Loneliness, a Global Epidemic That Won't Go Away
A former surgeon general talks about the ongoing loneliness epidemic.
Posted May 18, 2020
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th U.S. Surgeon General under the Obama administration, had one of the most important and visible jobs in the nation, yet as a young boy, he was one of the loneliest. He was born in England to immigrant parents from India. While in Washington, he worked tirelessly on the importance of creating a culture of prevention, grounded in physical fitness, nutrition, and emotional well-being.
After leaving the White House, Murthy has been an outspoken voice for emotional well-being and attention to what he calls the loneliness public health crisis which is partly created by the workplace. You might think, with all the electronic devices at our fingertips, loneliness is the last thing workers would suffer from. But I sat down with the former Surgeon General to ask him about his new book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, in which he describes loneliness as a global epidemic.
Bryan Robinson: Thank you, Dr. Murthy, for taking the time to talk. Let’s start with what led you to write this book.
Dr. Vivek Murthy: During my time as Surgeon General when I was traveling around the country, I came to realize that loneliness was far more common than I thought. As I delved more deeply into the issue and started to understand the science behind loneliness, I came to see that it has consequences that go beyond just feeling bad. It is associated with a reduction in lifespan and a higher risk of heart disease, dementia, and depression and anxiety. It also has a profound effect on our health and affects how we show up in the workplace, school, and our communities.
Murthy: This is research that Julianne Holt-Lunstad conducted at Brigham Young University. She found that the mortality impact of loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It was, in fact, greater than the mortality impact of obesity or sedentary living. The issues we focus on so often in public health, and rightly so, such as tobacco use, obesity and exercise are so important for our health. What she was pointing out was that it may be the case that loneliness is important as well, and we need to think about it as a public health issue.
Robinson: I would imagine that the average person doesn’t understand that loneliness has a physical component to it. Would you agree?
Murthy: I think that’s right. When most people think about loneliness they think about feelings, but they don’t recognize it is exceedingly common. But because of the stigma associated with loneliness, there are people who struggle who don’t talk about it and have trouble admitting to themselves that they’re lonely. As a child, I struggled with it. One of the reasons I never told my parents was there’s a feeling among many—and certainly, it was true for me when I was young—that if you’re lonely, you’re somehow not likable. Or you’re not capable of being loved. And nobody wants to feel that way about themselves. I certainly didn’t as a child. Admitting I was lonely was hard. I think that’s true for many people.
Robinson: Some people reading this interview might say, “I feel lonely, but I don’t want anybody to know. I don’t want people to think something’s wrong with me because most people are not lonely.”
Murthy: Whenever we struggle with a problem we can’t share, it further isolates us. In the workplace, there is a growing body of data from the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton School of Business that this is really common among people in the workplace. When workers are lonely, it takes a toll on their engagement which in turn impacts their productivity and creativity. It also affects how others see them in a negative way. If you’re a member or leader of an organization, it makes sense to recognize a couple of things: the data shows that many people in your workplace are probably struggling with loneliness and that loneliness comes with consequences, not just for social interaction but concrete outputs that an organization cares about such as productivity and creativity.
Robinson: What would you tell the skeptic who says I have all the electronic devices at my fingertips? I’m not lonely. I’m more connected than ever. How do you reconcile today’s connection through technology with being lonely?
Murthy: There can be an assumption that because you’re virtually connected through social media, email, or text that somehow that protects you from loneliness. Sometimes it can, but not always. What matters when it comes to loneliness is the quality of your connections with people. Technology can sometimes be a quality connection, and sometimes it can detract from quality connection. It can lead us to substitute lower quality interactions from what used to be higher quality in-person interactions. The kind of conversations you have via text are different qualitatively from the conversations you have in person or on the phone when you can hear someone’s voice and understand their tone, feelings, and intentions.
As we think about technology, I don’t think it’s right to blame technology for the challenges we’re facing with loneliness or that the solution is to get rid of technology. What we have to do is to be more judicious about how we use technology. Part of that involves creating sacred spaces in our lives when we are fully present with people without technology. Bringing our devices to the table when we’re having dinner or checking our social media feed while we’re talking to loved ones has become a common habit. We buy into the myth of multitasking—that we can do all these things and still be fully present. But the truth is, we can’t. When it comes to technology, we have to be mindful of the impact it has on our relationships and carve out spaces when we’re interacting with people without technology present and focus on how we can use technology to enhance our connections with people.
Robinson: I understand you meditate daily, as do I. Would you say that meditation is an antidote to loneliness?
Murthy: Meditation can settle your mind and allow you to reflect and experience peace and solitude that we often don’t get when we’re constantly surrounded by information streaming from our devices. When it comes to loneliness, the foundation for connecting with others is a strong connection with ourselves. We have to be comfortable with ourselves and confident that we have value and a sense of worth. One of the things that helps us do that is to spend time with ourselves and to be comfortable with solitude. When we don’t have reflective time for ourselves, we bury a lot of the challenging issues and don’t deal with them. It can detract from our emotional well-being when we don’t spend enough time in solitude.
Robinson: Some people might be confused about the difference between solitude and loneliness. Would you speak to that?
Murthy: Solitude—being alone or isolated—is about being physically alone; it’s an objective phenomenon, based on the number of people around you. But loneliness is a subjective term about how you feel about your connection. I might have one person around me but not feel lonely at all because I feel a deep connection to myself and that person. Or I could have one hundred people around me and feel profoundly lonely which happens to many people. The answer to how companies can address loneliness isn’t pulling people together for a daily happy hour or the annual company party or picnic. We have to help people connect more deeply with themselves and give them opportunities to connect with others in deeper, more substantial ways. We all have a desire to be seen, to know we matter, and to feel loved. That’s part of being human.
Robinson: What do you foresee as possible solutions to the public health crisis around loneliness?
Murthy: One is carving out time to be fully present with people in our lives on a regular basis. That could be making sure family dinner is done free of technology or talking with good friends when we’re not distracted by our cell phones. The second thing is service, being helpful. Service is a powerful door out of loneliness whether it’s helping a colleague at work or volunteering for a cause in the community. We not only forge a connection with another person in that moment but remind ourselves that we have value and worth to add to society, which is powerful and helpful in strengthening our connection to self.
Lunstad, J.H., Smith, T.B., & Layton, J.B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLOS. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316