Well-Being//

The Surprising Impact of Loneliness on Our Well-being — In and Out of the Workplace

In a conversation for Thrive, Sarah Hurwitz — who served as Michelle Obama's head speechwriter — sits down with former surgeon general Vivek Murthy to talk about the far-reaching effects of loneliness and the steps we can take to find a deeper connection to life, and each other.

Shutterstock / Yuganov Konstantin
Shutterstock / Yuganov Konstantin

Sarah Hurwitz: You were the surgeon general; I was Michelle Obama’s head speechwriter. When we left the administration, neither of us went on to write some sexy political memoir. I wrote a book on Judaism. You’re writing a book on loneliness. Why did you decide to write this book?

Vivek Murthy: It was not the book I thought I was going to write. But I couldn’t shake the memory of all of these conversations I’d been having with people around the country, which started off as stories about addiction, or their concerns about obesity, or their worries about mental health. And they eventually found their way to this topic of loneliness. It wasn’t what people led with. No one came to me and said, “Hey, my name is John. I’m lonely.” Or, “I’m Jane, I’m lonely.” But often behind their stories were deep struggles with isolation and feeling alone in the face of economic challenges, struggles with illness, and uncertainty about the future.

As I delved into the data, I started to realize that loneliness was associated with a reduction in our lifespan that was similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. I realized that loneliness is associated with a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, anxiety. So the more I understood the science behind loneliness, the more I realized that loneliness is more than just a bad feeling. It has a profound impact on our health and how we show up in school, the workplace, and in our communities.

SH: I feel like I wrote my book for a similar reason. When you’re working in politics, nobody stands around the office water cooler saying, “Hey Bob, what do you think about God?” Or, “What does it mean to be human? What’s our purpose on Earth? What happens when we die?” You were looking at the story of addiction or depression, but the story underneath that was loneliness. And I think the story underneath our striving and our stress is often a spiritual story. Secular society has this vocabulary of happiness, success, wellness, achievement. It’s very consumer-oriented and market-oriented. But Judaism, which I started studying as an adult, offered a deeper vocabulary. It’s not “What do you need to be happy?”. It’s “What do you need to be fundamentally good? What do you need to lead a worthy life?”. And those are just different questions.

A lot of the world’s ancient religious traditions like Judaism have this deep wisdom that has been crowdsourced by millions of people over thousands of years about how to cope with the stresses and struggles of being human. And so I’m wondering, what do you think is the spiritual component of loneliness? And what does spirituality mean to you? 

VM: I’ve come to believe that all of us are a part of a universal energy, which I think of as a divine energy, which I call God. That means that God lives within you, and God lives within me and within everybody else and within all living beings. That doesn’t mean that we necessarily act in the purest form all the time. In a way, the energy of the divine is like electricity that pours through us. Electricity can be used to bring light to a home, but it can also be used to harm someone. And we have a choice over how we use that divine energy.

But I think when we experience divine energy in its purest form, we feel it in the form of love. And all of us have had moments where we experienced love, whether it’s in the context of a romantic relationship, or with a parent or a child or a friend. I think those moments of pure love are when we’re experiencing God. That is at the heart of so many of our religious traditions, including Hinduism, which I was brought up with. Life then becomes an effort to give and experience love more freely. And when we can do that, then we experience God. When we don’t do that, when fear blocks us from the true experience of love, then we feel disconnected from our divine energy and that causes pain and suffering. 

SH: I hear people talking about having a God-shaped hole in their lives. I had this God-shaped wall in the shape of an old man with a beard that controls everything. And I reject that, because it leads to these offensive mental gymnastics: If that God exists and is all-loving and all-powerful and all-knowing, then what about the Holocaust? Oh God didn’t do the Holocaust, people did, we have free will. OK, then what’s God doing all day? 

But once you disentangle God from being a guy who controls everything, you get Jewish thinkers who say that God is everything. You’re a God. I’m God. The idea that there’s a barrier between us is an illusion. So the homeless man you pass on the street — that man is a manifestation of the divine. [Martin] Buber [a renowned Jewish philosopher] says that God is what arises between two people in deep relation with each other. Mordecai Kaplan, another Jewish thinker, says that God is the process by which we become our highest, truest selves. 

At the same time, I relate to — and engage with — God as a “you.” My little tiny human heart and brain desire connection and relationship. 

VM: I don’t think it’s contradictory to have a conversation with God while still believing that God is the energy that runs throughout us all. Many faith traditions have this core belief at their center — that God is love, that God is in each of us. But for many people, what they have come to understand about their faith tradition are other teachings or traditions which they may perceive as morally problematic or inconsistent. And they’re not sure how to reconcile these troubling aspects of their religion with the core concepts that we’re talking about around love.

