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by Joshua Routh

As a society we are still feeling the aftershock from the earth-shaking experience that was the pandemic. Like the 1812 New Madrid earthquake rang church bells in Boston, the pandemic recently rang a bell in the office of the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. The problem, loneliness.

When the pandemic hit and all of my events and engagements froze, dried up or went virtual. My life as an entertainer and speaker was almost entirely on hold. It was at a minimum, terrifying. Not just as someone who relied on interaction with others for his living, but also because I was so used to being around massive amounts of people.

The quiet that came was deafening. There was a very real sense of loneliness.

Long ago I learned that my occupation is not about Joshua Routh and his ego. It is certainly not about the accolades or the applause. In a heady sense, my job is to emphasize and enhance the profound experience of human connection. In a simpler sense, I am a vehicle for connection. Come along with me and we will make memories, learn something, have a laugh, and feel that sense of togetherness AI cannot provide, yet.

I believe what we as entertainers, speakers, and event planners do is vital. The Surgeon General agrees.

Dr. Murthy has highlighted a harsh reality: most Americans are now reporting feelings of loneliness. Indeed, scientists and doctors the whole world over are realizing that loneliness does far more damage than just causing negative feelings. It can lead to strokes, heart disease, dementia, inflammation, and even suicide.

The big takeaway? Loneliness has been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is considered more hazardous to health than obesity.

You can check out the full Health Advisory here:

Advisory: The Healing Effects of Social Connection

Connection plays a critical role in individual, community, and societal health. The advisory calls attention to that role and offers a framework for how we can all contribute to improving social connection.

In response, the advisory outlines the framework for a new national strategy. It is based on six foundational pillars (written in bureaucrat speak) which are:

1. Strengthening social infrastructure, which includes things like parks and libraries as well as public programs.

2. Enacting pro-connection public policies at every level of government, including things like accessible public transportation or paid family leave.

3. Mobilizing the health sector to address the medical needs that stem from loneliness.

4. Reforming digital environments to “critically evaluate our relationship with technology.”

5. Deepening our knowledge through more robust research into the issue.

6. Cultivating a culture of connection.

In short. We need to spend time together.

This is a serious problem that requires serious consideration. I may not have all the solutions, but my view from the stage has given me knowledge firsthand that events, performances, and gatherings can be a potent antidote to the soul-crushing weight of loneliness.

The issue at hand is that loneliness is not just a feeling; it is a profound challenge that impacts physical and mental health. Loneliness is a natural phenomenon that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or socio-demographic factors.

There is no denying that we live in a fast-paced and digitally connected world. Technology was once thought to bridge the gap, but it has, in many ways, increased our sense of loneliness.

It is easy to fall into the trap of superficial online interactions that only scratch the surface of genuine human connection. Pets, robots, or artificial intelligence may offer partial solutions, but there is no substitute for the magic that happens when humans engage in meaningful conversations and activities together.

We must recognize that loneliness is not a sign of weakness or self-pity, but a fundamental human experience that we all encounter at some point in our lives. By acknowledging this shared vulnerability, we can begin to address loneliness with compassion and empathy.

It doesn’t take a scientist to show that when people are together and enjoying each other’s company, they feel better and are happier overall.

The battle against loneliness doesn’t necessarily require massively grand gestures; but it does magnify the need for opportunities for people to connect with each other genuinely.

We need to gather.

This is where the work comes in. When I talk to groups about connection, I talk about the need for boldness. There must be the first one out on the dance floor. There is a need for people who are willing to be the bold ones. The outgoing folks who are willing to step up and create these opportunities. We need the party planning committee more than ever.

In my own experience, I have witnessed the power of connection in breaking down the barriers of social loneliness. Through music, comedy, and storytelling, I have seen audiences come together, laugh together, and share in a collective experience that transcends individual isolation. Entertainment has the unique ability to create a sense of community, fostering connections that can alleviate social loneliness.

When I am in front of an audience, my goal first and foremost is to create a shared experience. I learned the value of this many years ago, in one of my over 10 seasons with the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, Tom Martin the Managing Director gave me a very specific task.

He pointed out that the field in which the audience sat was full of blankets and seats populated by many different groups. It could be a couple on a first date, a family that comes every year, a gathering of friends, or often a bus group of theater students from another city.

He asked me to move around the festival, creating moments that would be shared by all, so that each disparate group might get to know one another. To use the common bonds of proximity and laughter to create a community. He wanted me to be an ambassador of fun. To connect the blankets and chairs, encourage those with crackers to share with those that had cheese, to meet one another, so that all attendees would feel a part of something. They were no longer isolated islands, but a vast archipelago flying one flag.

This is the power of events. We create tribes and communities out of shared experience.

Social loneliness often stems from a lack of a broader social network, leaving individuals feeling disconnected from their community. It is about the absence of a sense of belonging, of being part of something larger than oneself. This form of loneliness can be equally debilitating, as it can lead to feelings of isolation and exclusion.

