Social isolation and loneliness are some of the most important challenges of our times – one that governments alone can’t fix. Frankly, the problem is too big for the politicians. Consider some of the basic findings from a new Angus Reid Institute (ARI) study, conducted in partnership with think tank Cardus:
- Almost one-quarter of Canadians struggle with both extreme social isolation and desperate loneliness.
- A third of Canadians couldn’t say for sure they have a friend or family member who’d help out if were ever in a financial crisis.
- Nearly one in five Canadians isn’t certain they would have someone to lean on for emotional support in the event of a personal crisis.
For all the technology at our fingertips with a world becoming “smaller” all the time, far too many of us still struggle with being disconnected from others. The nearly one-quarter of Canadians struggling with acute isolation and loneliness rate their own financial, mental, and physical health lower than other Canadians do. These problems aren’t just personal. They work themselves out in unhealthy ways: use of payday loans, drug abuse, suicide.
While having more money or more education is associated with less isolation and loneliness, these aren’t magic bullets. And while governments can help, they cannot simply solve these challenges with a quick policy fix. Instead, it’s going to take a major, long-term reinvestment in social institutions to start building up the networks too many of us lack.
The data shows that two social institutions, which clash somewhat with North America’s culture of individualism, correlate much more strongly with lower isolation and loneliness: family and faith.
Family deserves attention and support.
ARI found that those who suffer neither from social isolation nor from loneliness are most likely to be parents. True, some Canadians are childless and quite happy that way. Even so, not having children is most strongly associated with feeling alone and disconnected. The family, as a unit, makes a difference. In fact, what do the loneliest and most isolated Canadians tell ARI they want? Fully 91 percent of them want more interaction with family and friends.
Interestingly, the ARI data also finds being married (or living in a common-law relationship) is one of the strongest factors in lessening both social isolation and loneliness. Three-quarters of Canadians who say they’re well-connected and have rich social lives are in a marriage or common law relationship. By contrast, 52 per cent of those who are desperately lonely and feel cut off from others are unmarried. That breaks down to 34 per cent who are single or simply never got married, and 18 per cent who are separated, divorced, or widowed.
Clearly then, one of the best ways to prevent (or lessen) social isolation and loneliness is to invest in family by keeping them together. One of the best ways to do that is to invest specifically in marriage, as distinct from common law relationships.
Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey (GSS) shows that marriage is a more stable form of relationship than living common law. According to the GSS, three-quarters of common law relationships fall apart within just seven years, compared to just 28 per cent of marriages. The StatsCan numbers also show that those previously living common law are about twice as likely to have experienced multiple separations or divorces.
While marriage isn’t for everyone – and it should always be entered by choice, never by force – the problems of social isolation and loneliness underline the importance of this social institution. The ARI and StatsCan data make the case for investing positively in the institution of marriage, and if possible, even reversing our declining marriage rates.
Family isn’t the only factor to consider, of course. Faith makes a difference too.
The most religiously active Canadians are the least likely to experience isolation. Those who are most likely to struggle both with being isolated and profoundly lonely are Canadians who never or rarely attend religious services. Put another way, Canadians who aren’t socially isolated at all are twice as likely to attend religious services regularly compared to those who are very isolated. Likewise, slightly more than half of those who pray once a month or more aren’t socially isolated, as opposed to just 38 per cent of the very isolated.
Could it be that far from being a sign of social progress, Canadians’ declining religiosity is making things worse?
Faith, like family, is a matter of personal choice. No one should be forced into either. But public policy can recognize the public good that comes from both these factors in our lives. Policies that can help strengthen these two social institutions won’t solve the problems of social isolation and loneliness. But they will surely help.
Convivium means living together. We welcome your voice to the conversation. Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!