Loneliness is a subjective feeling of powerful social disconnection or emotional isolation. As such, it is possible to be lonely in a crowd. Indeed, someone might have many friends or even be married and yet still feel extremely lonely. (Winch, 2014)
A 2018 survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults (ages 18 years and older) revealed some alarming findings on loneliness. Nearly half of Americans (46 percent) report sometimes or always feeling alone. Similarly, a little more than half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions (such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family) on a daily basis. And perhaps most startlingly, Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation. (Cigna, 2018)
Loneliness has become an epidemic within our nation and is now a public health crisis. If you’re lonely, you’re more likely to: be obese, be at risk for inflammation, be depressed, sleep badly, have hormonal imbalances, have poor memory, suffer dementia, be put in a geriatric home at an earlier age, and die at an earlier age. If you’re lonely, you’re less likely to: exercise, survive a serious operation, or reach out to others when you need help. (Marche, 2012)
The United States Air Force (USAF) is not immune to the epidemic of loneliness. “Loneliness can be one cause for stress and become a serious problem for Airmen” (Chadwick, 2018). Further, research has found a connection between loneliness, suicide ideation, and parasuicide (Stravynski & Boyer, 2001). Suicide currently stands as the leading cause of death in the USAF. The trend over the past decade indicates that the problem is getting worse over time (Grudo, 2017). The USAF must respond to this crisis in order to reduce incidences of loneliness and suicide and reverse this troubling trend within our organization.
I am writing this paper to offer my insight on what we can do to address the issue of loneliness within the USAF. In order to combat the “Nonsense of Loneliness,” the USAF should develop, design, and disseminate a didactic on “making sense of community within the USAF.” The USAF should strategically target this content towards its tactical leadership in order to combat the looming and growing incidences of loneliness and suicide in the USAF at the squadron level. “The strength of an Air Force base is built on many things – airmanship, resiliency, family and sense of community. These building blocks act as a foundation Airmen use to maintain mission readiness and persevere in the face of adversity” (Claypool, 2017).
There are several benefits to creating a sense of community within an organization. When there is a strong sense of belonging: relationships are stronger, blood pressure is better, you even live longer. We need intimate bonds to be happy. We need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to get and give support. “Strong relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy life” (Rubin, 2018). Brené Brown (2010) reflecting on this topic states: “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.” She goes on to say, “When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick” (Brown, 2010)
Among theories of sense of community proposed by psychologists, McMillan & Chavis’s is by far the most influential, and is the starting point for most of the recent research in the field. McMillan and Chavis (1986) found in their research that “sense of Community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.” In this widely accepted theory, McMillan and Chavis (1986) propose that sense of community is composed of four distinct elements: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection.
When someone experiences membership, they feel a sense of belonging to the community. Attributes that determine membership within a community include: boundaries, emotional safety, personal investment and a common symbol system (McMillan & Chavis, 1986).
Members also need to feel influence within a community where they believe they matter and that the community matters. When members experience influence, they are willing to subject themselves to the rules of the community for group cohesion (McMillan & Chavis, 1986).
When someone experiences integration and fulfillment of needs, they believe they get important needs of theirs met because they are a part of the community. As a result, members feel rewarded in some way for their participation in the community (McMillan & Chavis, 1986).
Shared emotional connection is the ‘definitive element for true community’ and occurs when members feel that they really care about each other. Shared emotional connection is the result of shared history and shared participation within the community (McMillan & Chavis, 1986).
The USAF should develop a teaching module on making sense of community as a part of the Squadron Officer School (SOS) curriculum. This proposed module can also introduce the Sense of Community Index (SOCI) to SOS students. SOS students can use this tool throughout their career to assess the sense of community within their assigned units. This low cost/high yield course of action (COA) would equip SOS students with the tools they need to become intimately aware of the sense of community issues within their units. This COA would also equip SOS students with the information they need in order to formulate a community plan to specifically address those issues. Ultimately, tactical leaders within the USAF will be better equipped to address the prevalent issues of loneliness and suicide within the USAF.
There are few risks that are posed by including instruction on “making sense of community” in the SOS Curriculum. The current Air Force SOS curriculum aligns its content under four broad categories: Reasoning, Joint Warfare, Leadership, and Teambuilding. The substance of this relevant subject falls neatly under two of the four broad categories (Leadership and Teambuilding). As such, including a module on this topic would not detract or distract from the current curriculum. Indeed, the SOS curriculum would be greatly enhanced by this topic as the substance for this proposed module is particularly relevant and is of considerable interest.
There are also few constraining factors for implementing this recommendation. There is a wealth of empirical and peer reviewed research on the topic that can be utilized to build the module. The USAF would only need to task an individual or a team to research the topic in order to develop and design an engaging didactic for this subject. If there is a concern for the limit of time available in SOS to cover this topic in the curriculum, I would suggest that this subject should have high priority as the proper application of the knowledge gained from this proposed module has the potential to save lives. As a matter of process, SOS solicits ongoing feedback from students on the content shared in the SOS course. SOS leadership can analyze student feedback to assess which instruction makes the least impact and replace those modules with modules that include content on this high priority topic.
USAF doctrine identifies significant benefits to creating sense of community within its organization. One of the clear benefits of creating a sense of community within the USAF is that it leads to a resilient and ready force. Kaleth O. Wright, CMSAF astutely notes in his report on “Quality of Life in the Military” to the U.S. House of Representatives that, “A strong sense of community (is) critical to the sustainment of a resilient, ready force” (Wright, 2017). Another huge benefit of creating sense of community within the USAF is that it reduces self-harm. AFI90-505 1.3.1. provides that protective factors for suicide include: “social support, interconnectedness, sense of belonging, effective individual coping skills, and cultural norms that promote and protect responsible help-seeking behavior” (U.S. Dept. of the Air Force, 2014).
There are positive second and third order effects to including instruction on this topic at SOS. Teaching tactical leaders how to create a positive sense of community would lead to a positive work environment. This would in turn lead to better retention of talent in the USAF. Creating a sense of community in the USAF would also recover financial resources. If there are fewer incidences of loneliness and suicide, fewer mental health professionals would be needed to respond to the loneliness epidemic and suicide crisis in the USAF. This would save the USAF a great deal of money, which could be used towards other programs to support the USAF mission.
Should the USAF adopt the COA outlined in this paper, it would undoubtedly: reinforce airman resilience, reduce self-harm, retain top talent and recover financial resources. However, there is a cost to this COA. Making sense of community in the USAF requires leadership action. AFDD 1-1 provides that leaders must “tailor their behavior toward their fellow Airmen‘s need for motivation, achievement, sense of belonging, recognition, self-esteem, and control over their lives” (Schwartz, 2011). We must invest time and energy in making sure our tactical leaders within the USAF are well educated on the principles and strategies necessary to create a sense of community within their units. The cost to teach our leaders how to create a sense of community pales in comparison to the huge benefits of doing so. I hope the insight in this paper provides the impetus to move the USAF forward in the right direction on this important subject.