When people think about health they tend to think about behaviors like getting enough exercise, eating nutritious foods, sleeping, not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation, if at all. All of this is good, well, and important. But something that frequently gets overlooked is the importance of connection. Consider this: in a massive study out of Brigham Young University in 2010, researchers followed more than 300,000 people for an average of 7.5 years. They learned that the mortality risks associated with loneliness exceeded those associated with obesity and physical inactivity, and were comparable to the risks of smoking.
Unfortunately, starting in around 2018, experts from across scientific disciplines began to agree that we are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness. The causes are many, but chief among them is an obsession with productivity, optimization, and busyness, which crowds out time spent on meaningful connection. This trend began before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, things have only worsened.
While all age groups are affected by loneliness, perhaps none is affected more so than older people. Their families often live elsewhere. Many are no longer working, which means that they don't have the built in community of colleagues. And they are vulnerable in other unique ways.
Nothing is better than being with someone in-real-life. Our species evolved in physical spaces. But being together in-real-life isn't always possible, especially in a pandemic. This is why I was so happy to hear about Heirloom, and why I was so proud that it was started by close family members. For the many times we can't be with the meaningful people in our lives in-person, the combination of imagery, words, and video goes a long way. And the physical presence of a Heirloom is far better than the ephemeral messages we send on our phones. There's a reason that when you think of your grandparents' apartment or home you think of shelves lined with pictures, not shelves lined with iPhones.
In my own writing, I often talk about deep community, which I define as about not only proximity but also belonging. Belonging is something that you feel. It connects you to other people, a community, a craft, a tradition, and so on. When you feel like you belong you feel like you matter. Decades of research show that belonging is associated with sound physical and mental health. Reminding someone that they belong is a precious gift, which brings me back to Heirloom. What a wonderful and thoughtful way to show and tell someone that they belong; that they matter.
Will Heirloom solve the loneliness crisis? Of course not. But it will bring a smile to a loved one's face, counter a depressive thought or feeling, and warm their heart. And this is a good start.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) researches, writes, and coaches on mental health, well-being, and sustainable success. He is cofounder of The Growth Equation and bestselling author of the book Peak Performance.