United States surgeon general Vivek Murthy explains that loneliness kills, but kind human connections nurture your health.
In this New York Times bestseller, United States surgeon general Vivek Murthy – who served under President Barack Obama and gained reappointment under President Joe Biden – details the healing power of friendships and intimate human connection.
Murthy’s theme is that the isolation COVID-19 has imposed illuminates fundamental questions about social relationships and loneliness. Using first-person stories and academic research, he provides a prescription for emotional well-being.
My medical education did not prepare me to recognize the impact of social connection on health.Vivek Murthy
Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal, praised Murthy’s book: “We have a massive, deadly epidemic hidden in plain sight: loneliness. It is as harmful to health as smoking and far more common. And as his gripping stories of the science and suffering make clear, we can do something about it. Together is fascinating, moving and essential reading.” Susan Cain, author of Quiet, regards this work as, “a gift for us all.”
Murthy encapsulates the dilemma by pointing out that during the global COVID-19 outbreak, anyone you know – co-workers, friends or neighbors – could spread the disease. Physical proximity came to represent a health threat.
In the first weeks of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned physical human contact into a potentially mortal threat…the public health imperative was clear: To save lives, we’d need to radically increase the space between us.Vivek Murthy
Murthy stresses that the global health crisis underscores the significance of social interactions and communal connections. He supplies examples of people still finding ways to connect, including neighborhood sing-alongs from apartment windows in Italy and singers, actors, teachers and students performing online.
When Murthy began his medical career at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, he didn’t feel prepared to treat his patients’ loneliness. Some people spent days in the hospital without visitors or phone calls. Others, he recalls with sadness, had only hospital staff as witnesses to their final words – and that was well before the coronavirus pandemic.
Fifty-Five Million Adults
Murthy cites the shocking figure that 55 million American adults report feeling constantly lonely or isolated. He notes that people feel lonely when their social experiences fail to fulfill their social expectations, which are heightened by social media, movies and television shows that drive expectations about life and love.
Loneliness ran like a dark thread through many of the more obvious issues people brought to my attention, like addiction, violence, anxiety and depression.Vivek Murthy
Murthy describes three layers of relationships: intimacy, social connections and collective communities. Emotional well-being, he discloses, requires connection on all three layers. He cites history and research revealing that loneliness emerged through evolution as a biological warning system to prompt people to join larger, safer groups. The members of a group share ideas, resources and goals. He explains that healthy relationships prompt the body to produce the dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and neurochemicals that reduce stress, anxiety and pain.
Different cities and communities have developed random goodwill programs. Nearly everyone benefits, Murthy reminds readers, from surprise gestures of kindness, including a smile or a warm greeting. Goodwill, he repeats throughout, reduces community tensions and mitigates threats.
Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Giving and receiving, both, strengthen our social bonds – checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger.Vivek Murthy
Murthy lists a variety of community programs that provide models for nurturing connections. Such events as potluck meals, listening circles or in-person support groups await the resolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, but, Murthy suggests, in the meantime, social media can provide online communities and platforms for friends and neighbors to connect virtually. For example, Murthy suggests connecting via Nextdoor, an app that enables people who live near one another to be in contact. Murthy underscores that he believes interactive social media can provide a nurturing connection that one-way posting and waiting for likes cannot.
Murthy writes from a place of extraordinary compassion for a high government official, let alone a doctor. Without addressing it directly, Murthy evokes a crucial failing of American health care: The US system vests in cures, not prevention. Murthy’s also fighting the insidious American mythos of rugged individualism that leaves lonely people believing they have to fight every battle themselves, or that their loneliness springs from some internal failing. He urges all readers to accept their need for human company, and to waste no time in seeking it. He’s an intelligent man, and he offers his message without pandering to emotions or trying to create a self-help text. This is a wise, scholarly and humane attempt to connect. Doctors, teachers and those experiencing isolation will find guidance and support in these pages.
Everyone needs some support.Vivek Murthy
Other timely insightful works exploring isolation and discussing how to reestablish social connections include Loneliness by John T. Cacioppo, Friendship by Lydia Denworth, and Social Chemistry by Marissa King.