Vivek H. Murthy served as the Surgeon General from 2014-2017, so you can probably consider him a health expert. He’s got an important message for us about our brains and bodies: if you sometimes feel like loneliness is killing you slowly, that’s because it is.
The Harvard Business Review published a long essay from Murthy that is ostensibly about how to improve real human connections in the workplace, since we spend more time wasting away in an office than anywhere else on this dry-ass rock. However, his observations about the effects of isolation will sound familiar to anyone who has spent an entire weekend at home with no one to call:
During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. The elderly man who came to our hospital every few weeks seeking relief from chronic pain was also looking for human connection: He was lonely. The middle-aged woman battling advanced HIV who had no one to call to inform that she was sick: She was lonely too. I found that loneliness was often in the background of clinical illness, contributing to disease and making it harder for patients to cope and heal.
Murthy is certain that the epidemic of loneliness is spreading and not getting the attention and treatment it deserves. Humans can and do move much more now, leaving behind family and community. The gig economy has people working from home (cough cough), or in front of their computers, not making eye contact even in open-plan offices (COUGH COUGH COUGH). You may sit next to someone for 10 hours and not know a damn thing about them, and it’s bad for your health:
Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.
If you’ve been truly lonely, you know it feels like shit; but why? According to Murthy’s evolutionary take, humans developed the capacity to share and help one another to survive and eventually “the value of social connection has become baked into our nervous system such that the absence of such a protective force creates a stress state in the body.”
Stress, as we all know, is the silent killer that produces cortisol, a hormone that has motivated many an insane late-night ice cream binge in my household. Not only does it cause inflammation, organ damage and depression, it also messes with your prefrontal cortex. That’s where you do all “decision making, planning, emotional regulation, analysis, and abstract thinking.” Being lonely makes you irrational! You might as well take up smoking and go out to a bar and freaking talk to someone.
Most of Murthy’s suggestions for what to do about loneliness revolve around building bridges amongst team members, because this is the Harvard Business Review. But the overall message is something we can all take to heart: if you’re feeling lonely, retreating further is fueling the disease. Take your medicine and make a friend.