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Ray Pennings:Social isolation and loneliness are among the most important challenges of our times, and governments alone can’t fix them. Frankly, these problems are too big for the politicians.

Consider some basic findings from a new Angus Reid Institute study, conducted in partnership with Cardus:

  • Almost one-quarter of Canadians struggle with extreme social isolation and loneliness.
  • A third of Canadians couldn’t say for sure they’d have a friend or family member who’d help out in a financial crisis.
  • Nearly one in five Canadians isn’t certain they’d have someone to lean on for emotional support during a personal crisis.

For all the technology at our fingertips with a world becoming ‘smaller’ all the time, far too many of us still struggle with being disconnected from others.

Canadians struggling with acute isolation and loneliness rate their own financial, mental and physical health lower than other Canadians do.

These problems aren’t just personal. They work themselves out in unhealthy ways: use of payday loans, drug abuse, suicide.

While more money or more education is associated with less isolation and loneliness, these aren’t magic bullets. And while governments can help, they can’t offer a quick policy fix.

Instead, it’s going to take a major, long-term reinvestment in social institutions to start building up the networks too many of us lack.

The data show that two social institutions correlate much more strongly with lower isolation and loneliness: family and faith.

Angus Reid found that those who suffer neither from social isolation nor from loneliness are most likely to be parents.

True, some Canadians are childless and happy. Even so, not having children is most strongly associated with feeling alone and disconnected.

The family, as a unit, makes a difference. In fact, what do the loneliest and most isolated Canadians tell Angus Reid they want?

Fully 91 per cent want more interaction with family and friends.

Interestingly, the survey data also finds being married (or living common law) is one of the strongest factors in lessening social isolation and loneliness. Three-quarters of Canadians who say they’re well connected and have rich social lives are in a marriage or common-law relationship.

By contrast, 52 per cent of the desperately lonely and isolated are unmarried. That breaks down to 34 per cent who are single or simply never got married, and 18 per cent who are separated, divorced or widowed.

Clearly, one of the best ways to prevent (or lessen) social isolation and loneliness is to invest in families by keeping them together. One of the most effective ways to do that is to invest specifically in marriage, as distinct from common-law relationships.

Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey shows that marriage is a more stable form of relationship than living common law. According to StatsCan, three-quarters of common-law relationships fall apart within just seven years, compared to just 28 per cent of marriages.

The numbers also show that those previously living common law are about twice as likely to have experienced multiple separations or divorces.

While marriage isn’t for everyone – and it should always be entered by choice – social isolation and loneliness underline the importance of this social institution. The Angus Reid and StatsCan data make the case for investing positively in the institution of marriage.

But faith makes a difference, too.

Those most likely to struggle with being both isolated and profoundly lonely are Canadians who never or rarely attend religious services. Canadians who aren’t socially isolated at all are twice as likely to attend religious services regularly compared to those who are very isolated.

Likewise, slightly more than half of those who aren’t socially isolated pray at least monthly, as opposed to just 38 per cent of the very isolated.

Far from being a sign of social progress, Canadians’ declining religiosity appears to be making things worse.

Faith, like family, is a matter of choice. No one should be forced into either.

But public policy can recognize the public good that comes from both these factors in our lives. Policies that help strengthen these social institutions won’t solve the problems of social isolation and loneliness. But they’ll surely help.

Ray Pennings is executive vice president of the think-tank Cardus.

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