Alleviating loneliness, encouraging friendship: The role that political society can play

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About the project

Research from a variety of disciplines has established that friendship plays a positive role in people's lives, and that its absence can contribute to loneliness, which is associated with unhealthy outcomes. At the same time, a prominent theme in public discourse in recent years is the notion that acrimonious, adversarial politics are eroding contemporary democracy; therefore, a more friendly political arena could better serve the public. This project explores existing knowledge of the political factors that encourage or discourage friendships between people, with a goal of identifying evidence-based policies that can promote friendships. Could we imagine a world in which everyone has at least one friend? Could we build such a world? The project explored relevant literature on friendship, loneliness and politics in order to pursue three interconnected objectives:

  • What role can governments and policies play in facilitating friendship?
  • Are there trends or structures in society that undermine or discourage friendship? If so, could policies be adopted to mitigate their destructive impacts?
  • What additional research should be done to provide more evidence-based knowledge of what these policies can do?

While friendship has received significant scholarly attention, friendlessness is less often interrogated. Friendlessness differs from loneliness insofar as friendlessness may result from exclusion or marginalization rather than absence of a loved one. My project included a consideration of the systemic factors (such as a volatile economy) that might cause friendlessness. Policies to encourage friendship, therefore, may require reform of policies that discourage it.

Key findings

Many studies have shown the positive benefits of friendship for people’s well-being, including:

  • physical health and longevity;
  • mental health and quality of life;
  • learning and cognition;
  • mutual assistance within communities; and
  • building social capital and civil society.

There can be little doubt, then, that encouraging interpersonal friendships would be a desirable policy goal. On a related theme, while loneliness and friendship are not exactly antonyms, some studies suggest that dysfunctional political dynamics, such as a polarized public discourse, can contribute to a sense of insecurity and isolation among individual citizens. This suggests that the presence of friendly talk from leaders, and visibly friendly interactions between leaders, may have a significant impact on citizens’ morale.        

There is considerable literature that is relevant to the question of how policies and practices can shape interpersonal relations. However, it does not necessarily address the theme of “friendship” directly. Instead, it may probe related phenomena such as building social capital, social cohesion, social networks or community. These terms relate to the empowerment of society and building amicable communities, but do not necessarily address the depth, longevity or quality of relationships between individuals. A focus on friendship will require precision in the use of terms and should avoid assuming a priori that friendships will ensue automatically from an active civil society. While there is ample research on how schools can build friendships among children, there is relatively little direct research on the topic of how to encourage friendships among adults at the national level.

That said, many studies provide insight into how friendships can be created: for example, through particular education practices in schools; leadership and organizational decisions in workplaces; policies to build neighbourhoods and encourage people to interact with each other outside their homes; and social programs that enable people to meet others of different ages and social backgrounds. But it will not be enough to have policies to encourage friendships if we do not also acknowledge and address the forces in society that destroy and weaken existing friendships: for example, adversarial partisan politics, urban sprawl, social and intersectional inequality and precarious employment. Creating a society that is more friendship-oriented will require not only helping friendless people to find opportunities for building relationships but also encouraging those who have friends to see the lonely people within their midst, in plain sight but somehow overlooked.

Policy implications

  1. A policy of friendship could create a new sense of democratic nation-building, to supplement existing 20th century narratives of social cohesion, such as civic patriotism and the welfare state. The friendship policy would emphasize interpersonal relationships between individuals, rather than individuals’ attachment to the nation state.
  2. Drawing on the concept of “gender mainstreaming,” I propose that “friendship mainstreaming” could be introduced into a variety of social and economic policies at all levels; there could be an explicit expectation that policies encourage friendships. Friendship mainstreaming would require the attention of all levels of government, rather than matters of interpersonal relationships (such as strengthening neighbourhoods) being the responsibility of local government.
  3. At present, there is more literature on policy ideas to build community or to alleviate loneliness than there are actual evaluations of whether such policies are effective in fostering friendships. More research is required to systematically determine which friendship-stimulating policies and practices work well.
  4. Leaders in business and politics have a role to play in modelling friendly behaviour and nurturing friendships within their respective communities. If they cannot or will not acknowledge this role, deeper reforms may be necessary in order to incentivize friendliness.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Andrea Chandler, professor, Department of Political Science, Carleton University:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Employment and Social Development Canada or the Government of Canada.

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