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Social Connection: The Key to Building Healthy Communities


The value of genuine human connection cannot be overstated. We live in an era where virtual communities have become the norm, but what has been lost in the process? EDENS CEO Jodie W. McLean weighs in on the latest research on the mental, emotional and physical benefits of friendship.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy recently issued a new Advisory titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” shedding light on the urgent public health issue of social disconnection. The report highlighted the detrimental consequences of a society lacking social bonds. Even before the onset of COVID-19, a mere 16% of Americans felt truly attached to their local community, according to a report that was completed two years prior to this unprecedented event.

The ROI of Meaningful Friendships

The significance of friendships, the cornerstone of human connection, has gained substantial attention in discussions on emotional well-being. In her new book Platonic, Dr. Marisa G. Franco delves into the science and observation behind deep bonds people form with each other. Through research and anecdotes, she shares a captivating finding: friendships that are cultivated through effort and intentionality have a profound impact on reducing loneliness and the stress it causes.

Contrary to the notion that friendships are effortless, genuine connections demand investment, but the longtime rewards are immeasurable. During a recent radio interview, Dr. Franco speculated that quality time spent together has gradually been replaced by technology over several years, starting with television in the 1950s and more recently with smartphones. Men often suffer the most in what she terms a “friendship recession” due to the vulnerability and discomfort associated with expressing the desire to connect. Dr. Franco highlights three different types of loneliness: intimate, relational and collective, and underscores the positive impact of a diverse social network on our emotional and physical well-being.

Moreover, a groundbreaking study conducted by Harvard Medical School over an impressive 85-year period further emphasizes the significance of social connections in our lives. Dr. Robert Waldinger, co-director of the study, stresses that relationships, be it with friends, family or colleagues, play a crucial role in our overall well-being. The warmth and closeness experienced in these connections built over time contribute to our overall sense of fulfillment and happiness.

Social connection—the structure, function and quality of our relationships with others—is a critical and often underappreciated contributor to individual and population health, community safety, resilience and prosperity. Loose connection with people in our communities help people feel a sense of belonging and safety.

These concepts underscore the enduring importance of authentic human engagement. Connectivity is one of EDENS core values and fostering engaged communities is a mindset we embrace at EDENS every day. We leverage intentional design, curation and engagement to encourage routine interaction between people. Research has found that people who live in communities with more walkable neighborhoods, shared space, greenery and diverse types of housing feel less lonely and more socially connected.

We believe that every visit to one of our places is an opportunity to nurture positive bonds, but establishing and maintaining connection can sometimes be challenging.  What we observe is sometimes people need a nudge or little reminder that we are a single community, where people are open to connecting to and helping one another; a reminder to put away the phone and engage with another human.

Count Me In!

As we learn more about the loneliness epidemic that is prevalent in our society, we realize the importance of seemingly ordinary moments that shape our daily lives. Our innate desire to connect with others lies at the core of our being, and it is through meaningful community engagement that we can find solace and fulfillment.

A significant trend right now in brick-and-mortar retail is a pivot back to prioritizing and investing in the customer experience—understanding how a store makes people feel, emotionally as well as physically. In my recent interview with John Crossman, we talk about how consumers are increasingly concerned about the economy, but still willing to splurge on things that will have an impact on their wellbeing and emotional connections. Our communities tell us they are eager for anything participatory; they crave opportunities to make friends. In response, many of our retail partners augment their core offerings with opportunities for learning and discovery, like trivia nights, classes of all kinds, travel-themed wine tastings, flower-arranging and much more. Imagine the joy of connecting with a new friend over the shared experience of yoga with a baby goat!

Last year, we produced or hosted more than 2,300 events in our places across the EDENS portfolio, including live music, outdoor movies, dance and fitness classes, farmers markets, story time, community gardens, large-scale heritage events and a variety of activations designed to bring people together. Public art, too, is proven to elicit awe, reinforce self-confidence, spark conversations and enhance social cohesion. Working closely with our retail partners, we advocate for creating connective moments on every visit that help to enrich the communities we serve. We prioritize emotion, acknowledging its pivotal role in shaping the customer experience and building hard-earned trust.

We are all stakeholders in the process of building healthy and engaged communities. The Surgeon General’s Advisory is a warning, but also serves as a call to action. The comprehensive 81-page report not only pinpoints the issue but provides practical solutions and recommendations for fostering social connection individually and collectively, across different business sectors.

I recognize the attraction to the efficiency of technology in our everyday lives and in our relationships. However, I believe that by cultivating places that are engaging and rooted in human engagement and emotional connections, we can pave the way for a healthier, happier, more interconnected future for all.