Public Media Arts Hub

Could the loneliness of the pandemic facilitate a 'social revival?'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: On our Bookshelf tonight: battling loneliness and how we can come out of this pandemic more connected to each other.

John Yang: Judy, the social distancing we have been asked to practice to try to slow the spread of the virus has led to feelings of social isolation and loneliness for some people.

Here's what some viewers told us about their experiences.

Gates Palissery: I can't work from home, but my co-workers can, and do.

So, at any given time, I'm the only person at work. There are entire days when I don't speak because there's no one to talk to. I really miss having my co-workers around and being able to ask them questions or talk about random things when we all need a break or sitting down to have lunch with them.

It's pretty lonely when it's just you at your desk. I understand why it's necessary to social distance. And I completely support that, because the science behind it says that it helps. And I am a scientist, so I definitely understand that. But it's been rough.

Mike Wyant: I'm an introvert. I enjoy being alone and things like that.

However, this being isolated from the real world, being able to go and visit friends and family in social settings, go into a restaurant, share a meal or a movie, has affected me more than I thought it would, actually.

That being said, I miss the personal interaction. You get more of an interaction with people when you see them, you know, face to face. So, not being able to see someone's smirk or smile or if their eyebrows are furrowed or things like that, you just don't get the same connection.

Justine D'Souza: So, even though I get to talk to people virtually more, at times, I really feel emptier than before.

Jeremy Janoski: I really didn't realize how much just a simple interaction with a cashier, or running into a neighbor at a store, or even going to grab the same item off of a shelf at the same time really gave you that kind of peripheral sense of community and togetherness that really isn't happening now.

John Yang: So, it is perhaps an opportune time for a new book about relationships and community.

It's called "Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World."

The author is Dr. Vivek Murthy. He was U.S. surgeon general from 2014 to 2017. He joins us from Miami.

Dr. Murthy, thank you so much for joining us.

When -- you write in the book that, when you game surgeon general, you expected to be talking a lot about the opioid addiction, about obesity, about the importance of immunizations, but then you went on a listening tour around the country, and you heard a lot about loneliness.

Vivek Murthy: That's right, John.

I was really taught about people I met all across America and really across the world about how, behind so many of the stories of addiction and violence and chronic illness that exists in society, there were deep threads of loneliness that I was finding.

And this is true whether I was talking to young or old people, whether I was talking to members of Congress or to farmers in the Midwest. And it struck me. It reminded me of my own experiences as a child struggling with loneliness.

It reminded me as my experience as a doctor caring for so many patients who came into the hospital alone and had nobody with them, often even at the time of death.

And what I came to realize was that loneliness was very common, with more than 20 percent of adults in the United States struggling with loneliness, but it was also very consequential for our health, that people with loneliness standing to have an increased risk of heart disease, of dementia, depression, anxiety, and even premature death.

John Yang: There's a correlation between loneliness and those conditions, but is there a more direct link?

Vivek Murthy: Well, that's a good question.

The research on loneliness is evolving. But we have reasons to believe loneliness very well may, in fact, have a direct impact on our health. And one of the reasons has to do with the physiologic impact that loneliness has on the body.

What it does is, it places the body in a stress state. And in the short term, that can be OK, because feeling lonely in the short term may nudge you to call a friend or to drop by and visit family.

And in that sense, it can be helpful as a signal, just like hunger or thirst. The problem is when that stress state persists for a long period of time. And like many other forms of stress, it can lead to increased inflammation in our body, which can increase our risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

John Yang: Let me ask you about the current situation. We heard from our viewers some real emotion there about what's going on now.

On the one hand, you were the top public health officer of the United States. And I assume you agree that we need to stay apart to try to fight this virus and to slow its spread.

But, on the other hand, you're saying that there is a problem -- that there are problems that come from isolation and loneliness .How do you sort of balance those two and reconcile those two?

Vivek Murthy: Well, I'm glad you asked, John, because this is an extraordinarily difficult moment for so many people whose lives have been turned upside-down.

And one of the most painful parts of it has been not being able to see people, not just our family or friends, but even strangers in our life, being able to sit next to strangers in a coffee shop, appreciate people who might be walking down the sidewalk with you.

We value these now, perhaps more than ever before. While there are impacts on our health of loneliness, in the short term, it's important for us to protect ourselves against COVID-19 during this pandemic.

But we also shouldn't assume that, because we have to be physically separated from each other, that we have to be socially distant. And the way that we can preserve our social connections in this time have to do with very simple steps I believe that we can take.

We can, number one, ensure that we're spending at least 15 minutes a day reaching out to people that we love, via videoconference or phone. We can make sure that the quality of time that we have with people is high. And we can do that by reducing the distraction that we have when we talk to them, putting our phone away and other technology.

We can also reach out to people with an intention to serve. I learned when writing this book that one of the most powerful antidotes to loneliness is service.

And if we look around us right now, we will recognize that many of us are struggling. And service can be checking on a neighbor to make sure they're OK, calling a friend to see how they're doing, having food delivered to a work colleague who might be struggling to telework while homeschooling their kids.

There is a possibility that this experience with COVID-19 could lead to a deepening of our loneliness, to a social recession. But I believe that we can take this as an opportunity to create a social revival, to refocus on our relationships, to recommit to the people in our life.

And if we do that, then I think we can come out of this pandemic stronger and more connected to each other, more healthier than ever before.

John Yang: The book is "Together," the author Dr. Vivek Murthy.

Dr. Murthy, thank you very much.

Vivek Murthy: Thanks so much, John. Good to be with you.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.