What Can We Do About the Loneliness Epidemic?
By Jillian Richardson
Thirty-nine percent of Americans ages eighteen to thirty-nine have no religious affiliation at all. That number has nearly quadrupled from 10 percent in the past 30 years. In America as a whole, 22.8 percent of people are religiously unaffiliated. In addition, 15.8 percent identify as “nothing in particular.” This religious makeup is totally different than fifty years ago when most people in the United States relied on a single religious community.
At the same time as attendance in religious services is plummeting in America, loneliness is skyrocketing. The average person in the US only has one close friend. To make things worse, 75 percent of people are not satisfied with their friendships. 2 Bleak, right? To top it off, only 53 percent of people in the US have meaningful in-person social interactions, like an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with a family member, on a daily basis. This makes me question what happens in the office, considering the fact that most people spend one-third of their lives at work. Given these statistics, it’s clear that our companies are not fostering an environment for forming meaningful relationships.
Yet people being lonely isn’t just sad. It’s also terrible for our health. Believe it or not, loneliness is just as tied to early mortality as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, being an excessive drinker, or being obese. Think about how many times your health teacher lectured you about the dangers of binge drinking when you were growing up. Did they ever mention\ how crucial intimate relationships are for your well-being? Probably not once. They were too busy telling you how having sex will make you get pregnant and die. (Shout-out
to Mean Girls.)
To summarize all of this in a simple equation: A decrease in the amount of meaningful congregation in America, combined with increased isolation, has resulted in a loneliness epidemic. It’s literally killing us, and we’re not doing enough to fight it.
The solution? Create consistent, healthy congregations that fulfill us in the way that organized religion used to.
At first glance, that statement is probably confusing. When you read the word “congregation,” you typically think of a group of people who gather for religious worship. In fact, if you look in the Webster dictionary, that’s pretty much what you’ll find. Yet if you flip forward a few pages to “congregate,” you’ll find something different.
Congregate: To collect into a group or crowd.
Were you expecting something cooler? Me too.
So, while it hurts my English major heart to do this, I have to disagree with the dictionary. I believe the act of congregation is about more than people simply existing in the same space. It’s about coming together with intention and creating the container for moments of healing, transformation, and community. When we gather purposefully, we experience a sense of shared humanity. We feel less alone.
Being welcomed into secular congregations has changed my life. These gatherings have given me the space to share what’s on my heart, heal from trauma, repair my relationship with my body, and genuinely feel like I matter. While organized religion could have offered me those same benefits, it didn’t feel like the right place for me. It still doesn’t.
I know many of you feel the same way. And I’m here to tell you, just because you’re not gathering around a God doesn’t mean you can’t feel like you’re part of a sacred space that can improve your life. You deserve that feeling, and I hope this book will help you find it.
My friend, singer Tim Victor, once told me, “I don’t call myself a gospel singer. I’m a singer. Because church isn’t in the building. It’s in the people. It’s in the feeling of connection. That’s the sacredness.” As an adult, I don’t belong to any religious institution. Yet I often wish I had a place I could turn to for consistent connection and spiritual growth. While I’m part of communities that I love, these gatherings are all missing some of the key elements of a healthy congregation:
- They happen every week
- The same people show up consistently
- There is space for vulnerable conversation and deep reflection
- There is mentorship and spiritual guidance, especially from elders
- There is an easily accessible way for members to give back to the community
This is exactly what organized religions, and healthy congregations in general, excel at.
For example, Bible study provides a space to learn and grow in your connection to a higher power. Coffee after the service allows you to connect with your peers. Volunteering offers the opportunity to give back and feel a sense of fellowship with the congregation. Plus, there’s a big bonus. No matter where you move, you can immediately find a place where you share a ritual and similar values.
Like many twenty-something Americans, I don’t feel at home in any organized religion. So I have to ask myself, “Where do I belong?”
It took a long time for me to find the answer, but now I have a community that’s richer than anything I could have imagined a few years ago. I want to teach others how to find that for themselves and then take the reins to create more spaces that foster this sense of connection.
Here is a framework of seven core factors that you can leverage to build or participate in your own congregation.
- Getting frientimate
- Discovering an alternate universe
- Sharing with strangers
- Seeking spiritual guidance
- Finding healing spaces
- Incorporating ritual
- Stepping into leadership
If you read no further, know that you’re not alone in feeling lonely—and you also hold the power to create the space for rich and rewarding connections in your life.
Adapted from an excerpt from Unlonely Planet: How Healthy Congregations Can Change the World by Jillian Richardson (New Degree Press, 2019).
Jillian Richardson is a professional community builder, public speaker and writer. She is most known for being the founder of The Joy List, a weekly newsletter with the mission of reducing loneliness in New York City and eventually the world.