in normal times—and to use sort of sociability indicators to bring people in. Now, I know that doesn’t answer the question about people who are not sociable, but for starters, I think that’s an important place to to begin. There are a lot of people out there who are engaging with people in social settings because they don’t really know what else to do. They’re trying to fill that void. And that’s a pretty good indicator that those are people that you want to try to at least welcome first into the fold.
Cherie Harder: We’ve also just received quite a few personal questions, and I’m going to bundle a few of those as well and direct those to you, Francie. Kathy Cox asked, “What can I do as a grandmother to help a teen girl who is depressed?” At the other end of sort of the age spectrum, David Hodgen asks, “What are effective ways to address loneliness in senior citizens, often living alone or living on their own for a long time?” And then relatedly, Indra Klein asks, “Any thoughts on caregivers, whether within a family, a circle of friends, or community, and loneliness?”
Francie Broghammer: Great questions. And what you just did is highlighted some of the key demographics of people who are most likely to experience loneliness, therefore despair, maybe depression and other adverse outcomes. So we’re talking about young kids, we know are more lonely; caregivers, including homemakers, tend to be a little bit more lonely; as well as those on both ends of the socioeconomic status, especially the low end. I saw one question earlier from a CEO saying that, “I think CEOs are the loneliest people I’ve met.” And there’s actually data to support that. Entry-level employees are lonely as well as C-Suite executives because there’s just fewer people to relate to.
So I get similar questions to this a lot. “How do I make a difference?” And the answer to this is not simple. It’s not straightforward because the answer is: very slowly. Right? People, when they’re suffering, especially when we talk about mental health, it’s difficult to talk about. The disease itself will prevent you from wanting to reach out. If you have stomach cancer and you’re not feeling well, the first thing you want to do is go to the doctor and feel better. If you’re depressed and having thoughts about maybe wanting to take your own life, the last thing you want to go do is talk to a stranger or let someone inside and let them know about what you’re experiencing. So we have to realize that when people suffer in this way, whether it be from loneliness or depression, imagine that there’s a brick wall around them, if you will. And so it’s through repetition, reaching out repetitively, consistently, letting them know that you are there when they’re ready. And each time you do that, you take down one brick and then another brick and then another brick. And when the time is right, they will reach a hand through that hole you’ve created in the wall. But it won’t be today and it won’t be tomorrow. But that is one of the most important things when we talk about how do we overcome despair.
Another way to conceptualize despair is the absence of hope, right? Suffering without meaning—we’re talking about hopelessness. What people don’t realize is we have the incredible ability to be an external nidus of hope for people. You don’t have to be a therapist or a psychiatrist or a scholar to do this, but to let people know, “Hey, I won’t even pretend to understand what you’re going through. I know that I can’t. But I know that I love you a lot. I’ve seen other people in similar situations and I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” Right? “I will walk this path with you even when it’s hard, even when it’s uncertain. I am not going anywhere.” So how do you reach out to the caregiver? How do you reach out to your granddaughter? Consistently, one day at a time, week over week, month over month. And I promise you, when they’re ready and when the time is right, you will be one of the first people they come to because you have become that source of hope and light for them.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Ginny Savage, and I’ll address this to you, Ryan. Ginny asks, “What role does loneliness play in the formation of fringe or extreme groups? And are there any studies that look at the long-term relief or lack of relief that those groups provide from loneliness?”
Ryan Streeter: Yeah, I think that there’s a strong relationship between social isolation and not being a part of a well-functioning community and one’s susceptibility to join a fringe group. So you can have lots of friends, you can have what we might call bonding social capital, but if they’re all fringy and it’s the wrong tribe, it’ll bring out the worst in you. And so I think that it’s really incumbent upon community leaders—and I would put church leaders at the forefront of this—to be on the lookout for this sort of thing and catch it early. And for the parents who might even fear that they have a child who’s spending a little bit too much time, even in a virtual space, in this regard, to really do the work ahead of time to look at what else is available in the community for my child or for us to be involved in where we’re not, is a really, really important thing to do.
