Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th U.S. Surgeon General under the Obama administration, had one of the most important and visible jobs in the nation, yet as a young boy he was one of the loneliest. He was born in England to immigrant parents from India. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and Yale School of Medicine. While in Washington, Murthy traveled from remote fishing villages in Alaska to American Indian reservations in Oklahoma and to schools, community centers and workplaces across the country to hear firsthand about citizens’ struggles, hopes and triumphs. He worked tirelessly to bring attention to addiction issues as a chronic illness. Murthy has always focused on the importance of creating a culture of prevention, grounded in physical fitness, nutrition and emotional well-being.
After leaving the White House, Murthy has focused on chronic stress and isolation as prevalent problems that have implications for public health, productivity and happiness. He is an outspoken voice for emotional well-being and attention to what he calls the loneliness public health crisis which is partly created by the workplace.
You might think with all the electronic devices at our fingertips that loneliness is the last thing workers would suffer from. But research supports Murthy’s premise that loneliness is taking a toll on worker physical and mental health. Social connection is linked to a 50% drop in risk of early death. Studies show that 40% of wage earners feel isolated at work. Yet, employees who feel they belong are happier and healthier than coworkers who feel excluded. Plus, they receive twice as many raises and are 18 times more likely to be promoted. A nationwide survey of close to 1,800 full-time workers by BetterUp found that employees with a high sense of belonging take 75% fewer sick days than employees who feel excluded. These sick days equate to almost $2.5 million worth of lost productivity each year, per 10,000 workers.
Murthy’s new book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, due out this spring, describes how loneliness has become a global epidemic. I had the honor of sitting down with the former Surgeon General to ask him some questions about this public health crisis.
Bryan Robinson: Thank you, Dr. Murthy, for taking time to talk with Thrive Global. Let’s start with what led you to write this book.
Dr. Vivek Murthy: During my time as Surgeon General when I was traveling around the country I heard many stories about substance abuse and addiction, violence, chronic illness and depression and anxiety that had stories of loneliness behind them. Over time, I came to realize that loneliness was far more common than I thought. As I delved more deeply into the issue and started to understand the science behind loneliness, I came to see that loneliness has consequences that go beyond just feeling bad. It is associated with a reduction in lifespan and a higher risk of heart disease, dementia and depression and anxiety. It also has a profound effect on our health and affects how we show up in the workplace, school and our communities.
Robinson: I read somewhere that loneliness is the equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day? Is that correct?
Murthy: This is research that Julianne Holt-Lunstad conducted at Brigham Young University. She found that the mortality impact of loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It was, in fact, greater than the mortality impact of obesity or sedentary living. The issues we focus on so often in public health, and rightly so, such as tobacco use, obesity and exercise are so important for our health. What she was pointing out was that it may be the case that loneliness is important as well, and we need to think about it as a public health issue.
Robinson: I would imagine that the average person doesn’t understand that loneliness has a physical component to it. Would you agree?
Murthy: I think that’s right. When most people think about loneliness they think about feelings, but they don’t recognize it’s exceedingly common. But because of the stigma associated with loneliness, there are people who struggle who don’t talk about it and have trouble admitting to themselves that they’re lonely. As a child, I struggled with it. One of the reasons I never told my parents 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.
Robinson: Some business people reading this interview might say, “I feel lonely, but I don’t want anybody to know. I don’t want people to think something’s wrong with me because most people are not lonely.” So you’re saying part of the epidemic is that people are living lonely lives of quiet desperation and can’t admit it?
Murthy: Whenever we struggle with a problem that we can’t share, it further isolates us. 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: (1) the data shows that many people in your workplace are probably struggling with loneliness and (2) that loneliness comes with consequences, not just for social interaction but concrete outputs that an organization cares about such as productivity and creativity.
Robinson: What would you tell the skeptic who says I have all the electronic devices at my fingertips? I’ve got my cell phone, laptop and I-pod. I can text, tweet and email. I’m not lonely. I’m more connected than ever before. How do you reconcile today’s connection through technology with being lonely?
