A chain smoker in her mid-60s, our neighbor Marie is not someone you’d describe as chipper. When my family moved into our Portland home, I made her cookies. “I don’t eat sugar,” she told me, peering through her screen door and promptly snuffing out my self-satisfaction.

One week later, a snowstorm hit, and Marie was on our doorstep holding a snow shovel.

“Maybe you don’t have one yet,” she said. “Need to borrow mine?”

Marie’s kindness was a reminder not to draw conclusions hastily. It also helped me feel welcome in my new neighborhood and allay some of the loneliness of living in a new city. 

I thought of Marie as I learned that, according to a recent large-scale survey from the health care provider Cigna, most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness. Almost half say they sometimes or always feel alone or left out. There likely are many reasons for this trend: Americans spend big chunks of their days in front of screens, move more than past generations and are less inclined to be part of a faith community.

Close friends love us deeply, but outer-circle friendships — with neighbors such as Marie — are not inconsequential. They, too, enrich our lives and spirits. And they combat loneliness by helping us feel part of a wider community, providing practical support (e.g., shovels) and allowing us to feel we have something to offer.

Yet as in intimate friendships, attention and time are required. Sounds Mr. Rodgers-esque, but it’s not always easy.

Will you be a shovel-lender to someone who may, in many ways, be different than you? Figuring that out could help you — or someone else — feel a bit less lonely.