If I told you that I read a book about loneliness and really enjoyed it, you might think I was insane. Americans don’t like loneliness. As an introvert, I agree with Susan Cain’s assessment that our culture is more inclined to favor the proclivities of our extrovert friends. As a result, the idea of loneliness for Americans is almost taboo. I mean, if you are lonely, it raises the awful question as to why? Who wants to answer that? Nobody. At least, for many years of my own life, I know that I didn’t.
But Vivek Murthy, M.D., our once and current Surgeon General wants us to answer that question both individually and collectively. He wants us to answer it because he has seen the impact that loneliness can have on his individual patients and the consequences that those individual stories–played out millions of times over–has on our system of public health. In Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr. Murthy argues that loneliness is a huge social and medical problem but one that has a solution.
In the book, Dr. Murthy traces the evolutionary reasons that loneliness has such an effect on human beings. He argues quite convincingly that society has somewhat misdiagnosed the condition. While many of us fear that our loneliness suggests that there is something wrong with or undesirable about us, Dr. Murthy suggests that we instead ought to think of loneliness more like other biological conditions. He explains that our bodies are wired for connection with other humans because those connections have throughout our history been so closely associated with our survival. Thus, when we feel lonely, it is our body’s signal that we need connection much like the feelings of hunger or thirst indicate we need food and water.
Unlike hunger and thirst, however, Dr. Murthy explains that many of us tend to see loneliness as a sign that there is something wrong with or bad about us. This is where things break down for many of us because it can cause us to retreat, self-isolate, and lead to even worse conditions, including depression, anxiety, and even high blood pressure or other physical consequences. As a result, though loneliness is common–pervasive even–and normal–the very byproduct of our biology–we humans get tangled in it because we see it is abnormal and the product of some character flaw.
I got caught in this tangle myself. When I started my law practice, I had returned home after seven years away at school. At the time, I was focused on billing hours like any good associate should be and growing my new family. I didn’t make much of an effort to make friends and neglected reaching out and sharing my life with the ones I had. Though on a subconscious level I knew that I wanted more of a social life, I didn’t want to face the issue because I was worried that I was lonely because there was something wrong with me.
Unable to let myself think critically about these issues, I let myself believe the stories that I “didn’t fit in” and “wasn’t good at making friends.” After a period of depression, I was forced to reckon with these ideas and you know what I found out? I found out that I didn’t fit in and that was exactly what helped me make friends. I realized that it was my lack of effort and my disconnection with myself that caused my loneliness. Meditation helped me connect with and accept myself. I started showing up and reaching out and soon realized that I was good at making friends and being one because I was good at being myself.
Dr. Murthy, too, shares his own experiences with loneliness and captures the stories of many others who have successfully faced it. In many cases, he relates how many of those people (like himself) experienced deeply troubling times of loneliness but used their experiences to create and foster connections that served a wider community of people. In some cases, people created communities–whether online or in-person–that did not exist before. I hope that you read the book for yourself because each story is covered with a grace that can’t be captured in a single blog post. The pattern that emerges from reading them all, however, is this: loneliness can be addressed by accepting it as normal, looking inside yourself to heal, and then reaching out to build connections.
The past year has taken a toll on all of us and has done nothing to improve the social and public health problem of loneliness. If anything is to be gained from this, though, I hope it is acceptance of the magnitude of the problem that loneliness presents and a recognition of how solvable it is. We Americans pride our individualism but we are humans first and our human biology tells us we need each other. As we try to make our way out of a global pandemic that has forced us to socially distance, I am at least hopeful that our Surgeon General is someone who deeply understands loneliness on a personal, social, and scientific level. For, if we begin to understand the issue of loneliness, I believe that as a society we can heal and then begin to forge the new connections we need to rebuild, progress, and thrive.
If you are feeling lonely, monitor your reaction to it and your thoughts about it. This short video offers some ways to help you do that.