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Connection and Common Roots

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Zachary Curinga
March 22, 2024

“My loneliness is killin’ me.” – Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time”(1999)

If one was asked to consider what the major problems facing society or management today are, loneliness would most likely not be proffered as a pressing concern. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, in many ways, loneliness is both a longstanding and growing issue that threatens to unwind social progress and threaten future collective efforts to tackle complex problems. Loneliness has been and will increasingly become one of the biggest threats to good governance this century, as it perpetuates a lack of mutual understanding of basic assumptions about society and government among citizen-strangers. Hannah Arendt’s concept of “uprootedness,” described as a lack of deep connection to others and feeling as though one lacks significant contribution, can be instructive as to understand and address the growing problem of loneliness.

Understanding Loneliness

The biggest hurdle in addressing loneliness is defining it. In today’s world of ubiquitous internet interaction, loneliness is often misconstrued as isolation, but loneliness is contingent upon the quality and depth social interaction on an individual basis. Online interaction does not provide the same social bond that in-person interactions do. Additionally, there are no widely accepted criteria to identify loneliness. Vice Admiral Murthy has suggested addressing this problem by establishing common criteria and placing doctors in the role of the identifier. Although these actions are laudable, it overlooks those who are the most vulnerable, i.e., those who do not have insurance and do not regularly visit a physician. This also places the burden on individuals and medicalizes a social problem with physical manifestations.

Loneliness and Public Concern

Chronic illnesses are often accompanied by loneliness. A common comparison has equated loneliness with smoking. Those who report higher levels of loneliness are more likely to be from a minority group, earn a lower income and have lower educational obtainment. Furthermore, lonelier individuals have a higher chance of being obese, suffering from Type 2 diabetes and having higher blood pressure on average. These diagnoses suggest a higher risk of chronic illness.

Loneliness is also accompanied by a range of negative emotions. Vice Admiral Murthy’s 2023 advisory report on the subject described that being lonely likely leads to a diagnosis with depression and anxiety. By that same token, Prof. Eleanor Cummins at New York University has posited that loneliness can also lead to increased feelings of alienation, anger, resentment, fear and even paranoia. However, a majority of Americans now report experiencing loneliness, and this number seems to expand with each younger cohort. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone initially drew attention to the effects of decreasing social connection, and these consequences of this decrease have become increasingly apparent over time.

It has been researched that loneliness has impaired collective and self-efficacy, decreased the quality of government and has fostered less trust in institutions. Studies have even shown that siblings in the same household will rate self- and collective efficacy differently depending on how lonely each sibling is. Unfortunately, this relationship does not exist in isolation, and these perceptions of efficacy also decrease social interaction, work performance and civic engagement. As the relationship between loneliness and efficacy further erodes, consensus becomes harder to build as individuals’ shared sense of effectiveness decreases.

Ultimately, this makes it difficult to act as a collective to solve the issues that society is facing. This is especially troubling, given the patchwork nature of civic fundamentals, such as voting. When people feel disconnected from themselves and society, collective institutions become increasingly dysfunctional. 

Actions Being Taken

While loneliness will be a difficult problem to address, some countries have already begun to take actions against loneliness. Several nations have appointed a minister to address loneliness including the United Kingdom, Sweden and Japan. The consensus seems to be that the scale of loneliness should be established in an agreed-upon way which allows for systemic understanding and for planning action. Some have pursued more hands-off approaches, such as hotlines and chatbots, while others have sought to build more local connections by being inclusive with at-risk groups. Another idea is the subsidization of community activities. A small town in Sweden has even encouraged its citizens to “Say hi!”


Ultimately, there is a clear path to address loneliness. Defining loneliness is the first step, followed by systematic screening criteria which can reach all populations. Addressing the growing use of technology to socialize will also be crucial. As a profession, public administration should take an emotional turn. Historically, public administration has sought to restrain emotion in favor of “rationality.” The presumption that human rationality is somehow separate and stronger without emotion is damaging and long overdue for reevaluation. A touch of humanity may help us find the answer to reestablish connection and common roots to once again allow prosperous governance in the United States to last.

Author: Zachary Curinga is currently a PhD student at Rutgers-Newark, School of Public Affairs and Administration, (SPAA). His research interests include nonprofit management, organizational change, public health nutrition, and disability equity. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]

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