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This Saturday (30th July) marks the 6th UN International Day of Friendship. The UN General Assembly created this annual event to encourage the spirit of friendship between individuals, communities and cultures across the globe, as a means to foster greater peace, co-operation and mutual understanding.

The UN resolution (A/RES/65/275) places particular emphasis on involving young people and promoting diversity. At Volunteering Matters, friendship and diversity are values that go right to the heart of each and every one of our volunteer programmes. We also believe that friendship and active citizenship can play a powerful role in addressing the corrosive effect of chronic loneliness in our society.

Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Strong social networks not only have an impact on reducing the risk of illness, they also help people to recover when they do fall ill. Loneliness can increase the risk of cognitive decline, dementia, depression and high blood pressure.

In some parts of the UK, 80% of over-55s say they feel isolated. Myself and my colleagues at Volunteering Matters feel that this is unacceptable. We know how to solve social isolation, it’s not rocket science – we need to connect with our neighbours through active citizenship and volunteering, and replace loneliness with friendship and empathy.

Many of our programmes specifically target social isolation: Welcome Friends in Wales, Norfolk Knitters and Stitchers, Citywise in London, Lifelines in Brighton, Sporting Chance in Middlesbrough and Help at Hand Befriending in Scotland. These programmes are not only enormously valuable for the beneficiaries, who are given the opportunity to expand their social networks and play an active role in society, they also offer significant benefits for the volunteers themselves and society as a whole.

The volunteers have the opportunity to meet new people and expand their social networks, learn new skills and try something new. Volunteering also comes with an impressive array of health and wellbeing benefits. In the UK this summer there has been much talk of social division and alienation: topics that can leave us feeling hopeless and powerless. Volunteering and active citizenship offer practical solutions here: through playing an active role in society we can empower ourselves as citizens. I don’t think it’s too idealistic to say that we can build a stronger, more inclusive society if every one of us makes time to volunteer and give something back.

I hope you’ll take the opportunity of UN International Day of Friendship to do just that – there really is a volunteering role for everyone. Find out more about the volunteer programmes in your local area here and get in touch with your questions – we’re looking forward to hearing from you!