Conor Dubin: “Find Empathy, for yourself and everyone around you”

Get Grateful — I truly believe once you get alone in nature, away from the computer screen and bills and whatever distractions consume your life and begin to engage your environment with your five senses, you will be overcome with a sense of gratitude. (Hopefully you don’t have to commit the ultimate crime of murdering a fly […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Get Grateful — I truly believe once you get alone in nature, away from the computer screen and bills and whatever distractions consume your life and begin to engage your environment with your five senses, you will be overcome with a sense of gratitude. (Hopefully you don’t have to commit the ultimate crime of murdering a fly to get there) Our day to day cycle can lead some to a feeling of emptiness or being overwhelmed and with that frustrated feeling of yearning I mentioned before. It can even break your will if you let it. Gratitude is just the opposite of that. It is a feeling of being full and complete. Of having enough and being enough and looking at the world around you with awe, wonder and excitement, of seeing life as the greatest gift of all.

As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’, I had the pleasure to interview Conor Dubin. He began his career in acting before turning to writing, and ultimately developing the idea for the children’s book series, “Kate’s First Mate”. Conor recognized how much the world has changed much since he grew up, but children’s books, specifically those with a relationship narrative, have not caught up. After spending years researching the lonelieness epidemic, and speaking with marriage counselors, family therapists, and psychologists he wrote“Kate’s First Mate”. He wrote the book series to give parents a tool to begin the conversation with their children about choosing healthy partnerships.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

I started writing my book series after a phone call with a friend one night several years ago. She was going through a break-up and I felt sad for her. I started examining my own life and where I was with regards to relationships and I wasn’t particularly happy either. I started wondering if the pit falls and lessons I had learned along the way in relationships would be helpful teaching tools for others and I started researching the ways we teach children about relationships. It turns out, we don’t! There are really no stories for boys and the only story we teach girls is a fantastical princess narrative where the girl is always an orphan with no real passions or interests in life, she is surrounded by people that are jealous of her or competitive with her and there is usually an old person trying to do her harm. I figured there was an opportunity to change the narrative. I set out to write a series that would discuss healthy partnerships and the power of a choice directed life. As the concept progressed and the ideas matured, I began exploring ways of tackling the subjects of fear, love, empathy and gratitude. I never really set out to write a children’s book series, but as I continued to write, I realized all of the areas we are missing the mark when it comes to teaching children these important life lessons. I was also writing during a time when medical professionals were identifying a “Loneliness Epidemic” and I believe that our unwillingness or inability to teach children about all the necessary ingredients to healthy partnerships may have something to do with the growing loneliness epidemic in adults.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was at a friend’s house one time and I had brought a copy of my book “Kate’s First Mate” for her son. I didn’t know but my friend’s niece was invited over for dinner as well and she worked as a nanny to Stephen Speilberg’s grandchildren. She saw the book and said “Oh I love that book. I read it to the kids all the time”. She didn’t know I had written it. That was a fun and exciting moment.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

This may not be what you are looking for, but it is the first thing I thought of. What really lead me down the path of wanting to write about / tackle the problem of loneliness is an experience I had one day while dealing with a particularly difficult time in my life. I remember not having left my bed for about three days and I wasn’t answering my phone either. There was a lot of life catching up to me all at once and I remember feeling anxious and alone and exhausted. I also remember a fly that had spent those three days buzzing around my room and would frequently land on my nose. I spent those days trying to sleep but that fly just kept landing on my nose. It wouldn’t leave me alone. Finally, my frustration got the better of me and I grabbed a newspaper, rolled it up and cornered the fly against my bedroom window. SWAT. As I watched his splattered body drip down the glass of my window, I started to cry. An uncontrollable sobbing took over my body. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized the only thing that had paid any attention to me for those three days, was that fly, and I killed him! I was horrified. This was my first glimpse at the real meaning of gratitude, the way I had come to understand it until that point, and the way I understood it every day after. I learned in that moment that I had the capacity, given the right circumstances, to be overwhelmingly grateful for the attention of a fly, and I would discover later, I could feel that gratitude for most anything. That lesson has stayed with me since. And I do know how ridiculous this sounds, but here is the thing, I don’t care! If you are ever fortunate enough to have a perspective shift that profound in your life, two things will happen, 1) You will never ever forget that moment and 2) Every fly you find in your home from that point on will be ceremoniously escorted through an open door or window with the utmost gratitude.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My next book in the series is about gratitude and the lessons I learned from that memory and other experiences. It explores our ability to feel gratitude, how we lose it, how we get it back and how we keep it and nurture it. It also examines how great our capacity to feel gratitude is.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

