The former U.S. surgeon general and others encourage ways to address the risks of social isolation. Moments of tragedy are often times when neighbors also come together to show their solidarity and support, but after a few weeks or months, that sense of caring for one another can fade into the background.
Despite living or working side by side with many others, we can feel isolated and alone. AARP even reported that 40% of adults said they regularly feel lonely, and this was true across gender and social backgrounds.
In fact, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, serving from 2014-2017, wrote in the Harvard Business Review in October that the most common pathology he witnessed over the years “was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” And this condition contributed to the diseases he was treating and made it harder for patients to get better.
Not only did he cite that loneliness affects productivity of businesses, but it also shortens lifespan. How? We have evolved to be social beings, he says, and so lack of that connection elevates our levels of the stress-hormone cortisol, which increases inflammation in the body and other stress-induced responses. Our bodies are more at-risk for bacterial infections, cancer and heart disease. In fact, a 2015 study for Brigham Young University shows that both real and perceived social isolation can shorten your lifespan as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
The answer? Murthy called on businesses and schools, neighbors and families to take active steps to address loneliness, going beyond surface-level connections that might be made at happy-hour or team-building activities.
For example, he wrote how when he was surgeon general, he created a weekly exercise for his team called “Inside Scoop,” in which team members would share something about themselves through five minutes of photo-sharing. “Presenting was an opportunity for each of us to share more of who we were; listening was an opportunity to recognize our colleagues in the way they wished to be seen,” he said. The team meetings quickly became the highlight of the week for many.
He shared this story not to say it is a universal solution for every situation but rather that simple steps are enough to make a difference, especially in those places where we spend a good majority of our time during the week.
Other suggested responses to the loneliness epidemic are to rethink the way neighborhoods are designed, increasing social skills training in children and youth, going beyond technology-mediated exchanges, as well as sharing not only what you do but also how you feel about your experiences when you get together with friends.