Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s highly useful interpretation of feelings, values and expectations
Diagnoses loneliness as a cause of many of society’s social and health ails, from both a societal and biological perspective. A key takeaway is the subjective nature of loneliness as it pertains to social expectations — people with social expectations for group behavior in Ethiopia are significantly different than those of the United States. Thus, “lonely” in one place could be not in another. Also different amongst people are their personal preferences for their need of social connection (including, but not limited to, intro/extroversion); all humans need social connection, plain and simple (imagine the isolation of a pedophile), thus there should be no stigma about loneliness. The evolutionary variability in loneliness was useful, as some people would be willing to venture out and hunt, while others would stay in the village. Loneliness only occurs when you want to connect but you cannot, for whatever reason. Nonetheless, there is more to loneliness than state of mind; humans evolved to be social creatures. Loneliness is likened to an evolutionary biological function, like thirst or hunger, whose end is to get us out of a situation where we are without our group, so that we are not eaten by dinosaurs. Many negative behaviors in humans can be attributed to loneliness, such as alcoholism or violence. People drown their loneliness in various negative ways (I.e. booze). Likewise, people who had traumatic upbringings do not want to get hurt; their fear of getting hurt can stunt their ability to have normal social interactions, and they have no outlet for their feelings. This trauma makes you anxious in new social situations; loneliness can even cause a “neurobiological sensitivity to threat and rejection,” making someone cautious and wary; it can also lead to self-blame (I.e. I am the cause of X, someone not wanting to talk to me, visit me, etc). This can lead to violence, both because anger is an acceptable outlet of feeling (for men), but also because they are defending against the threat of getting hurt again (based off whatever their original trauma was), the fear of someone leaving or ignoring us. Anger pushes people away, and causes more loneliness in a negative feedback loop. Women can be very nurturing for relationships; but this can also blur the sense of self for women as they service the relationships. Troops have a hard time reacclimating to society because they miss the camaraderie and the meaning. Our society emphasizes self-reliance and plays down our mutual interconnectedness; the book acknowledges the downsides of “collective” societies, where those who do not conform to the group standard are shunned (and they also leave little room for individual development and expression); these societies are suspicious of outside influence, diversity, change (example of Hutterites). It points to a third option, where we try to blend the two; things such as “men’s sheds” and other places where it is possible to open up, without necessarily making it deliberate. Men are raised to be tough and avoid acknowledging or talking about feelings. People want to feel like they “matter” and not feel abandoned, and have a sense of shared common ground, to be listened to without judgment (woman who tricked her retired father into doing various things to help the community; helping others makes us feel like we matter, any form of service which feels genuine, which is a subjective judgment). Example of the “3 wishes” program costing $30/patient and making end of life care much better just by asking “what matters to the patient/family”. Cites anecdote of former White Power/KKK kid who renounced white supremacy in college due to his Jewish college friend letting him join Shabbat dinners and allowing him to come around on his own terms (not accusing him but just being his friend) — letting connection happen first, allowing for there to be room to not put forward your arguments, but just to build trust to understand. Status, wealth, achievement and fame can even make us more lonely, isolating us physically, and causing us to be suspicious of the motives of others. Kinds of loneliness: intimate (very close friends, lover), relational (coworkers, people you sort of know, circles of friends), collective (society); and the thing which matters is quality, not quantity. Calls out the difference between isolation and solitude, the latter of which can give us time to reflect and build better connections when we are with people, the former of which just leads to loneliness. Chronic loneliness is a vicious cycle, and causes questioning of self-worth. We are the only species to share what we think when there is no immediate gain, to the end of getting on the same page and understanding one another better, which has long-term potential gain for efficiency and cooperation — communication makes us human. Stories make people feel connected, even in the form of art (I.e. plays, books, etc) — and not sharing our knowledge and emotions makes us feel lonely. Even if we think we are task-oriented, our brains are usually activated thinking about other people, in some way. Prosocial behavior makes people less anxious, threatened, and more secure feeling. Brain chemicals can make us defensive against people who are not part of our group. Human babies can even start to have implicit bias at 3 months of age, favoring faces like their family’s race. Isolation causes nervous systems to go on alert, and triggers fear and preparation to fight or flee the situation (I.e. blood pressure goes up, etc, leading to the modern-day manifestation of anxiety, to escape the dinosaur). Loss is a biochemical echo of our ancestor’s stress from being cut off from the tribe; our system’s overload on hormones. When we are lonely, our threat perception changes, and we also develop an egocentric nature, we will push away people who are probably benign, and this leads to a cycle of suspicion, jealousy, resentment, as those who would otherwise help us turn away. We have “created a culture of living which is different from our historical default state –Steve Cole.” All of this can make us susceptible to cultural bias, racial stereotyping, and discriminatory practices; small irritations can have exaggerated reactions. As with all things, genes can play a role, but not as much as experience and life circumstance (and culture). Emotional and physical pain are processed by the brain in similar ways, leading to similar stresses on the body. Loneliness is like visiting a foreign city where you cannot speak the language, “I could see the world around me, but I was not part of it.” Encouraging example of Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait and the “City of Kindness,” leading to a large decrease in school bullying, and the “Hi Neighbor” community model. If people knew their neighbors, political discourse has the potential to be more civil; it is easy to dismiss the ideas of the unknown, of the “other.” Rightfully points out that social media can make an authentic act of expression a hollow exercise (I do it all for the likes); online we can pose as something better than we are — and this pretense enhances loneliness. Studies show people think their own beliefs are grounded in love, while the opponents are based on hatred — liberals think conservatives hate gays, women, etc, and conservatives think liberals hate families, Christianity, and America. Everyone shares common humanity (Matthew Stevenson, Jewish kid who convinced Derek white-power to come around). Finding “points of shared value and concern” can allow people to hear one another (is this realistic?) Relationships can become a feeling of obligation when you are a work addict; reciprocity of connection needs to be fixed. Sharing concern and responsibility for others is a big part of our evolutionary DNA. Some people can connect in ways that are less obvious; give introverts a job to do with others, so they do not have to talk as much. Dancing or marching causes our endorphins to flow, activating the “hive” part of the brain (from Haidt); these social activities make us feel good. In many ways, our society just has a values problem; kindness, honesty, and character are not at the top, achievement is.