Anyone’s authority on the subject of loneliness is really just a product of their capacity to feel or have felt it. I have been researching this topic for about 12 years, even before loneliness was identified as an epidemic. My research into the lessons we teach children about partnerships was inspired by the broken relationships I have seen in my adult life, the sky-rocketing divorce rate in our country and the effect that will have on the children in those families. I looked into the health effects of loneliness, both the physical and psychological. I spoke with marriage counselors, family therapists and psychologists when working on “Kate’s First Mate” to identify the pitfall and hurdles they were seeing people struggle with. It seems the cure for loneliness isn’t necessarily just to be around people. There are people that seem to be surrounded by love and support, and yet, they are deeply lonely and depressed. Conversely, there are people that seem to have a very difficult life but are full of gratitude. I also address the concept of loneliness in the book series. “Journey Through Jellyfish Island”, the second book in the series, is about getting lost, getting caught in the fog, facing fear and choosing your way out of a dark place. I believe loneliness is a state of mind and I believe gratitude can change that state of mind.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

I have a computer file on my desktop and every time I find an article on the effects of loneliness, I copy it into that file. I have 30 articles last time I checked. An article from “The Independent” in 2018 claimed that new research has found “loneliness may double a person’s risk of dying from cardiovascular disease”. They also reported that people who felt lonely were three times as likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Another article from the 2017 Health & Science section of the Washington Post reported that “People who say that they’re lonely are more likely to have dementia and inflammation, and to die prematurely. And in research presented to the American Psychological Association …, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University posited that loneliness is a bigger public health risk than obesity.”

Another recent study by a team at King’s College London “reveals measuring feelings of loneliness can be a strong predictor of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. Researchers examined data on more than 4,100 adults over the age of 50. The British team suggests that loneliness doesn’t just have a psychological effect, it damages us biologically too. They theorize constantly feeling lonely impacts the systems which control stress and, over time, this can increase your risk for diabetic issues.”

But cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia and inflammation are just the apparent physical changes in the body. In a 2019 article from NBC it was reported that U.S. death rates from suicides, alcohol and drug overdoses reached an all-time high. It is the effect we don’t see that is harder to recognize, people that are feeling lonely and in despair and turn to drugs and alcohol to ease that pain and all of the health ramifications of substance abuse. And now with Covid restrictions, I can only imagine that this loneliness epidemic is getting worse. I do think it is important to note that this epidemic has been identified as far back as 2017. Blaming these societal issues on Covid would miss the mark entirely and any Covid related remedies would further obfuscate any real solutions which are greatly needed.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

Drug and alcohol abuse damage any society just by their presence. High drug use and drug abuse in areas are correlated with higher crime rates in those areas. And if drugs are being used to cope with the pain of loneliness, this can create a desperate environment. Loneliness has been categorized as an epidemic, a term usually reserved for diseases, and like a disease, loneliness can spread. Feelings of despair, anxiety and depression, when pervasive enough in any society, can affect the well-being of everyone in that society.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

