Listen to the audio version of this post here.
Loneliness is dangerous.
Maybe you’ve made the same mistake.
Dr. Vivek Murthy had been the U.S. Surgeon General during the Obama and Trump administrations. When his tenure ended in 2017, he found himself in a pickle.
Dr. Murthy had been working long hours, spending most of his time with government colleagues, neglecting other friends and even family. When his gig caved in, those work connections ended right along with it.
The newly unemployed Dr. Murthy found himself alone. And lonely. He blamed himself for having failed to nurture friendships in favor of focusing on his work and professional relationships.
It felt weird to reach out to friends now that he was out of that prestigious position. So, he didn’t. The former Surgeon General discovered that loneliness “can chip away at your self-esteem and erode your sense of who you are.”
That’s certainly been my experience.
The loneliest time in my life was also a time when I felt crappy about myself and, truth be told, not entirely sure who I was—or who I was supposed to be. I was single, long past the time when I thought I “should” have found a life partner. I was preoccupied with my physical appearance; I loathed looking in the mirror.
Yes, I had some friends who were important to me. I had a decent job in broadcasting. And there still seemed to be a husband-shaped hole in my life. I felt like a failure and a reject. Yes, it chipped away at my self-esteem, which wasn’t that great to begin with. I felt alone—and lonely.
Apparently, I’m not alone.
Now that he’s the Surgeon General again, Dr. Murthy says nearly everyone experiences loneliness at some point. For good reason … or for no reason at all.
Maybe you didn’t lose your job or a loved one. You didn’t move to a new city. You haven’t hit financial problems. Those can all cause a person to feel lonely. And for some of us, none of those things have happened. We’re just chugging along—going to work, taking care of the kids, meeting a friend for a meal once in a while. And we’re lonely anyway.
It’s common enough that the Surgeon General says we need to acknowledge the “grave consequences for our mental health, physical health, and collective well-being.”
Those grave consequences include greater individual risk of anxiety and depression, heart disease, dementia, and stroke. And on a societal scale: lower productivity in the workplace, poorer performance in school, and less civic engagement. Then there’s the polarization that plagues us—this epidemic of loneliness is tearing us apart.
So, Dr. Murthy also says we need to do something about it.
Here’s the plan the Surgeon General is promoting.
Strengthen social infrastructure.
Create school programs that teach children how to build healthy relationships and community programs that bring people together. Design workplaces that foster healthy connections.
Put the damn devices down.
Or as Dr. Murthy more elegantly puts it, “renegotiate our relationship with technology, creating space in our lives without our devices so we can be more present with one another.”
That would also include declining to take part in ugly exchanges on social media.
Take action in our personal lives to rebuild connections to others.
That might include spending 15 minutes a day reaching out to an old friend, getting to know a neighbor, or checking in on a colleague who’s hit a rough patch. Or it could be committing to serve others in some fashion; helping people is a powerful anti-loneliness strategy.
I’m all for it. All of it. And …
I’d add one more suggestion, based on my own current experience. It’s something that can really diminish the sense of being alone.
Let someone help you.
Or if you’re brave enough, go even farther and ask someone to help you.
It’s one thing to reach out to an old friend who could use company or check on someone who might be having trouble … to be the person riding to the rescue. It’s another thing entirely to acknowledge that you’re the one who’s in a bind. That you need a helping hand of some sort.
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather help somebody else than be the one in need.
And right now I am the one in need, like it or not, thanks to health problems at home – my husband’s, not my own. They become my problems, though, because we have a lot to deal with together.
Already it’s clear that friends and family who pitch in lift the burden and ease the feelings that go with this. Even Facebook “friends” I’ve never met in person are offering help with suggestions based on their own experience handling similar situations.
And the reason they’re offering that help is because I asked for it.
Here’s the thing. Whether their recommendations will work for me or not, whether I even try to follow their direction, the very fact that I acknowledged needing support and they came through … that helps me. It makes me feel connected and I wouldn’t be surprised if it creates that same sense of connection for them.
All that mutual connectedness mitigates loneliness.
How about you?
I hope you’ll follow the Surgeon General’s anti-loneliness plan. I hope you’ll follow mine too.
Go ahead. Ask somebody to give you a hand and watch what happens for both of you. And be sure to let me know about it too…
An enlightening and thought-provoking piece, as always, Catherine! Thank you for writing about this topic-something so many are experiencing. I’m glad you asked and are receiving some help and advice! Hang in there!! Miss our Roundtable connections…
Oh, I miss the Roundtable too, Kim! And I’m so glad you found this one interesting. I debated about putting in the personal part and decided in the end that it was germane enough to be worth including. We are indeed hanging in there. And preparing ourselves for what’s to come.
Catherine, I am honored by your vulnerability and sincere desire to help. I know that your post will help many of us who are also feeling isolation. And hopefully, together, we can have the courage to reach out to one another.
It’s surprising, in a way, how challenging it can be to reach out. You’re right, Melissa, it takes some courage.