‘The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness’

Dr Vivek H Murthy, 19th surgeon general of the United States under the Barack Obama administration, on the necessity of fostering connections at the workplace, the impact of technology on loneliness and why one doesn’t need a medical degree to address the problem.

Written by Asad Ali | Updated: April 29, 2018 6:00:21 am
Vivek Murthy, loneliness The more we shift from speaking on the phone to texting and from having an in-person conversation to emailing someone down the hall, the more layers we place between ourselves and others: Dr Vivek H Murthy

When Dr Vivek H Murthy spoke of the role of the workplace in addressing loneliness in his September 2017 Harvard Business Review article, it found instant resonance across the world. In this email interview, he speaks of the connection between loneliness and violence, of the pervasiveness of loneliness across the world and why in this age of insta-connection, technology isolates us more than ever. Edited excerpts:

What is loneliness and how would you say the definition has changed over time?
Loneliness is a subjective state where one feels isolated and socially disconnected. It is not defined by the number of friends you have or the number of people around you. You can have thousands of friends on social media and hundreds of people around you and still feel lonely.

At what point in the history of medicine do you think loneliness became an actual recognisable condition?
People have been experiencing loneliness for thousands of years. However, society is just starting to recognise how prevalent loneliness is and the profound effect loneliness has on our health. In the medical profession as well, there needs to be greater awareness about the health impact of loneliness.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, you talked about workplace loneliness and how connections must be forged with co-workers. But many people want to keep their work and private lives separate. How does one balance that?
When our colleagues understand more about our values, aspirations and experiences, they have a greater basis for appreciation and common connection. Having strong social connections at work doesn’t mean that your work colleagues need to know everything about your personal life nor does it mean they have to be your best friends. But connection is strengthened when people know each other as whole people and not just for their professional skills.

Are there specific countries or demographies that you feel have shown a greater propensity for loneliness?
Many countries across the world are experiencing high levels of loneliness. Loneliness rates in the United States are particularly high. It is worth noting that communities where people live the longest — known as Blue Zones — are characterised by strong social connections.

The general perception is that loneliness affects old people. How far do you feel that notion has been proven wrong in recent years?
The elderly are certainly at risk for loneliness, especially in countries like the United States, where a large proportion of older Americans are living alone and struggling with chronic illness. But it has become very clear from multiple survey studies that loneliness is affecting people of all demographics. People across the age spectrum, including children, are experiencing high rates of loneliness despite the fact that we are so connected by technology.

Our dependence on technology is often said to be a prime reason behind increased loneliness…
There are a number of reasons why rates of loneliness are growing in many parts of the world. Geographic mobility has increased, leading more people to move away from home and live separately from family and friends. Second, while I am a firm believer in technology when applied in the right manner, social media has led far too many people to substitute online connections for offline connections. Our cities are filled with people with thousands of friends on Facebook and LinkedIn who feel profoundly alone. The more we shift from speaking on the phone to texting and from having an in-person conversation to emailing someone down the hall, the more layers we place between ourselves and others.

The nature of work is also evolving in a way that crowds out our sustaining relationships. In our constantly connected culture, work is increasingly spilling into evenings, weekends, and vacation time — constraining time that was previously reserved for family and friends. Even in the office, people sit in open-plan workspaces, but everyone is staring at a computer or attending task-oriented meetings where opportunities to connect on a human level
are scarce.

Is there a relationship between loneliness and violence?
Loneliness causes stress, and long-term stress leads to more frequent elevations of a key stress hormone, cortisol. Chronic stress can also hijack your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which governs decision making, planning, emotional regulation, analysis, and abstract thinking. This has implications for conflict. As emotional well-being declines, our capacity for dialogue and understanding deteriorates and conflict proliferates. Addressing conflict and discord around the world will require us to address the emotional well-being of all people, including our leaders.

You have talked about battling loneliness as a child. What advice would you offer to shy children and their parents?
As a child, I was very shy and had a tough time making friends. I was too ashamed to confess my loneliness to my family even though I knew they loved me unconditionally. There is a stigma associated with loneliness. To admit you are lonely feels like admitting you are not worthy of being loved. I want people to know that if you are lonely, you are not the only one. And if you aren’t lonely, there is a strong chance that someone you know is. The reality is this: the world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. It is up to each of us to do what we can in our families, workplaces, schools, and social organisations to rebuild the strong social connections that are the foundation of a healthy, strong society. You don’t need a medical degree to address loneliness. You only need the ability to be present, the willingness to listen, and a heart full of compassion.

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