Addressing the loneliness epidemic: Religion and culture in a changing world

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About the project

This project synthesizes research and promising practices on how we address the loneliness epidemic via emerging and evolving religious and cultural institutions and groups. Bringing together a team of clergy, academic researchers and chaplains, our research focuses on understanding how a world in which traditional religion is in sharp decline meets a world in which profound loneliness is on the rise. How are religious and cultural institutions and programs evolving and responding to this need? This project reports on the results of a gathering of clergy, academic researchers and university chaplains, and a series of papers created on “promising practices” that synthesize the knowledge we bring from our respective fields. The impacts of our work are to connect researchers of religion with clergy and chaplains, spheres of work that are too often operating in silos. Through these connections we summarize, synthesize and suggest how religious institutions, university chaplaincies, cultural groups and secular communities are combatting the loneliness epidemic and what that may suggest about future directions for religion, culture and chaplaincy.

Key findings

Research suggests that loneliness causes significant mental and physical health impacts. One challenge is that some of the institutions that have historically fostered a sense of community and belonging are religious institutions. In recent years, these institutions have been in significant decline (Inglehart, 2021). The gap left by declining churches, mosques, synagogues etc., has been linked to increases in loneliness, depression and suicide (Hassett, 2015). And yet we know that religious and cultural groups are one of the best protectors against loneliness (Rote and Ellison, 2013). Thankfully, emerging communities, many affiliated with religion and many that are fully secular, are arising to “unbundle and remix” the offerings of traditional religious institutions (Ter Kuile and Thurston, 2015).

Recommendations are found in detail in the Promising Practices Papers participants produced.

Some of the key findings are:

  • Small is often better. While funders and policymakers often prefer large-scale capacity and impacts, meaningful connections are often formed in smaller programs and groups.
  • The antidote to loneliness is belonging, which can only be achieved when barriers related to diversity, equity and inclusion are meaningfully addressed. People must be able to show up as their whole selves.
  • Ritual matters. Whether ritual is based in a particular spiritual or cultural tradition, ritual promotes a sense of wellness as well as belonging.
  • Loneliness does not always impact those we may think it does. Early research focused on elderly populations, but youth are increasingly the loneliest population. People surrounded by others in large urban centres are often lonelier than those in small towns or rural areas with more communal connections.
  • We can learn from ancient traditions. Jewishly, we have wisdom around mourning rituals, gathering in groups to pray, harvest and celebrate together. We can look to many other traditions as well and see a sense of community is inherent to the way the culture worked/works. These types of traditions can be made anew for secular societies.
  • We are getting better at this! People are seeing a marked increase in programs and policies that do meaningfully work to create more love and belonging. We are on the right road and greater policy and investment can make a difference.

Policy implications

There is a need to:

  • make greater investments in cultural and small-group organizations and programming, especially those that seek to create relationships between people rather than frontal-style programming;
  • offer community-based projects rooted in religion and ritual, particularly those who are marginalized, where people can connect;
  • provide online options where previously there were only in-person gatherings (for example, spiritual communities, ceremonies etc.);
  • understand that the leadership of religion and culture is shifting to a more decentred model—capacity is increased by bringing in leaders and stakeholders from smaller, less represented groups;
  • address inequity by forming cross-cultural communities for discussion and celebration, such as Circles for Reconciliation, One Table-inspired dinner party projects, and meeting/gathering opportunities where ritual and reflection can occur;
  • consult with leaders and stakeholders across religious and cultural communities about how to support the work they do in bringing people together and, especially, forging a meaningful sense of belonging; and
  • get out of silos—often religion and culture are not considered meaningfully in the health, education and recreation sectors, resulting in a missed opportunity to meet the spiritual need for belonging in secular contexts.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Denise Handlarski, School of Education, Trent University:

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