Image credits: (top) WHITE HOUSE POOL (ISP POOL IMAGES) / Getty Images, (bottom) Chuck Kennedy

SH: I think about how sometimes Jews read the Torah, which is our core sacred text, and they think, “This is immoral. This is a text that allows terrible things. This is a God that’s punishing people in these wildly disproportionate ways for minor things.” But it’s a 2,500-year-old document. 

Look at the original version of our constitution. It clearly stated that it’s totally fine to treat certain people as property — that’s evil. But we reinterpreted that document to get rid of the evil of slavery. Same with the Torah — we’ve spent 2,500 years reinterpreting it. We don’t stone people for not observing Shabbat anymore. But so often people make the mistake of taking these ancient documents literally, and that leads to violence, prejudice, bigotry.  

Switching topics a bit, one thing I wanted to ask you about is the role of technology and social media in loneliness and spirituality. 

VM: In the same way we think of medicines as substances that can both cure an infection, but can also create serious side effects — we have to approach technology and ask, how is technology affecting our emotional well-being and our relationships with each other? And if it is not contributing to stronger relationships, if it’s not giving us a place where we can actually be vulnerable and create relationships based on honest, open conversation, then it’s not necessarily serving us in the best way possible. That doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t have value. Email and text are creating extraordinary efficiencies, and social media as a tool for rapidly disseminating information is extraordinary. But we have to weigh those pros against the consequences technology has for our connections with each other and with ourselves. 

SH: I think about social media through the Jewish lens of Shabbat, which is the Jewish tradition of taking off between Friday night and Saturday night. It’s a day of rest. You don’t work, you don’t use any kind of screen, you don’t buy anything. You don’t produce, you don’t consume. The Torah says very little about Shabbat. It basically says, don’t kindle fire, don’t work, and don’t leave your place. I think of that in a metaphorical way: We constantly use technology to leave our place.

It’s like, “Oh, I’m starting to feel anxious, I’m going to watch T.V. I’m bored, I’m going on Twitter. I’m lonely, I’m going to online shop. I’m going to play a video game.” We are constantly being taken from our places. Whatever difficult emotion is arising, we want technology to just take it away. So we become distant from what’s actually happening in our lives. Shabbat basically forces us to shut down all of these ways of escaping ourselves. From Friday night to Saturday night, we have to be present in our lives with the people who are around us. 

VM: I’ve been struck often by how powerful it can be to be fully present with somebody for just five minutes. I had a good friend in medical school whose father was sick and needed to have surgery. She said that of all the doctors that took care of her father, the one who made the most difference to him was his surgeon. And I said, “Was that because the surgeon spent the most time with him?”

She said, “No, he barely had five minutes with him a day. But during those five minutes, he was extraordinarily present.” He never talked to her father from the door. He came in, he sat down next to him on the bed. He put his hand on his hand. He looked into his eyes when he was speaking to him. And most importantly, when he was listening, the doctor gave her father time to actually talk and be heard. And at the end of those five minutes, it felt like they had spent 30 minutes together.

The quality of our presence stretches time. And I worry that the way we have used technology has, in fact, made time shrink. We can spend half an hour on the phone with somebody, but if we’re distracted by checking our phones and our inboxes and social media on the side, then that can feel like very little time at all, versus if we put all of that aside and focus just for five minutes on somebody. That presence can not only make time stretch, but it can be incredibly healing for them, and for us.

SH: In Judaism, there’s a concept of “chesed,” which means “loving kindness.” And it puts a huge premium on physical presence. Don’t just write a check, don’t just send flowers. If someone is sick or in mourning, physically show up for them, be with them. There’s an ancient story I love about this. Rabbi A gets sick and Rabbi B comes, takes his hand, and heals him. Then Rabbi B gets sick, and Rabbi C comes, takes Rabbi B’s hand, and heals him. But if Rabbi B had the capacity to heal, why didn’t he just heal himself?

The answer is that “the prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” Sometimes when you’re struggling, even if you can help others, you can’t help yourself. So you need someone to take your hand and get you out of prison. And you’re right that those moments of quality, deep presence are very healing and transformative even if they’re short.

VM: I love that story because it reminds me of the fundamental truth that we need each other. There is very little in life that is truly achieved alone, whether in work or in family life. We rely on and need each other — during times of crisis and in our day to day. And I think that is such an important lesson because if we forget it, then we live under the false belief that we don’t need anyone else.

Living that way ignores that fundamental connection that we have to each other as beings who are all divine and who can heal each other in extraordinary ways. And that to me is one of the most fascinating consequences of thinking of love as a source of healing: You don’t need a medical degree or a nursing degree to be able to heal. You need a heart full of love and the willingness to give and receive love, even when it’s difficult.

SH: Amen!

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