While we can turn to Canada’s Food Guide and the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for help to stay healthy, some university researchers say we need similar guidance for our social health.
The folks at The GenWell Project – a non-profit organization advancing a “human connection movement” through education, resources and training – hope to fix that. In August, they received $761,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to develop the Canadian Social Connection Guidelines, a set of concise, easy-to-use recommendations to help people build stronger social bonds.
GenWell, which receives most of its funding from donations and workshops, works to raise awareness about social disconnectedness as a pervasive public health issue, and one that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. “We are a social species…Our bodies need it just as much as they need food, water and shelter,” said GenWell research director Kiffer Card, who studies the health effects of loneliness as an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University. “People vastly underestimate the value of social connection to their health.”
The impact of loneliness on our physical and mental well-being has been well documented. In 1988, University of Michigan researchers showed that social isolation is a bigger risk factor for mortality than obesity, smoking and hypertension. According to Harvard University research, the quality of a person’s relationships is the single largest predictor of a happy life. GenWell conducted a national survey in Canada in 2021 in which 60 per cent of 3,800 respondents reported feeling lonely many times a week. Dr. Card noted that these findings were influenced by the isolating effects of the pandemic, which has raised public awareness about the link between social connectedness and well-being.
The guidelines GenWell is working on will help to take research on the issue and “distill the data down into fundamental, easy-to-live-by messages and little rules that people can remember and use in their lives,” Dr. Card said.
How it started
GenWell was founded in Toronto by a brand manager named Pete Bombaci in 2016. He said he was inspired by the way people helped each other during a public health emergency years earlier: the 2003 power outage that left tens of millions of people in the dark for days across Ontario and the northeastern United States. “We come together to celebrate the great times and get through the tough times, but it’s not enough,” Mr. Bombaci said, adding that greater social engagement can also encourage us to “make donations, volunteer and find purpose in life.”
Two years ago, Mr. Bombaci established GenWell’s scientific advisory council and invited experts such as Dr. Card to serve on it. They collaborate with GenWell’s team, which includes 13 staff and five volunteers, to conceptualize and execute projects that promote social engagement. One example is the GenWell Weekends initiative, which is held twice a year. Members of the public are invited to organize social gatherings, with GenWell providing web resources for get-together ideas. After the gatherings, some members of the organization’s team interview participants about their well-being.
Another member of the advisory council is University of Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens. He helps deliver workshops about the health benefits of social connection for organizations in business, community services and higher education. That last sector is especially in need of the information, Dr. Joordens said, because many postsecondary students today are more comfortable communicating with others through technology rather than in person.
“What we have is a bunch of young people who haven’t had much face-to-face interaction, they mostly socialize on the phone, and so they are frightened and anxious about engaging in-person because they lack the skills,” he said.
GenWell initiatives that involve universities and colleges include Heads Up, an awareness campaign encouraging students to look up from their smartphones and engage with their school community. A student at Wilfrid Laurier University has set up a GenWell club, but Mr. Bombaci acknowledged that uptake at other postsecondary institutions has been slow. He said that could be because his organization uses a model focused on preventative social connection instead of crisis-oriented mental health, which is more common in higher education.
The organization is also helping marginalized groups. It recently produced a report on social connectedness among Indigenous postsecondary students, a population that’s especially vulnerable to loneliness due to various societal barriers. And Toronto Metropolitan University postdoctoral fellow Shayna Skakoon-Sparling is contributing her research expertise on loneliness among gay and bisexual men. “Men are more vulnerable to loneliness to begin with, for reasons to do with masculinity and the perceived weakness of admitting they are lonely,” she said. “But as members of sexual minority groups, they can experience discrimination and stigma from their families and peers, which can lead to more social isolation.”
Looking ahead, GenWell will host its first Canadian Social Connect Conference on Oct. 25 and 26. It will bring together scientists, policymakers, health-care providers and businesspeople to look at ways of enhancing social engagement and happiness.
“Society has never been educated on the importance of our social health,” Mr. Bombaci said. “This conference, along with the ongoing work of The GenWell Project, are part of the educational process that will drive greater awareness and action within the Canadian population.”