Again, I’ll reiterate something that I said earlier. When it comes to our engagements with certain types of people within a fringe group or some kind of extremist group, we typically are not going to meetings in a basement somewhere on Main Street for those things. You know, we’re increasingly finding those people online. We bring to our media lives the life that we spent before we got there. Right? And so if you are not embedded in a rich and strong community and you enter into that world, you’re going to be much more susceptible for recruitment. It’s really important in our non-digital, non-media lives that we have rich networks of relationships. And so it’s incumbent upon all of us as parents or young adults getting started off in the right time to be asking the question: “When I am not at home doing normal home things and I’m not at work doing work things, what am I doing and where am I? And what can I constructively and proactively do to make sure that I’m in a relationship with the kind of people that are good for me, that help me to feel like I belong, and also people that I can be good for?” Too many of us—and I would include myself in this—go through life reacting to all of the things around us instead of being really intentional about that question.
Where you choose to live—place matters a lot as well. The kinds of communities in which we live, the routine interactions with people. We may not even know their first or last name at the store, but that regular sense of engagement embeds people in a community where they feel like they belong and there’s lots of trust. And when you wrap around that rich associational life, you have in doing that really put kind of some shell of armor around someone and made them less susceptible for influence or recruitment into a kind of a fringy group that can kind of scramble their minds. We spend a lot of time—and rightfully so—worrying about the content of what’s being consumed on social media, what our kids are into. But we need to spend a little bit more time thinking about all the other time when they’re not doing that, what are they doing and what are we doing? And I think it’s incumbent upon all of us, especially now in the times where we are, to be asking that question again.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from an anonymous attendee, and, Francie, I want to direct this your way. And this person writes that, “It’s painful that marriage is listed first and primarily as one of the best ways to prevent loneliness, especially for those of us wrestling through years of waiting and longing for marriage but it not happening, refusing to concede. Please expound.” What thoughts or suggestions do you have for someone who wants to take positive steps to fight off loneliness, but this cheap means of loneliness prevention is not currently available?
Francie Broghammer: Sure. And I’m going to use a slightly parallel example here. When you go to church, we know that people who regularly attend religious services have lower blood pressures, are less likely to die of cancer. Right? If you are going to church so that your risk of heart disease is lower and your blood pressure is lower, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Right? And so the between-the-lines of this question that was asked in particular is this is someone yearning for connection, looking to have these meaningful relationships, and if they’re willing to ask this type of question in this way, my hunch is they are probably someone who is meaningfully connected, even outside of marriage. Right? Because this is the type of person who is not just going to attend church to lower their blood pressure. This is the type of person who says, “This is something that I yearn for. This is something that I want. I’m going to lead to it. And then, from there, I will see the positive health impacts.” And so it’s not—marriage, yes, can be protective in this way—but it’s not as simple as you get married and boom, you’re not lonely. There’s plenty of people who are married and who are lonely. Right? What we’re seeing is for individuals who have a hard time solidifying the permanence of specific relationships—whether it’s placelessness, as Ryan alluded to, or maybe not committing to marriage after years of dating for a multitude of different reasons—there’s a certain amount of loneliness that’s associated with that. But being willing to get married, seeking that type of relationship, means that even though marriage might not necessarily be on the forefront for you today or tomorrow, you are probably the type of person, if you’re willing and actively seeking to get married, who’s actively engaged in meaningful relationships elsewhere.
So I don’t want you to think if marriage isn’t on the horizon for you tomorrow, you are forever destined to be lonely. This is one way of meaningfully relating with other people. There are many, many other ways available to you, and keep seeking this type of relationship because it doesn’t matter necessarily if it’s within the confines of marriage or your home or the schools or the churches or Bob from the grocery store down the street. What matters is that we have these relationships because, as Ryan alluded to earlier, that is what creates the fibers of community that tie us together and help really combat loneliness and alienation.