Imagine you are very hungry, you haven’t eaten all day and all you want is a big juicy hamburger and then someone holds up a picture of a big juicy hamburger, like, the perfect hamburger, even better than the one you had planned on in your mind… do you feel full? Do you even feel less hungry? I would venture to say you probably feel even hungrier and a little frustrated. This is the trick social media plays on us. We are longing for companionship and interaction, and then someone posts a picture of companionship and interaction, maybe they are on vacation, maybe they are surrounded by family, maybe it’s even a better representation than we had imagined it could look like, so we feel more alone. Social media is never going to make people feel less lonely, in fact, it will only make people feel more lonely if they are in that state of mind. The reason isn’t that social media is creating the problem, it is exacerbating the problem. I think the first reason this problem exists is that we assume pictures of things can replace our need for the real experience of things and we don’t realize that those pictures are making our need even stronger. The second reason is that loneliness is largely a state of mind that we are unwittingly funneled into just by the nature of our society. Work can be stressful, meeting daily obligations and paying bills and all of the things we need to worry about. We can feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders and it’s ours alone to bear and that can be very isolating. This environment exhausts most people and they feel like they don’t have anything left to give at the end of the day. When you feel like it’s you against the world, or that so many people depend on you, you can start to feel all alone. And most exhausted and drained people do at the end of the day is scroll through Facebook or Instagram or watch television to toon out. They don’t realize that from this lonely and empty place, they are exacerbating their need for interaction by consuming images of it. In short, it’s a choice. It’s just a choice we never realized we were making. We played by the rules, paid our bills, payed attention to all the popular stuff, and in making those choices, we chose also to be emptied out and isolated by days end. I think it’s the not realizing that loneliness is a state of mind and that we have chosen that state of mind by default, by not making any other choice, that has helped the epidemic to persist. While I was writing this, Van Halen’s song “Give to Live” came on. There is a lyric “if you want love, you’ve got to give a little”, that I think it is fitting here. It reminds me of another popular saying, “be the change you wish to see”. What I am getting at is it takes giving and effort to feel love and companionship, and those are two very hard things to muster when your day has left you empty and drained. Realizing that your state of mind is a choice is the first step to real empowerment, because you can always choose another state of mind, ideally one that leaves you feeling full and complete.

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

1) Punch out. Get alone. Like really alone. Not alone in a room in your house or at a coffee shop by yourself, I’m talking about a solo camping trip in the woods alone. It may sound strange but if you have ever felt very alone and depressed, you know that just by being around people isn’t going to change that. You end up feeling alone in mixed company which can feel worse. There is a reason for that. Loneliness is a state of mind and because the way you feel is out of balance with your environment, (.ie you feel very alone yet you are now more “connected” than ever before) this paradox can create that frustrating sense of yearning. I don’t think anyone can address their own loneliness until they first go be alone and really sit with it. I find that being alone in nature is the first step to healing the loneliness in me. Sometimes I will go camping alone in the mountains. Just me and a fire and my notebook. There is an enormous sense of peace and calmness when you are feeling lonely, and then you go out in nature by yourself. It’s almost like all of the noise quiets down and you start to appreciate the small things. Most importantly, you can start to address your feelings as you are not surrounded by the emptying distractions of life.

