Being socially connected to family, friends and our communities — having a sense of belonging — is important to our well-being. People who are connected are happier. They enjoy better health and use fewer health services. They are more resilient in the face of adversity, and they live longer.
Communities where people feel connected have less crime and stronger economic growth. Their children perform better in school. Their citizens are more involved: they are more likely to co-operate to benefit all members of the community and to work together to address the social determinants of health, which leads to greater health equity.
How connected are Ontarians? There are worrying signs that many — particularly younger people — feel less connected than they did in the past. While most Ontarians have friends, they see them much less often. They are also much less likely to volunteer in their communities than they once did and, when they do volunteer, they give less time.
Our sense of community is threatened by large systemic pressures and changes. Changes to family and social structures, increasing work and time pressures, urbanization and sprawl, and growing income inequality all make it harder for people to feel connected. Technologies, including television, computers and smartphones, compete for our attention: a growing number of people have hundreds of friends online but few in-person contacts. Perhaps of greatest concern, a growing number of people have lost trust in governments, institutions and one another, which makes them less likely to actively participate in their communities.
These large systemic pressures require system-wide solutions.
The time to act is now. Loneliness and social isolation are serious public health problems that cost us all. They affect our productivity, health, well-being — even how long we live. It’s time to revitalize communities and create a healthier Ontario.
Helping people and communities (re)connect is everyone’s business. To (re)build a sense of belonging — create connected communities — individuals, organizations, businesses, communities and governments must work together to foster a society that values social connection.
This report recommends three key ways to create more connected communities:
- Invest in Community: Governments should shine a spotlight on the critical importance of connected communities by investing in collecting data on social connection and sense of community, assessing all government policies for their impact on community, creating built environments that make it easier for people to engage in their communities, and tackling the broader social and economic drivers of social isolation.
- Enable Community: Public health units — uniquely positioned between communities and different levels of government — should play a lead role in enabling community. Public health units can make people aware of the benefit of social connections, use data to develop targeted community-building programs, encourage organizations to partner to address systemic issues that drive social isolation, and champion effective frameworks for community development.
- Be Community-Centred and Community-Driven: We should challenge ourselves and each other to make community health and well-being a priority.
Community begins from the ground up. Individual actions make a big difference. At the local level, individuals and organizations — including businesses — can drive change. They can collaborate, pooling strengths and assets to build community. They can make community health and well-being a priority in all their decisions.
It’s time to make social connection and sense of community as important a measure of our health and well-being as blood pressure and economic output.