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Journalist Celeste Headlee: “Here Are 5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic”

Don’t put your phone down, put it away. Multiple studies have shown that the sight of a phone or computer, even in our peripheral vision, is very distracting to the brain. One study demonstrated that people who talked to each other while a phone sat on the table near them, even if that phone didn’t […]

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Don’t put your phone down, put it away. Multiple studies have shown that the sight of a phone or computer, even in our peripheral vision, is very distracting to the brain. One study demonstrated that people who talked to each other while a phone sat on the table near them, even if that phone didn’t ring or make noise, were more likely to think the other person was untrustworthy and unempathetic. The sight of your phone is having an impact on your mind, so put it out of sight.

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 Celeste Headlee. Celeste is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker and best-selling author of We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter and the upcoming Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving (March 2020, Harmony.) She is co-host of the new weekly series Retro Report on PBS and season three of the Scene on Radio podcast — MEN. Celeste serves as an advisory board member for Procon.org and The Listen First Project. Her TEDx Talk sharing 10 ways to have a better conversation has over 23 million total views to date.


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 was a professional opera singer who started doing radio as a day job. 20 years later, I’ve hosted national talk shows for NPR and PRI, and been on the BBC, CNN, PBS, NBC and a number of other networks. After all those years of interviewing all kinds of people, I did a TEDx talk in 2015 about how to have better conversations. That talk now has more than 23 million views, which tells me that the need for better conversation is felt globally. I wrote a book on the subject and now deliver keynotes and lead workshops worldwide, for companies like Apple, Google, United Airlines, BASF, Chobani, and Oracle, along with universities and non-profits.

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

That’s asking a lot. Journalism takes you to a lot of interesting places. One of the stories I like to tell is about covering a strike at General Motors in 2007. I arrived at the plant early in the morning and stood outside the gates waiting to talk to workers, but the police showed up and told me that if I stopped moving, they would ticket me for loitering and I had to carry my 35-pound equipment bag the whole time because otherwise it would be considered abandoned property. I did a number of updates for various NPR shows that day and as the day goes on, you hear my voice get more and more exhausted. By the time I was being interviewed for All Things Considered, I sound like I’m ready to pass out. It wasn’t fun at the time, but the memory makes me smile now.

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?

I was working on a story about goose-chasing dogs. Essentially, border collies were being trained to frighten Canada geese away from golf courses and parks, so that they didn’t leave a mess. (Canada geese are protected, but leave behind a whole lot of blackish-green poop.) I thought this would be a perfect radio story. I could get the sound of the geese honking and the dogs barking and lots of commotion that would make for great audio. When I finally set up a recording session and got to see the dog work, I was dismayed to find out that the collies didn’t bark at all. They frightened the birds with their intimidating stare and menacing (but silent) prowl. Frustrated, I traveled to a golf course that was also reportedly using the dogs, but arrived and discovered they were using plastic statues made to look like border collies. It was ridiculous. Not to mention that, when I hauled my equipment to a lake to get sound of Canada geese, I was chased and nearly attacked by an enormous swan. I got the story done, but it was not quite as I dreamed it would be.

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

My new book comes out in March of 2020. It’s called, “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.” It’s about our obsession with productivity and efficiency, how that obsession started in the workplace but has now infiltrated our homes and personal relationships, and how it has become toxic. I hope I can help people recognize the unhealthy habits they are pursuing and realize that those habits often make them unhappy, unhealthy, and less productive.

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

My research on loneliness came out of my research on conversation. Even a short 5–10 minute chat with another person can help relieve the symptoms of loneliness, so I’ve been very interested to understand why so many people consciously avoid conversations.

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?

1. First, we have solid research showing that being part of a healthy social group strengthens your immune system. Women with strong social networks are four times more likely to survive breast cancer, for example, than those who are isolated. Tests even show that wounds heal faster if you’re part of a healthy relationship at home.

2. Second, loneliness may not directly cause death, but it can lead to a shortened lifespan. Neuroscientist John Cacioppo said that isolation “leaves a loneliness imprint” on every cell in your body.