Cherie Harder: We’ll take one last question before we wrap up. And this comes from Nan Palison, who asks, “Can you comment on the loneliness of Jesus in the garden and on the cross? How does that help us?” Ryan, you want to take a crack at that one?
Ryan Streeter: Wow. Save the easy one for last. No, it’s a great question. There are probably theologians, you know, in the audience, who could provide a better answer. But I think that his loneliness was real. I think the sense of abandonment was real. That’s in the narrative for a reason. And his time in the garden praying, I think it’s an expression of this just extreme love for the people that had spent the last few years of their lives with him, but also just a picture of someone who was incredibly alone. But I think also what we know from the work that we’ve done is that when someone has a really deep sense of purpose and when that sense of purpose is transcendent and you know that that sense of purpose is rooted in something eternal, it creates all kinds of other really good things, and it creates a sense of direction and belonging that you really can’t replace with anything else. And so I think the loneliness was real in Jesus’s case. I think that the pain of never being completely understood was a real thing. And yet he’s also a picture for all of us about what the highest purpose can actually do in someone’s life so that you will know that you’re never totally alone, even when today you feel like you are.
And I think, just piggybacking on something Francie was talking about earlier, when we make commitments to others, that does— when we are in relationships where we don’t just spend time with people who make us feel welcome, but people to whom we have pledged something and we’re with them over time, it has tremendous effects on who we are. It reduces loneliness, yes, but it also increases your happiness, your sense of purpose, your sense of belonging, and your ability to kind of bless those people around you. And so on the marriage question that Francie was talking about, we’ve seen that people who live together—cohabit—really their loneliness levels are similar to those who are single. There’s something about the marriage commitment itself that’s seen as material there. And it reminds me of what Bob Putnam found in his book American Grace, which is the follow-on book to Bowling Alone, which you mentioned earlier, Cherie, which is that when people have really close friends at church— Bob was calling them “super-charge friends” when he was writing the book; I remember seeing him give a talk about it. They have an effect on you that is outsized compared to normal friendships. He was even able to quantify it in terms of money, like you would have to earn $40,000 of additional income to experience a happiness boost for each sort of “super-charge friend” you have or something like that. My point here is that in that kind of relationship, you’re not just showing up at meetings. You’ve made a commitment to be a part of a community and to be part of people. There’s something in the act of committing which really matters. And there’s no better picture of what commitment to others ultimately can yield and do than the picture of Jesus in the garden and on the cross and in that commitment being able to overcome all of the pain that comes with the loneliness of being cast out, being misunderstood, and being ostracized.
Francie Broghammer: Yes, I’m so glad that Ryan had the last comment that he did because I was thinking a lot about the last word, and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. And I think what we’ve been pointing to for the last hour, but maybe not explicitly said, is that it’s not just the importance of being in community and associating with one another, but it’s taking that one step further and finding the meaning that comes from that. And so I actually want to share with you a quote from Victor Frankl that I think summarizes this far better than I could myself: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being, who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”
Cherie Harder: Thanks. And, Ryan?
Ryan Streeter: Yeah, I would say, just as we are spiritual and physical beings, I think it’s important for us to ask the question: when we’re not at home doing what we do at home and when we’re not at work doing what we do at work, when we’re out and about, are we in the physical community that brings out the best in us and in our associational life? Are we in the relationships that bring out the best in us spiritually? And if we can answer both of those questions “yes,” then not only will you not be lonely, you will help those people that you’re in relationship with not only not be lonely too, but also have a sense of belonging and hopefully also purpose. So I think it’s really important to think about the actual physical communities in which we spend our time and how we spend that time, and to do an assessment of the associational engagement that we’re involved with, with an eye to what it’s doing to us morally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Ryan. Thank you, Francie. Thanks to all of our friends at Pepperdine and to each of you for joining us today. Have a great weekend.