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Biden’s Pick For Surgeon General

Up Close and Personal With Dr. Vivek Murthy

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Dr. Vivek Murthy, Biden’s pick for our new U.S. Surgeon General

Are things lovelier and sweeter the second time around as Frank Sinatra sang in the 1960s? Time will tell now that President-elect Joe Biden nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy as his U.S. Surgeon General. Murthy reprises his role as Surgeon General under the Obama Administration from 2014 to 2017. Murthy also chairs Biden’s Covid-19 Advisory Board and has been a long-time advisor to Biden during the pandemic.

If confirmed by the Senate, Murthy would play a key role in the administration’s response to a pandemic that has killed more than 283,743 Americans as of December 8, 2020. “In this moment of crisis, where we face so many intersecting health challenges, I am grateful for this opportunity to help end the pandemic,” Murthy said. “Every day, I will dedicate myself to the care and health of the American people, lifting up facts and science, so we can rebuild and heal together.” 

Who Is Vivek Murthy?

Murthy was born in England to immigrant parents from India. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and Yale School of Medicine. While serving under the Obama Administration, he traveled the country, hearing stories about substance abuse and addiction, violence, chronic illness and depression and anxiety that had stories of loneliness behind them. Over time, he came to realize loneliness was far more common than he thought. As he delved more deeply into the issue and started to understand the science behind loneliness, he recognized it has consequences that go beyond just feeling bad—a reduction in lifespan and a higher risk of heart disease, dementia, depression and anxiety. He also learned it has a profound effect on how we show up in the workplace, school and community. After leaving the White House, the former Surgeon General focused on chronic stress and isolation as prevalent problems that have implications for public health, productivity and happiness. He chronicled many case studies of loneliness and solutions for public health in his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

Murthy’s passion for the loneliness problem is personal. If confirmed, he will have one of the most visible jobs in the nation, yet having struggled with it as a young boy, he was one of the loneliest. Because of the stigma associated with loneliness, many workers who struggle don’t talk about it—even have trouble admitting it to themselves—which further isolates them. “One of the reasons I never told my parents,” Murthy admits, “was there’s a feeling among many—and certainly it was true for me when I was young—that if you’re lonely, you’re somehow not likable. Or you’re not capable of being loved. And nobody wants to feel that way about themselves. I certainly didn’t as a child. Admitting I was lonely was hard. I think that’s true for many people.”

Loneliness On The Job

Scientists contend that loneliness is a serious public health problem impacting health, well-being and longevity, especially with increased remote working, social distancing and quarantine restrictions. One-third of Americans report feeling lonely sometimes. And a 2020 study by Blind gauged emotional well-being due to social distancing in terms of loneliness, anxiety and productivity levels from 10,107 responses. A total of 52.9% of employees answered yes to increased loneliness since starting to work from home. Broken down by company, 52.3% of employees at Apple, 50% at Intel and 58.1% at Facebook reported feeling increasingly lonely. 

A body of research links loneliness with a truncated lifespan and a higher risk of heart disease, dementia, depression and anxiety. A landmark research study published here in 2010, led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University, found that the mortality impact of loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And a study published here in September 2020 analyzed data from 4,112 adults, showing that prolonged loneliness influences the onset of type 2 diabetes. It also suggested that the pandemic lockdowns could compound people’s vulnerability during the pandemic if the loneliness continues for some time.

In a recent study scientists wanted to identify the psychological and environmental factors that lead to loneliness in different age groups. Consistent predictors across all age groups were lower levels of empathy and compassion, smaller social networks, not having a spouse or a partner and greater sleep disturbances. Lower social self-efficacy and higher anxiety were tied to worse loneliness in all age decades, except for 60-year-olds. Loneliness levels were highest among 20-year-olds who missed many life events that young people look forward to: graduations, weddings and college fun. Loneliness peaked among 40-year-olds and were lowest among 60 year-olds.

What Can Businesses Do?

Murthy is well aware of this discouraging body of research and has been an outspoken voice for emotional well-being and attention to what he calls a global public health epidemic, partly created by the workplace. He suggests businesses need to recognize that the loneliness epidemic affects their bottom line, and when employees can’t share that they’re lonely because of shame, it adds insult to injury.

“Whenever we struggle with a problem we can’t share, it further isolates us,” he explained. “In the workplace, there is a growing body of data from the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton School of Business that this is really common among people in the workplace. When workers are lonely, it takes a toll on their engagement which in turn impacts their productivity and creativity. It also affects how others see them in a negative way. If you’re a member or leader of an organization, it makes sense to recognize a couple of things: the data shows that many people in your workplace are probably struggling with loneliness and that loneliness comes with consequences, not just for social interaction but concrete outputs that an organization cares about such as productivity and creativity.”

What Can We As Individuals Do?

Dr. Murthy’s answer to the loneliness crisis is self-examination, meditation and the importance of human connection. “When it comes to loneliness, the foundation for connecting with others is a strong connection with ourselves,” Murthy said. “We have to be comfortable with ourselves and confident that we have value and a sense of worth. One of the things that helps us do that is to spend time with ourselves and to be comfortable with solitude. Solitude and meditation are times when the mind connects the dots with what’s happening in our lives, part of processing our world. When we don’t have reflective time for ourselves, we bury a lot of the challenging issues and don’t deal with them. It can detract from our emotional well-being when we don’t spend enough time in solitude. Meditation calms me and helps me put things into perspective and to be more present during my interactions with others.”

Murthy says it’s important to carve out time to be fully present with people in our lives on a regular basis. When we experience connection, he describes it as feeling like home. And when we’re committed to designing our lives—technology, layout of cities, the nature of work, schools and communities—to foster a stronger connection, he believes we can create a more connected world which is less divided and healthier. He says that’s what ultimately gives him hope, and that image for the future can give all of us hope.

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