I was living in south Texas when I graduated from high school in the late spring of 1976. In August, my father and I loaded the family station wagon and drove north to Golden, Colorado. I had visited the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) the previous summer and upon being admitted, I decided to enroll. The 1,100-mile journey through Texas, New Mexico and Colorado took two days. We spent the first night in the Texas Panhandle. The second day, we arrived in Denver in time for dinner. That evening, we ate dinner together at a nice downtown restaurant. I think my father decided to treat me to good food prior to my years of consuming dorm food.
The next morning, we drove to nearby Golden and I checked into my dorm room. My father helped me move my possessions, which was done quickly, given my meager belongings. After completing this task, we drove to a backpacking store and purchased a winter down jacket, my first heavy winter coat, something that was not necessary while living in south Texas. My father drove me back to campus, shook my hand, and headed back to Texas — without me. I was alone and did not know a single person on campus. It was my first time in a strange place without any human connections.
Luckily, CSM had a week of freshman orientation. Staff passed out orange mining hardhats which identified the freshmen, held orientation lectures, and organized group bonding activities. I met my dorm roommate, a knowledgeable junior, who helped me make connections. Over 60% of the students were Colorado residents, a clear local advantage. I learned that Colorado residents did not like Texans: they did not know how to drive in snow (sadly true). I quickly discovered that my down parka was very warm, but not trendy; the locals wore stylish ski parkas. I should have waited and not assumed that the locals wore backpacking parkas.
When I went to orientation parties, I was low on the pecking order. The few women on campus preferred older students or those with money and cars, something I lacked. To make matters worse, I caught a serious cold just before the start of classes and had to see a doctor. A close high school friend was attending the University of Colorado. She had a car and drove to Golden on Sunday morning, picked me up, and drove me to a Denver doctor. Seeing her again and her compassion for my illness revived my spirits. After a rough couple of early weeks, I started making connections and my loneliness ebbed away.
The US surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an 82-page advisory on an American public health crisis: Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. In the report, it states that social disconnection creates the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes day. Absenteeism from work damages employee productivity, and costs US employers an estimated $154 billion a year.
Businesses knew about this problem before the surgeon general’s report was published. The new CEO of Starbucks, Laxman Narasimhan, spoke recently about loneliness, political division, and polarization. He pitched joining Starbucks where they deliver connection. I understand his biased statement at the micro level. However, Starbucks employees represent a very small percentage of the working population. To fix the epidemic of loneliness, other solutions must be brought forward.
After a few weeks of CMS classes, I walked two miles on Sunday morning to attend First Presbyterian Church of Golden. I did not have a car, so walking was my only option. I met the minister and asked him if anyone was able to pick me up for Sunday worship. He arranged a pickup with a CSM professor. We fast became friends, and he assisted me with questions about college, careers, and life in general. Through him, I integrated into the life of the church and found new connections.
Upon graduation and marriage, my wife and I moved to Texas and joined a Presbyterian church in a fast-growing Houston suburb. There were many young families, and we quickly developed a community of Christian friends, some now my closest friends. I never felt lonely as we were surrounded by welcoming neighbors and church friends. The same church and neighborhood assimilation occurred again when we moved to Austin upon retirement.
Our move to London was a different experience. We lived in a building where nobody welcomed new residents. A young French couple tried to organize a social gathering and we were the only people who showed up. Our London church was over a mile’s walk and while welcoming, was organized around worship, not social interactions. Our London friends were almost exclusively work colleagues. If I had not been married or had to live in London permanently, I would have felt disconnected.
I did not grow up with computers or cell phones. Personal interactions were common experiences. Seeking in-person connections were normal and while loneliness existed, it wasn’t reported as a crisis. With the institutional church in decline, young people usually don’t seek church connections. Working from home wasn’t an option until recently, something that contributes to disconnection. Frankly, I did not enjoy my early engineer career when sitting long hours in an office by myself. The trade floor was much more social and enabled constant in-person connections.
In Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Now that the world has over 8 billion people, it appears that there are more opportunities to make social connections than ever before. Perhaps a solution starts with recognizing the problem of loneliness and risk taking a step forward, both to proactively reach out and to reactively respond. Selecting employment, friends, and a church that supports connections is crucial. We are designed for connection, not disconnection. Your health depends on it.