By Vivek H. Murthy, MD
HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 2020
You can die of loneliness. It’s not just poetic sentiment, it’s a medical fact. Research shows that lack of social connection is just as hazardous to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Humans are social beings. We are hard-wired for connection, and when we don’t get enough of it, our bodies send a signal as strong as thirst or hunger, a signal we call loneliness.
Yet in today’s hectic, individualistic world, we face an epidemic of loneliness and a yearning for connection.
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy learned about this epidemic when he served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. Shortly after his appointment in December 2014, Dr. Murthy went on a listening tour to find out what health issues Americans were most concerned about, and how his office could help. He heard about well-known problems like opioid addiction, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
But he also discovered an unexpected theme running through many of these problems: loneliness.
This finding led to years of research and interviews and ultimately to his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
Together is divided into two parts. The first part looks at the physical and cultural origins of loneliness and how it manifests itself in problems such as anxiety and depression. The second part is about building greater social connection into our lives and teaching our children how to build connection into theirs. Along the way, Murthy introduces us to a host of individuals, researchers and practitioners who have either struggled with loneliness themselves or tried to help others deal with it.
A few themes stood out for me.
First of all, loneliness isn’t something to be ashamed of. Most of us experience it at various points in our lives. For me, loneliness was most pronounced during and shortly after my years in college. In fact, we all need connection: it’s baked into our DNA. As a species, human survival depended on our ability to connect in groups, to share knowledge, stories and emotions. Becoming separated, or exiled, from your tribe was usually a death sentence. Loneliness is a physical signal, like hunger, that tells us to attend to our need for social connection. And when we do connect, we feel it physically too, as relaxation and a reduction in stress.
Cultures differ in the degree of connection that is expected and provided. Some cultures, Murthy says, are like tall, narrow bowls in which individuals are tightly packed together, constantly in contact and rubbing up against each other. Other cultures are more like wide shallow bowls in which individuals can spread out and have fewer, less frequent interactions. These days the bowls are becoming wider: we’re experiencing a growing culture of independence.
“I think many of us feel pushed by modern society to be more independent, even as, deep down, we crave the interconnectedness that our ancestors depended on.” [p. 61]
On the other hand, extremist religious or political groups often impose connection through suspicion, rejection and hatred of outsiders or “others.” These are pathological cases where community is enforced to the point of oppression, allowing no room for debate or dissent.
Murthy also looks at social media which can be both a cause and a potential cure of loneliness. It allows us to maintain connection with more people than ever before, but are those connections real or superficial? And how do our kids navigate the pressures and temptations of social media while still learning how to build real-world friendships that, hopefully, last many years. (I wrote a post on this topic called We Don’t Say Goodbye Anymore a couple of years ago.)
Murthy makes an eloquent case for the critical value of friendship in our lives, beginning with this quote from Mahatma Gandhi:
“With every true friendship, we build more firmly the foundations on which the peace of the world rests.”
Friendships bring us out of ourselves and allow us to both support and be supported by others.
“When our friends support us, they remind us that we are worthy of love, which makes us feel better about ourselves.” [p. 217]
“… a profound side-effect of friendship is gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to show vulnerability and still be loved. For the forgiveness of our flawed lives. For the shared trust and time together and the feeling of belonging, which is the ultimate glue that holds friends together.” [p. 218]
Together is a heartfelt call to build connection and community in our lives. I think Murthy does a fine job tracing the origins and the impacts of loneliness. I worry that our society, especially here in the US, has become so fragmented, even atomized, that Murthy’s suggestions for building greater connection will be overwhelmed by political and social forces. Still the effort is worth it.
My one complaint about the book is that there are too many stories. It’s great to bring dry research to life by telling stories about the lived experiences of real people. But Together contains so many of these that they started to blur together for me, and I found myself glossing over them.
Together was published before the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. Yet the pandemic highlights many of the themes Murthy writes about. Most of us around the world have experienced some form of lockdown or social isolation. It’s a shared experience that illustrates Murthy’s claim that humanity is a “family of families.” This experience has also shown us that we can’t take connection for granted, that we have to make a deliberate effort to reach out to family and friends. That we need to reach out to family and friends. I hope we take these lessons to heart as we bring the virus under control and figure out how to restart and rebuild our world.
We Don’t Have To Fight Lonliness Alone
Episode of the WorkLife podcast hosted by Adam Grant featuring Vivek Murthy
A Social Prescription: Why Human Connection Is Crucial To Our Health
Episode of the Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam featuring Vivek Murthy
The Epidemic of Lonliness
Aspen Ideas Festival 2017