Applying the Social-Ecological Model of Health to Loneliness
In 2018, I organized a gathering in San Francisco that brought together 15 millennials and 15 seniors for an afternoon of conversation and connection. As a result of that one event, I am aware of three intergenerational pairings who are still friends today, two organizations that were inspired to incorporate intergenerational events into their roadmaps, and one other city that replicated the gathering for their residents.
These ripple effects showed me the power of local community action. What was intended to be a pleasant, hopefully meaningful few hours, led by a handful of volunteers, unexpectedly spawned long-term friendships and impact — potentially touching 100s of people in addition to the original 30.
The following year, I found myself on the other side of the country doing a master’s at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. In lecture one day, we learned about the Social-Ecological Model, which contextualizes a given individual’s health within the personal, environmental, and societal factors that influence it. This model is helpful because it points to a variety of levels through which you can take action to address a given public health issue.
For example, consider smoking. To reduce smoking behaviors, you could intervene at the individual level by educating people about the long-term health consequences. You could intervene at the organizational level by banning cigarettes in the workplace. Or you could intervene at the policy level by raising taxes on tobacco sales. Ideally, you would do all three and more (and we have, which is why smoking rates have decreased so dramatically since the 1960s).
As I sat in class, I thought about how this model could be applied to the public health issue of loneliness. We know that chronic loneliness is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes every day, so it makes sense to take a similar approach.
This realization has fueled my passion for implementing strategies to reduce loneliness and improve social well-being at all levels. It’s exciting to imagine how we might foster greater connection among millions of people through legislation, design decisions in the built environment, programs implemented by employers and schools, or innovation in social technology.
At the same time, I reflect back on that intergenerational gathering and its ripple effects. I believe that we need to complement broader initiatives that affect many people in small ways with local projects that affect fewer people in large ways. We need to support and empower individuals who feel inspired to take action in their own neighborhoods.
That’s the philosophy behind the monthly microgrant program that I recently launched. Funded by the Well Being Trust, we will award $1,000 each month to an individual who has an idea for how to strengthen relationships in their community. It might be an event like the intergenerational gathering, or an interactive installation in a shared community space, or something we never would have imagined yet is meaningful in a given neighborhood. We hope to be surprised and delighted!
Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and the first microgrant will be awarded in January. If you believe in our vision too, please consider helping us spread the word throughout the country. All the information is on our website, and you can tag us on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
We look forward to sharing the stories and insights that emerge from this initiative in 2021. And I look forward to the unexpected ripple effects.