To combat loneliness effectively, we must prioritize building and nurturing connections. We have the power to make a difference in each other’s lives. Loneliness is not an insurmountable obstacle; it’s a call to action for us to reach out, connect, and create a world where no one feels alone.

Now, more than ever, we need effective and meaningful social gatherings to lift us out of the isolation problem. In a world where digital connections often replace face-to-face interactions, and where the challenges of the past few years have left many of us feeling disconnected, social gatherings are a beacon of hope. They have the power to bring people together, foster genuine connections, and provide the human touch that can combat loneliness and isolation. These gatherings serve as a reminder of the fundamental importance of human interaction in our lives and offer a path towards healing, unity, and a brighter future.

If you plan to be the bold one who steps up and creates meaningful events, kudos to you! From my experience at thousands of gatherings, the following are some of my thoughts that make for highly successful events:

Target Audience: Determine who the event is intended for — is it aimed at specific communities, or the public? Make the event inclusive to all participants, regardless of age, background, or abilities. Consider any necessary accommodation. You may want to implement a buddy system or peer support program to pair participants and ensure that no one feels isolated during the event.

Define the Purpose: Clearly articulate the primary goal of the event. Is it to foster new friendships, educate the audience, create a sense of shared joy, provide emotional support, or offer a sense of belonging?

Choose the Format: Decide on the type of event that suits the purpose. Is it a celebration, education session, support group, social gathering, volunteer activity, or artistic performance? If it is a social event, perhaps add a theme that creates a festive atmosphere and encourages mingling. Service events allow participants to give back to the community, promoting a sense of purpose and togetherness. Physical activities such as group yoga sessions, nature hikes, or outdoor sports promote health and well-being while fostering social bonds. Events like International food festivals, cultural showcases, or language exchange sessions celebrate the richness of cultural diversity by organizing events that showcase different traditions, cuisines, and art forms.

Select the Venue: Choose an appropriate location that is accessible and comfortable for the target audience. Consider both physical and virtual venues, depending on the event format.

Create a Schedule: Develop a well-structured timetable, including start and end times, breaks, and activities. Ensure that the schedule allows for free time that can foster natural interaction and engagement.

Invite Engaging Speakers, Entertainers or Facilitators: If applicable, invite speakers or facilitators who can lead discussions, workshops, or activities that align with the event’s purpose. Have appropriate entertainers that provide moments of delight and excitement.

Incorporate Interactive Elements: Encourage interaction among participants through group discussions, ice-breaker activities, or collaborative projects. Beginning the event with a warm welcome and ice-breaking activities to help participants feel comfortable and initiate connections. Organizing games and challenges that encourage collaboration, problem-solving, and friendly competition are a great way to create fun with an impact.

Utilize Technology: Leverage technology to connect with a broader audience, whether through live streaming, virtual breakout rooms, or social media engagement. Alternatively, designate “Phone-Free Zones” or “Tech-free Hours” during the event where participants are encouraged to disconnect from technology and engage in face-to-face conversations.

Encourage Storytelling: Provide opportunities for attendees to share their experiences, challenges, and successes, fostering empathy and connection. Offer workshops or discussions on relevant topics where participants can actively engage, share experiences, and learn from one another. Create opportunities for group discussions on common interests, interactive skill-sharing sessions, or storytelling circles. As a host and MC, I have led many storytelling events, and they can be hilarious, fun and heartwarming. Storytelling or sharing circles are incredible events where individuals can be open about their experiences, challenges, and triumphs.

Allow Room For Creativity: Provide opportunities for creative expression through art, music, or writing workshops, allowing participants to express themselves and bond through shared expression. This can take the form of painting sessions, group songwriting, or poetry readings.

Provide Refreshments: If possible, offer refreshments and food to create a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere where participants can bond over shared meals.

Plan Follow-Up Activities: Consider organizing follow-up events or activities to maintain the connections formed during the initial gathering. Recognize and celebrate the achievements and milestones of participants, reinforcing a sense of accomplishment and belonging. Give out achievement awards, certificates of participation, or acknowledgment ceremonies. Offer opportunities for ongoing engagement beyond the event, such as joining clubs, support groups, or regular meetups.

Gather Feedback, Measure Impact, Adapt and Iterate: After the event, gather feedback from participants to assess the event’s effectiveness and identify areas for improvement. Use the feedback and insights gained to refine future events, ensuring that they continue to meet the evolving needs of the target audience.

Remember that the success of meaningful events in combating loneliness lies in the event’s ability to create a sense of belonging, facilitate genuine connections, and offer ongoing support to participants.

I share Dr. Murthy’s hope that we can have a healthy society; we will gather, laugh, learn, and grow. That everyone will feel that they are a part of something and together we can experience the joy and power of connection.

All the best to you and yours in 2024.

Keep living to the hilt.

Joshua Routh

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