3. Finally, belongingness is a primal need for human beings. It is essential for our health. The primatologist Frans de Waal told me that survival without a group is hard for any animal and especially humans. To our animal brains, social isolation equates to increased risk of death.

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

Loneliness can be self-perpetuating. When you are lonely, your brain goes into fight-or-flight mode; it takes emergency measures. If you feel lonely, you are more likely to be cautious in social settings and to be defensive, since you are trying to protect your system from further injury that might be caused by a bad interaction. Ironically, that increases the chances that social interactions will be negative and possibly hostile, and that makes you feel more lonely. Rinse and repeat. Because we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, our communities are replete with people who are feeling suspicious of others. They are avoiding contact with friends and neighbors and the fabric of our communities is unraveling.

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.

We avoid conversations for a few reasons. The first is fear. Researchers have discovered that, even if most of our exchanges with others are positive, we are still afraid that a conversation MIGHT go bad. One scientist spent a year analyzing conversations between strangers and friends and colleagues and she discovered something important: people like you more than you think. People enjoy your company more than you think. It’s very common for people to think they are awkward in social situations, but research shows most people laugh and smile and take turns and gesture naturally. Good communication is a human being’s evolutionary superpower. You may not realize it, but you know how to do this. No need to be afraid.

We also sometimes avoid these interactions because we think email is more efficient. That’s rarely true. Email is often a time waster and very prone to miscommunication. Research also shows we are more likely to escalate conflict in email than over the phone.

There are a few more reasons that we are reluctant to engage others socially, all of them backed up by solid research. One: conversations can seem shallow. While you have a rich inner dialogue going on, we are much more polite and careful about what we say to others, so conversations rarely reveal our true feelings. Also, engaging someone else in conversation raises fears of rejection. What if you show interest in someone else but they aren’t interested in you?

Finally, conversations are challenging to your brain. That’s one of the reasons they’re so beneficial, but also they can wear you out.

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.

Start small. I always recommend talking to the cashiers and baristas and ride share drivers you encounter every day, partly because those conversations will be short, so you don’t have to fear getting stuck in an awkward exchange. Also, most service people are trained to be nice in conversation. So, there’s very little risk of a hostile interaction. Those short chats can have a big impact on your brain and your sense of well-being. One study showed that after a 10-minute conversation, most people perform better on a variety of cognitive tests. Chats on the phone or in person can also boost your serotonin levels, which will lift your mood.

Also, stop cutting people out of your life because you disagree on politics or religion or something else. It’s not only possible but quite healthy to maintain relationships with people whose views diverge from your own. Limiting our social circles to only those people who agree with us is one cause of our loneliness.

Next, use your phone as a phone. Text is simply no replacement for the human voice. Hearing a human voice has a special effect on the brain and the sound of a voice conveys all kinds of meaning to the person listening. We are evolutionarily primed to respond to other people that we see and hear. If you’re walking down the street and someone makes eye contact and smiles, even that small gesture can increase your sense of belonging. Spending time with other humans is very good for you, as long as you’re not simply sitting there staring at your phone.

And that leads to the last suggestion I have: don’t put your phone down, put it away. Multiple studies have shown that the sight of a phone or computer, even in our peripheral vision, is very distracting to the brain. One study demonstrated that people who talked to each other while a phone sat on the table near them, even if that phone didn’t ring or make noise, were more likely to think the other person was untrustworthy and unempathetic. The sight of your phone is having an impact on your mind, so put it out of sight.

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. 🙂

I’d like to get people to start scheduling social time the way they schedule hot yoga or cross fit. You can survive without intense exercise (although you’ll be healthier if you do it), but you can’t survive without social interaction. Social media is not a replacement for a conversation; it simply doesn’t have the same benefits for your physical and emotional health. I’d love to set aside a corner in every coffee shop in the world just for people who want to sit and chat for a little while. Maybe have a circle of benches in every public park.

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 🙂

Probably Amy Poehler. Her memoir was the best I’ve ever read and I’ve read a LOT of memoirs. I admire the heck out of her.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I have a blog at my website, celesteheadlee.com, and post often on Twitter (@CelesteHeadlee) and Instagram (@Celeste.Headlee)

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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