Few of Society’s Problems Can Be Solved Over a Cup of Coffee. Loneliness is One of Them.

We live in a nation divided by politics and isolated by technology. One Indy nonprofit is bridging that divide by helping residents forge meaningful connections.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen more “Unfriend Me if You Disagree” posts on social media than ever before. And every time I see one, I go through the same internal battle:


Should I unfriend them?
No… it’s important to hear both sides of the issue.

Should I attempt a cordial debate?
No… it probably won’t go well.

But if I don’t, does that mean I’m giving up?
Ugh… maybe.


And then I start lamenting how my experience is just one of many. How even those who are supposed to be our nation’s role models publicly take an “Unfriend Me if You Disagree” stance. How this lack of empathy and ability to engage in productive debate — on both sides of seemingly every issue — is ripping apart our society.


I’ve always assumed this issue was something that could only be solved from the top. That Congress needed to explore social-media regulations, that politicians needed to champion more bipartisan efforts, and that someone with deep pockets needed to sponsor a nationwide public-awareness campaign. But now, after working with an Indianapolis-based nonprofit, IndyHub, to refine their program and communications strategies, I’ve become convinced that’s not the case.


IndyHub’s small team of four staffers focuses on three key numbers that motivate their work: 50% of Americans report feeling alone some or all of the time; 43% of Americans feel that their relationships aren’t meaningful; and when residents move to a new city, they need to feel connected within 90 days, or else they’re likely to move yet again.


For IndyHub, alleviating loneliness is essential to creating a vibrant and thriving city where an ever-growing community of 20- and 30- somethings is meaningfully connected to Indy and invested in its future. But it’s important on so many other levels as well.


Social isolation can be bad for your health: A study by Brigham Young University revealed it has the same life-shortening effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And not surprisingly, students who feel isolated are more likely to drop out of school. Research also shows that loneliness in the workplace harms everyone’s effectiveness — even employees who don’t consider themselves lonely.


And now, we’re beginning to understand how loneliness is hurting the very fabric of our nation. Psychiatrists Dr. Jacqueline Olds and Dr. Richard S. Schwartz say that loneliness reduces empathy for others and leads to tribalism — an “us” vs. “them” mentality that results in “Unfriend me if you disagree” posts and contributes to the polarization of our politics and the breakdown of healthy debate.


But loneliness can’t be solved by sweeping federal policies or national campaigns. It can only be solved through relationships with one another.


IndyHub’s Core Connections program is an inspiring example of both the power of relationships and the relative simplicity of facilitating them: “We reach out to Indy’s employers, realtors and property managers to identify new residents and connect them with city ambassadors to find out why they came to the city, what they’re passionate about, and what they hope to do,” says Blake Johnson, IndyHub’s President. “Then we use these conversations to make introductions to new people, to channel them to volunteer opportunities, to find leadership roles that inspire them, and to help them see that this is a city they can make their own.”


The inspiration for the Core Connections program came from IndyHub’s pride in their city’s Midwest hospitality. Although nearly a million people live in Indianapolis, residents say it still feels like a small town, where you can ask an executive for the opportunity to meet and you’ll be met with an invitation to grab a cup of coffee.


In 2018, Core Connections engaged over 200 individuals, and with 20 new city ambassadors volunteering in 2019, Johnson says IndyHub is planning to “blow the doors off” in 2020. Their goal: ensure that every one of the nearly 3,000 new 20- and 30-somethings who move to Indianapolis each year sits down with a stranger and leaves knowing that they belong in Indy.


In a time of national division and mistrust, efforts like these illustrate how we can create a foundation of belonging that allows us to respectfully disagree with one another and find collective solutions to our communities’ biggest challenges. As famed Midwestern Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) says, “What we need now are new habits of mind and heart. We need new practices of neighborliness.” We need to get back to that “hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling.”

If you’re interested in furthering these efforts in your own community, the Friday and IndyHub teams would love to help support your work. If we’re too far away to grab a cup of coffee together, we’d be more than willing to jump on the phone to discuss how we can help. Give us a call at 510.210.3750 or shoot me a note at elizabeth@byfriday.com.