Even before the mandated isolation of COVID -19, Western society had developed an increasing near epidemic of loneliness and isolation. This book, by Vivek Murthy, a noted authority with deep experience, describes the condition of loneliness. He also gives excellent advice about what to do with it.
Vivek Murthy undertook a listening tour across the country after his appointment to the Surgeon General position in the United States. He was expecting to glean information from the public on what could deliver big health wins. What he found was insightful regarding the levels of isolation and loneliness in society. He found evidence of the impact that it has on physical health and that it can even lead to premature death.
Loneliness is not just being alone. In this book, he identifies three strands of relationship. We need intimate, social and collective connections to thrive. The lack of one or more of these three can be harmful to our health. Studies have since shown that individuals with strong connections are up to 50% less likely to die early. The impact of weak connections is therefore as detrimental to health as other bad habits such as smoking.
Murthy tells how the onset of technology, particularly the smartphone, has made people lonelier. People now revert to technology to make contact with friends, but it is remote and misses the benefits of physical contact. We may be pleased that a grocer is prepared to deliver food to our homes thanks to online shopping. However convenient, making use of such services can rob us of the social contact of talking to the familiar faces from our neighbourhood.
He examines various cultural and religious social structures. He describes how collectivist religious groups like the Mormons can make sure that members never have to be lonely. While there is benefit in that, they can lose their individuality and independence in the process.
One of his most powerful quotes from the book is, “During my years of caring for patients the most common condition I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”
Murthy mentions that when questioned about it, people seem to be ashamed of their loneliness. It is as if the expectation should be that we are all well and don’t need to focus on being lonely. We believe that social interaction and connecting should take care of themselves. It is important to understand this element if we want to address the problem. It might indicate some level of social incompetence to admit that one is lonely.
Why you should read it.
Admitting to loneliness might be embarrassing or ‘uncool’. However, if you don’t acknowledge it, it won’t be easy to address. Reading the book could help us develop a greater sense of togetherness through some useful suggestions made by Murthy.
He suggests reaching out to people with whom you may have lost touch. Make a list of people in your immediate and extended circle that you’d like reconnect with. Everyone has a collection of those. Drop the well-worn excuses of being too busy or even a little embarrassed and pick up the phone. That’s a start.
Near relatives like parents or siblings as well as close cousins and dear friends are all candidates for a phone call and a “catch up”. The current pandemic is an excellent reason to make such calls a habit. After making these ‘first contacts,’ we can extend our reach to other social activities. Joining a group that suits your interest can have many benefits. These have especial benefit if they involve movement or music.
Nudge yourself by remembering that we spend a great deal of time and money to take care of our physical health. Gym memberships, diet programs, yoga or pilates and many related activities are evidence of our drive for good health. We need to take the advice of Vivek Murphy in this book and also take care of your psychological health. Our overall health will benefit in turn.
Murthy’s vast experience and comprehensive medical knowledge make the recounting of his stories highly engaging. This book is a valuable reference source as well as an entertaining read.
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