Murthy: People who struggle with loneliness know it inside. They don’t have to be convinced that loneliness is a challenge. I’ve seen this in the thousands of people I’ve spoken with over the years. There’s a visceral recognition in their eyes when this topic comes up because they’ve either experienced it themselves or have seen it among people they love. There can be an assumption that because you’re virtually connected through social media, email or text that somehow that protects you from loneliness. Sometimes it can, but not always. What matters when it comes to loneliness is the quality of your connections with people. Technology can sometimes be a quality connection, and sometimes it can detract from quality connection. It can lead us to substitute lower quality interactions from what used to be higher quality in-person interactions. The kind of conversations you have via text are different qualitatively from the conversations you have in person or on the phone when you can hear someone’s voice and understand their tone, feelings and intentions. So as we think about technology, I don’t think it’s right to blame technology for the challenges we’re facing with loneliness or that the solution is to get rid of technology. What we have to do is to be more judicious of how we use technology. Part of that involves creating sacred spaces in our lives when we are fully present with people without technology. When I was Surgeon General, my son was born. And I tried very hard to be sure I was home to do dinner and a bedtime routine for our son. There was one moment in the middle of the bedtime routine when I had taken my phone out and was flipping through my inbox for messages. There was no urgency behind that; it was more habit. And my wife looked up and said, “Do you really need to be doing that right now?” I was glad she did because there was no reason to be distracting myself from my the precious time with my family. Bringing our devices to the table when we’re having dinner or checking our social media feed while we’re talking to loved ones has become a common habit. We buy into the myth of multitasking—that we can do all these things and still be fully present. But the truth is, we can’t. When it comes to technology, we have to be mindful of the impact it has on our relationships and carve out spaces when we’re interacting with people without technology present and focus on how we can use technology to enhance our connections with people.
Robinson: So I understand you meditate daily, as do I. Would you say that meditation is an antidote to loneliness?
Murthy: Meditation can settle your mind and allow you to reflect and experience peace and solitude which we often don’t get when we’re constantly surrounded by information streaming from our devices. When it comes to loneliness, the foundation for connecting with others is a strong connection with ourselves. 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.
Robinson: Some people might be confused about the difference between solitude and loneliness. Would you speak to that?
Murthy: Solitude—being alone or isolated—is about being physically alone; it’s an objective phenomenon, based on the number of people around you. But loneliness is a subjective term about how you feel about your connection. I might have one person around me but not feel lonely at all because I feel a deep connection to myself and that person. Or I could have one hundred people around me and feel profoundly lonely which happens to many people. We could ensure that people are interacting with others all day long, but that doesn’t mean we will reduce loneliness. The answer to how companies can address loneliness isn’t pulling people together for a daily happy hour or the annual company party or picnic. We have to help people connect more deeply with themselves and give them opportunities to connect with others in deeper, more substantial ways. We all have a desire to be seen, to know we matter and to feel loved. That’s part of being human. Sometimes you can go through conversations at work and exchange pleasantries but never get below the surface to see coworkers for who they are. Not just as somebody who has great skills at Microsoft Excel or the Bryson Strategy but as a mother or father or a concerned community member—even who might be struggling with a family illness at home. It’s when we get into the deeper levels of sharing and understanding one another that we build strong connections. Those connections are the antidote to loneliness. So the question for people in the workplace is how to create environments that allow for that type of deeper sharing. That doesn’t mean you have to divulge every aspect of your life. What it does mean is that we acknowledge when we come to work, that we come as a whole person, not just as a skill set, but as human beings who have concerns, worries, joys and a whole life outside work. When we can show up more fully as those people and share those dimensions of our lives with each other, we can strengthen connections. And that ultimately helps individual workers and the organization.
Robinson: What do you foresee as possible solutions to the public health crisis around loneliness?
Murthy: One is carving out time to be fully present with people in our lives on a regular basis. That could be making sure family dinner is done free of technology or talking with good friends when we’re not distracted by our cell phones. The second thing is service, being helpful. Service is a powerful door out of loneliness whether it’s helping a colleague at work or volunteering for a cause in the community. We not only forge a connection with another person in that moment but remind ourselves that we have value and worth to add to society which is powerful and helpful in strengthening our connection to self.
Robinson: How did we get here, to an epidemic of loneliness?
Murthy: Loneliness, while it’s a problem in modern society, is not new. We’ve been struggling with it for centuries now. But there are factors in modern society that are contributors. The increased mobility in modern days means we can travel for work and move place to place for new jobs which has a lot of benefits. But it also means we leave communities behind every time we make that move. The nature of work has also spilled over into our evenings, weekends and vacations. The time we’re home is often diluted by work emails, messages and conference calls that can challenge the quality of our connections. Building a more connected society is about returning to who we were ultimately designed to be—beings who are connected to and need one another. We evolved over thousands of years to rely on each other. Strong social connections were essential to our survival. So when we experience connection, it feels like home. It feels good. If we are committed to designing our lives—technology, layout of cities, the nature of work, schools and communities—to foster a stronger connection, then I believe we can create a more connected world which is less divided and healthier. That’s what ultimately gives me hope.