Take Steps to Counter the Loneliness of Social Distancing

By | March 23, 2020

Two years ago, when Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the former surgeon general of the United States, started researching his book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” he never anticipated how relevant the topic would be now that it is about to be published.

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting advice — stay home if at all possible, avoid convening with others and refrain from close contacts even on the street — has intensified the harm inflicted by factors that already isolate people and rendered many of the antidotes to isolation moot.

As Dr. Murthy points out, we’re wired for human connection that can counter the damaging biological effects of stress and anxiety. Yet, face-to-face relationships have already been undermined by electronic “conversations” during which human needs and feelings are less honestly conveyed. We may talk more to one another’s answering machines than we do to each other.

According to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, social isolation has been linked to a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.

We, after all, evolved as a species that thrives on human connection and cooperation. Put these on hold and there’s an inevitable price to pay. And it’s not just the elderly who are likely to pay it, though many older people were already missing meaningful human contact long before the coronavirus struck. The damaging effects of loneliness on health are not restricted to any age or ethnic group. Any one of us can suffer the consequences, as Dr. Murthy says he experienced as a child who was shy and shunned by his age-mates.

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Based on a variety of studies, Dr. Murthy reports, the impact of social isolation and loneliness on longevity equals that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and exceeds the risks associated with obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and lack of exercise. Advice to avoid Covid-19 through social distancing can, for many people, increase the risk of physical and emotional harm from inadequate social contact.

My daughter-in-law emphasized my need to be strict about protective guidelines, not just for my own health, but to prevent a domino effect that could jeopardize the lives of more fragile members of my extended family. There is no room for selfishness during a deadly pandemic.

All of which raises the question: What can people do to minimize the risk of being lonely when cut off from direct human contact? Dr. Murthy explains that loneliness is distinct from solitude: “Loneliness is the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need — the feeling of closeness, trust and affection of genuine friends, loved ones and community.”

And within that definition lie important clues to countering the effects of physical isolation that is now needed to slow the spread of this deadly and likely uncontainable infection. Our best hope at the moment is to keep the most vulnerable people safe and our medical facilities and personnel from being overwhelmed by those who may become dangerously ill.

So far, this disaster has brought out the best in people in many communities. My younger neighbors, for example, have offered to help if I need anything — food, medication, whatever. A block away, emails and phone numbers were shared so that someone who needs help can call on a neighbor without leaving home.

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I just hope magnanimous feelings survive what are likely to be prolonged restrictions on personal freedom, especially now that children are home 24/7 and most venues outside the home for release and entertainment — cultural, physical and emotional — have been shut down. Critically important is maintaining soul-restoring human connections.

Michele Weiner-Davis, a relationship expert in Boulder, Colo., told me, “Offering to help others, reaching out, adopting the Buddhist perspective of focusing on the here and now, can inoculate a person against anxiety.”

Dr. Murthy said, “Helping another person can be an incredibly powerful experience that not only forms a connection between people but also reaffirms to ourselves that we’re bringing value to the world. Reach out to your neighbors and ask how they’re doing, how you can assist in a big or small way. Many people will be struggling during this crisis. They won’t have the help they need, the income or emotional support to get through it.”

A persistent refrain from everyone I asked: If you do nothing else, “Pick up the phone, call someone and ask how they’re doing,” Ms. Weiner-Davis said. Stacy Torres, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, concurred: “The old-fashioned telephone is very important. You can hear something in a person’s voice that can’t be detected in an email.”

Last week, I devoted an entire day to talking on the phone with distant friends, catching up on their lives and sending verbal hugs. I ended the day feeling connected and renewed. This virus has been a valuable reminder of what I was missing.

Dr. Murthy said it doesn’t have to be a long conversation. “It’s not about finding more time, it’s about making the time we have available better quality. Eliminate distractions when talking — no multitasking. A five-minute conversation when you have someone’s full attention can make a big difference to how a person feels,” he said. “The sound and tone of a person’s voice provide rich input into how someone is doing. Videoconferencing is even better. It most replicates direct contact because you can actually see each other.

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“If I had a credo for my book, it would be ‘People First,’” he said. “Too many people worship false gods — wealth, reputation, power — that are not more important than the people in our lives. Relationships are what make our lives worth living.”

Dr. Torres also urged people to “do whatever you can do to connect with people while staying within recommended guidelines, like donating to soup kitchens not just money for the food but for the person who delivers it. We’ve got to do anything we can do remotely or from six feet away.”

Once this viral crisis is over, my most cherished hope is that we not forget the lessons we learned during this time about the value of creating and sustaining meaningful connections with other people. As Dr. Murthy told me, “If we want to be a stronger, more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding foundations centered around people.”