You're not alone in feeling lonely, says Vivek Murthy, M.D., 42, who served as the 19th surgeon general of the United States during the Obama administration. He writes about our profound need for social connection in his new book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
Thoughtful and deeply empathic, Murthy argues that social bonds not only enhance our health — loneliness has been associated with coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, depression and anxiety — but “how we perform in the workplace and at school, how we show up for our families and how content we feel in our lives.”
He also points out that isolation, which describes a physical state of being, is different from loneliness: “the subjective feeling that you're lacking the social connections you need.”
We talked with Murthy about our need for meaningful relationships and how we can combat the shame associated with loneliness by reaching out when we feel that yearning for connection and by understanding how universal it is.
Loneliness and its consequences
This is a very common state of being that we all experience at various points in our life that's as natural as hunger or thirst. It's a signal that our body sends us when we're lacking something we need for survival, which is human connection. And if we respond to loneliness by picking up the phone to call our mother or getting in the car to visit a good friend, then it will subside. But if it persists for a long period of time, that's when it does damage to our bodies and raises our risk of physical and mental illness.
You're not alone in your loneliness
There is tremendous damage we do to ourselves and each other if we walk around shrouded in shame, because we think that because we're alone that something is wrong with us. It prevents us from sharing our own experience. And there are actually so many people around us who are struggling with loneliness — young people, older people. When I was surgeon general, the stories of loneliness I heard were from students and from parents, from people in small fishing villages in Alaska, to members of Congress in Washington, D.C., who would tell me behind closed doors that they really struggle with loneliness.
I have experienced loneliness at many, many points in my life and felt this profound sense of shame about it — all the years when I was a child that I struggled with feeling lonely when I was scared to go to school and petrified of walking into the elementary school cafeteria because I was worried I wouldn't have anyone to sit with. I definitely remember feeling ashamed that somehow, the fact that I was shy and had a hard time making friends, meant that I was deficient in some way.
Older people need to know they matter
I think about many of the older people I talk to in the United Kingdom and here in the U.S.; they would often say that they felt invisible, that they were less important as they got older. It always made me very sad, because I worry that in our country, and modern society in many other countries, that we put so much value on youth, we lose sight of how much value comes with age. And it was a contrast for me with how my parents would often talk about older adults, especially in the culture in which they grew up, in India, where as you got older you were valued for your experience and respected for your age. We don't do enough to help older people recognize how much they matter.
Being present for others is a gift
If you've ever had the experience of being in conversation with someone when they were fully present, listening deeply to you when you're sharing with them, you know that five minutes of a fully present conversation like that can be more powerful than 30 minutes of distracted conversation. It can make a big difference in how connected we feel to them, and make people feel seen; it can make people feel that they matter. We don't need to be a nurse or a doctor to provide that kind of healing.
Ways to connect despite the outbreak
COVID-19 presents an interesting problem and opportunity. If we don't do anything differently, then I do worry that our loneliness will deepen, that it will impact our mental and physical health. But I don't think it has to be this way. Even though we don't have the ability to see each other in person the same way we were able to pre-pandemic, there are small but important steps we can take to help strengthen connections in our life right now. We can, for example, put 15 minutes aside each day to make sure we're reaching out to people we love, whether that's by videoconference or calling them on the phone or writing to see how they are.
Serving others as an antidote to loneliness
We can experience an erosion of self-esteem when we're lonely, as we come to believe that it's because we're not likable or because something is broken inside of us. And that can just compound that loneliness further and further. The reason service is so powerful is that it breaks the cycle by shifting the focus from us to someone else, by reaffirming for us that we have value to bring to the world. And even though we can't go and volunteer at a soup kitchen as easily as we did before, we can reach out to a neighbor who might be struggling to get groceries because they're worried about their risk of COVID-19. We can have food delivered to a friend who might be having a hard time. We can offer to virtually babysit kids for even 10 minutes, to give them a few moments to sit down and just simply take a deep breath. There are many ways that we can serve other people, especially now, when so many people are struggling.
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The importance of protecting moments of solitude
It turns out that our ability to connect with other people is grounded in our ability to connect with ourselves. Solitude is that time in our day that allows us to deepen our connection with self. It can just be a few minutes when we stop and remember three things we're grateful for, or take a walk in nature. It can be five minutes spent in meditation or prayer or listening to music. If we approach others from a place of calm, we're better able to be present for other people, to focus on them, as opposed to being distracted and emotionally drained. Introverts need more time alone than others, but we all do need some; it's an essential component to our mental health.
Acknowledging our interdependence is not a sign of weakness. It's how we have evolved over thousands of years. And it's a recognition of the fact that we truly are better together, that we can do more, we can be more, we can experience more when we do it together.