‘Loneliness kills’: Former surgeon general sounds alarm on emotional well-being
Dr. Vivek Murthy stepped down as US surgeon general in April 2017, after a little more than two years in the post. Recently, he has reentered the public sphere talking about the importance of emotional well-being and the toll of loneliness. During a visit to Boston last week, Murthy sat down with the Globe to discuss why he has focused on these issues. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
You’ve been known for your work advocating for gun control, vaccinations, and addiction treatment. Why are you now talking about loneliness?
Loneliness and emotional well-being are connected to the issues we’re reading about in the papers every day. They’re connected to the opioid crisis and to addiction. They’re connected to the challenges with violence we’re having in our communities. Loneliness can contribute to addiction and can be a consequence of struggling with addiction.
There is a growing body of data and science that’s telling us that loneliness is more prevalent than we thought and it’s also growing over the last several decades. Loneliness places the body in a chronic stress state and increases inflammation levels, increases our risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses. The mortality effect associated with loneliness is even similar to the life-shortening that we see with smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Essentially that data is telling us that loneliness kills.
You recently wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review about the need to address loneliness in the workplace. Why focus on the workplace?
People spend about a third of their lives in the workplace, and the workplace has a really powerful role to play in helping create a culture where people are more connected. It turns out it’s good for business, too. When people are chronically lonely at work they become disengaged and disengagement is connected to diminished productivity and reduced creativity. Far too many people don’t feel they have someone they’re connected with at work. Even half of CEOs admit to feeling lonely in their jobs.
We also have to think about our connections outside of work and how much time we’re investing in sustaining those. We live in an age where work has crept into every facet of our life. We can be working on work e-mails at the dinner table. We can be checking our e-mail while on vacation. While that may give us a sense of greater efficiency and productivity, it can also come at the expense of having time with the people we love, time that can be not just enjoyable but also healing and therapeutic for us.
Does technology play a big role in this epidemic of loneliness?
I’m a big fan of technology. I use technology a lot. But the real question of whether it helps or hurts is in how it’s used. The passive consumption of social media isn’t always helpful. If I’m alone on a Friday night and I go on social media to read through the posts of my friends, that tends not to make me feel better. If I am traveling to Boston and decide to post on social media to see if any of my friends might be available, that is a very powerful way that technology can be used to enable face-to-face interaction. For far too many people, time spent on social media has crowded out the time spent face to face.
Are you planning to do anything in a practical way that would promote workplace social connection? Where are you going with this?
My hope is that what will come out of this is a larger collaborative to help not only prioritize emotional well-being for the country but ensure we are investing in more research on it. If we can make emotional well-being part of how we think about building a strong and healthy country, then we have a good shot at achieving that goal.
What has been your own personal experience with loneliness?
It’s a been a personal challenge for me. When I was in elementary school I spent many years feeling quite lonely. But I never told anybody that I was lonely, because I felt ashamed. I felt admitting I was lonely was admitting I was not worthy of being loved.
Now I feel much better in my life — I’ve been blessed with stronger connections. That doesn’t automatically mean I never feel lonely. I’ve started to refocus on creating sacred space to keep investing in those relationships.
You lived in the Boston area for many years, including 10 years practicing at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. After you stepped down as surgeon general, why did you stay in Washington, D.C.? Do you miss Boston?
I love the people here. I love the culture here. We’re not committed to being in D.C. forever. My wife and I are talking about potentially moving. We don’t know where we’ll go, but Boston is actually on our list, because it’s such a wonderful community.