- According to the Surgeon General, America is facing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation.
- Everyone, no matter how famous or celebrated, seeks validation.
- One of the best ways to fight loneliness is to be fully present with others.
I spent a magical afternoon recently with Oprah Winfrey—and a nearly full-to-capacity crowd. But it felt like Oprah was there just for me, saying all the things I really needed to hear; so what might have been simply another fundraiser turned into an unforgettable experience. I realized that as much as I say “You are not alone” when it comes to mental health, in truth most people do feel alone. That needs to change, starting now. And it can.
The event was the 2023 Wisdom of Wellness Mental Health Summit, organized by UCLA’s fabulous Friends of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Oprah was joined by the U.S. Surgeon General (Vivek Murthy), a cheering crowd of 500 students, and a host of doctors, professionals, and laypeople like me, who are eager to see mental health prioritized in our society.
The Surgeon General put it simply: “Mental health is the defining public health crisis of our time,” he said. To emphasize the importance of this issue, he has just issued a new advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation that is plaguing America. Half of all people surveyed—half!—admitted to feeling lonely. No doubt part of the problem lies with words like “admitted.” Why should there be anything shameful about feeling lonely, especially when half the population feels that way? And yet, somehow, there is.
How to combat the loneliness epidemic
So how do we address this? Oprah, who knows a thing or two about people, emphasized the need for all of us to give and receive validation—to let others know that they are heard, and that what they say matters. It’s a basic human requirement she’s seen in everyone she’s interviewed, from Beyoncé to President Obama: “They all want to know afterward: ‘Was I okay? Was I enough?’”
The mental health problem in America sometimes seems intractable, beyond the scope of our public resources. But the Surgeon General observed that we all have it within our personal power to offer validation to others. Just being genuinely present for someone else can work unexpected wonders. As Oprah said, “The best gift you can give to people is your full presence.”
She’s right, and I noticed a subtle change in this direction during the pandemic. Instead of just asking “How are you?” many of my friends asked me, “How are you, really?” That “really” made all the difference to my mental health in that difficult time.
But it’s not enough just to ask. You have to be willing to stop and actively listen to the answer. That’s hard for many of us, who lead lives of terminal busyness in our so-called “hustle culture.” Social media makes it seem like a crime not to be constantly doing, producing, and enjoying. It’s not. What is a crime is to let others go unheard, to let them feel unnoticed when with a few simple moments of our attention, we might change the trajectory of their day.
To combat our loneliness epidemic, we need “a fierce connection to one another,” the Surgeon General says. Technology, for all its vaunted ability to foster communication, can actually increase isolation by inhibiting meaningful interaction. Instead of texting someone, give them a call. Better yet, put down your phone and have a face-to-face conversation (remember those?). Try engaging the grocery clerk in a quick chat, greet the bank teller with warmth, or ask your neighbor how their day is going. Make the next person you meet feel less invisible—as a bonus, you will feel more seen.
These needs are not strange or unusual; we’re hardwired to connect. Being part of the tribe is not just nice; it’s necessary for our survival. In fact, loneliness doesn’t only cause mental distress, including depression and anxiety. It has manifest physical consequences, too. According to the recent advisory, loneliness “is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke … and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity.”
Social connection and community are nothing new—only sadly, they seem to have become passé. But there’s hope, and it resides in us all, if we only make the effort to connect. The benefits will accrue not only to the people we reach out to, but to all of us. Think of it as performing a public service—your country is hurting right now, and you can help.