2) KISS the earth. KISS is a popular acronym for Keep It Simple Stupid. What I mean by this is, slow down and get very simple. Life has gotten too complicated. All of these technological advances in our daily lives, while vastly important, have led to a very distracted population with a short attention span. The picture of the hamburger vs eating the hamburger example, highlights an interesting concept. The picture elicits frustration because you cannot taste, or touch or smell the hamburger in the picture and that is exactly what you want to do. What I mean by get simple is really take the time to taste, touch, smell, hear and feel the things in your environment. If there is a body of water, jump in. Social media only engages our sense of sight (sound if you’re watching a video) We need to engage all of our senses to begin to reconnect to ourselves. It may seem like an incredibly simple and impossibly minor thing, to just stop and listen to a bird singing or appreciate the way a leaf on a tree feels, or smell a campfire under the stars at night, but it really works and helps to ground us. The Daily Mail recently published an article citing that “awe walks” or walks in nature where you soak up the details around you, will increase emotions of compassion and gratitude. The Japanese call it “shinrin yoku” or forest bathing, taking the forest in with your senses. If you think any of the new video games or MMORP’s (Multi-Million Online Role Payer Games) are highly advanced and chalk full of mind-blowing technology, take a look at nature! It is vastly more complex than any gadget around today and it’s everywhere. Video games only engage two senses, nature engages all of them. I recently watched a baseball game on television during Covid 19. As no one was allowed to attend stadium games, the league put cardboard cut outs of people sitting in the stands to make the stadium appear to have attendance. The television network even went to the trouble of adding fake cheers when players got a hit, and fake applause as well. I sat in a room of people watching and no one was phased. I was dumbfounded… now I know cardboard people don’t clap their hands or cheer, so either the network thinks I am an absolute idiot, or they have realized that engaging the senses of sound and sight are paramount to attracting and keeping our attention. The same is true to your own life. The more senses you can use in your environment, the more grounded and connected you will become. The more attention you will pay to the things that matter.

3) Get Grateful — I truly believe once you get alone in nature, away from the computer screen and bills and whatever distractions consume your life and begin to engage your environment with your five senses, you will be overcome with a sense of gratitude. (Hopefully you don’t have to commit the ultimate crime of murdering a fly to get there) Our day to day cycle can lead some to a feeling of emptiness or being overwhelmed and with that frustrated feeling of yearning I mentioned before. It can even break your will if you let it. Gratitude is just the opposite of that. It is a feeling of being full and complete. Of having enough and being enough and looking at the world around you with awe, wonder and excitement, of seeing life as the greatest gift of all.

4): Find Empathy, for yourself and everyone around you. Once gratitude is present in your life, you may notice that the things that were draining before aren’t as draining. You will have energy for people around you. Rather than being affected by someone else’s bad day or problems and wanting to distance yourself from them, you will have the capacity to hear, understand and feel in a way that won’t drain you. Pictures of someone’s awesome vacation on Facebook or Instagram won’t leave you with a sense of missing out, but a feeling of happiness for their experience. Empathy doesn’t have to be a negative thing, as in only feeling or understanding someone’s pain and sadness. You can also feel and experience and share in someone else’s happiness and joy. And be empathetic with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. We can be very harsh inner critics and empathy will help us to cut ourselves some slack. There are only two currencies in this world. They are not cash and gold. They are time and attention. That’s why we say “spend” time and “pay” attention. When you begin to understand your time and attention as currencies that are more scarce than money, you begin to choose more wisely who and what you spend these currencies on and you begin to recognize and be more thankful when others choose to spend them on you.

5): Punch Back In. If you can punch into work, you can punch into your relationships. Show up. Listen to your spouse or significant other if you have one, spend time with your children if you have some. Stop scrolling through old messages during conversations with friends and listen with a grateful and empathetic ear. Insist that those around you do the same. If you have to lead by example, so be it. But the goal here is to help others get to this place and ultimately learn how to show up for each other. Once you are open to the idea that the complexity and beauty of nature is all around you, you will soon realize that complex and beautiful people are all around you too. If you have an elderly relative in a nursing home or assisted living, go visit them if you can. When you arrive, you will see a familiar glow in their eye. That’s gratitude.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

What I am doing now by writing my children’s book series is the movement I am trying to inspire. I have talked a little bit about getting simple and taking the time for gratitude and I think sitting down and reading a book to a child is one of those moments when you begin to reconnect to what is important. I have been fortunate enough to do readings of my series all over the country and we always have a Q & A after. I am so inspired by the conversations I have with children around the concepts of gratitude, fear, empathy and partnership. I feel like I am part of a movement to introduce these concepts to children every time I do a school reading.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

My goal is to turn my book series into an animated television series and eventually an animated feature film. So anyone that has that vison would be a great breakfast date!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Web site:

Instagram @katesfirstmate

Facebook: Kate’s First Mate

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.