Trust and Belonging Initiative

Interdisciplinary Research in Social Connectedness

In the Harvard Trust and Belonging Initiative, we aim to carry out empirical, historical, philosophical, and theological research on how strong social connections (close, loose, civic, etc.) affect various aspects of flourishing including cognitive health, physical health, life satisfaction, work, meaning and purpose, and character development. We aim to better understand and promote the character traits (vulnerability, benevolence, gratitude, forgiveness, etc.) that lead to stronger social connections for human flourishing. We will also seek to connect this research to public audiences through symposia, a documentary film, and public commentary in popular media outlets.

Most urgently, this initiative will research why friendship and community participation are declining in multiple societies. We seek to explore the linkages with declining religious participation and declining trust in other social institutions. We aim to explore new ways to measure social relationships, provide a new etiology of the so-called “loneliness epidemic,” and understand the social determinants (cultural, economic and technological, etc.) of declining social connectedness. Drawing on analytic, descriptive, and practical discourses, we aim to think about what loneliness is, identify its causes, and support practitioners and policymakers in finding solutions.

Design New Policies and Products

We aim to ground research efforts in the practical insights of community builders reversing loneliness and distrust in their local communities. We will work with mayors and national leaders tackling the problem of loneliness and its mental health impacts with innovative products, programs and policies. In many contexts, close social relationships improve life evaluations more than economic or health indicators, yet prominent policy frameworks and indices for social progress omit social connectedness from their political goals or merely instrumentalize social connections for purely material ends; some policies may even weaken social connections. We aim to explore why these disconnects and omissions are happening and how to bridge these gaps in understanding in the policymaking process. We will create policy papers and programmatic tools for local and national leaders seeking to address these disconnects. In addition, growing loneliness is also a global issue and we aim to create international collaborations and partnerships that can share resources and insights to tackle the challenge of loneliness in different local contexts and cultures.

Informed by data collection, research, and case study development, the initiative will provide products and advisory services to associations, religious groups, governments, businesses and health institutions on ways to increase friendship, trust and belonging within their institutions and among their stakeholder networks. Given the role of technology in changing the nature of human belonging, the initiative will inform technologists and Chief Technology Officers on ways to improve product design and use for greater belonging. Other potential advisory recipients could include Chief Responsibility Officers, federal agency leaders and corporate philanthropy executives solving trust and belonging challenges.

Principal Investigators

Jonathan D. Teubner