What do lack of social connection, smoking cigarettes, and physical inactivity all have in common? They are all detrimental to our health and life expectancy. Fifty-eight percent of US adults are experiencing loneliness, and according to a 2017 study, this lack of social connection is as harmful as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day.
Figure 1. Mortality Comparison
Source: Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.
Loneliness and social isolation in the US
Last year, the American Medical Association declared loneliness a public health concern. And just a few months ago, the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, published an advisory on loneliness and social isolation, declaring it an epidemic. His advisory reports that not only do approximately half of American adults feel lonely, but also that the number of close friendships people have and time spent with others declined from 2003 to 2023. Furthermore, poor social connection is associated with increased heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression, and respiratory illnesses. Surgeon General Murthy also cites data that loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by more than 25%.
With such widespread and negative impacts, it is no wonder Surgeon General Murthy declared loneliness and social isolation an epidemic. The question at hand is, “Why are so many adults suffering from it? Among the solutions to loneliness and social isolation, two are known: establish companionship and develop meaningful connections. However, even when you know the solution to a problem, executing on it may not always be as clear or simple. In this situation, Jobs Theory could provide a helpful framework for finding solutions for loneliness, thus improving our health. Specifically, it could help governments and organizations figure out how to reduce loneliness and social isolation to enhance public health.
Using a Jobs lens could help us reduce loneliness and social isolation in the US
Developed by late Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen and his longtime collaborator Bob Moesta, Jobs Theory is a useful framework that helps us understand customer behavior. It explains that people don’t simply buy products or services; they “hire” them to make progress in specific circumstances (what we call their Job to Be Done, or “job” for short). Understanding the “job” for which customers hire a product or service helps innovators more accurately develop products that align with what customers are already trying to accomplish.
To uncover the struggling moments, as well as the progress someone seeks in their current situation, an innovator would conduct a Jobs analysis. We’ve written more about that process here. In this situation, Jobs is a useful lens to determine the causal drivers behind individuals’ feelings of loneliness and what is inhibiting them from “hiring” solutions that would increase connection and reduce social isolation. If a community-based organizer can figure out what is holding people back from having the relationships they want and can address those issues or create solutions that alleviate those struggles, the organizer can help people gain meaningful relationships that significantly reduce loneliness.
Using information gleaned from the Jobs analysis, leaders could develop or fund initiatives, programs, events, and/or services that make it easier for people to create relationships and alleviate the worries and habits that keep people from doing so. For example, some towns in the UK have invested in community connectors—volunteers whose purpose is to engage people and encourage them to participate in events. Alternatively, some people may simply need opportunities to engage in conversation with others, so perhaps the right resource is a “chatty bench.” These have been instituted in the UK, Sweden, and Australia, and are represented by park benches with signs indicating that the person sitting there is open to chatting.
Figure 2. Chatty Bench
Loneliness and social isolation are painful and hard to discuss, but understanding the circumstances keeping people from having the connections they want is key to finding a solution that not only helps people feel better but will also improve their overall health. More leaders should consider conducting a Jobs analysis. It is a pathway to finding solutions to address the loneliness and social isolation that so many people are enduring. Increasing meaningful connections leads to healthier people and ultimately, a healthier country.