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Vivek Murthy My experience of loneliness really began in childhood, when, as a student in elementary school, I really struggled with loneliness because I was very shy as a child. Even though I wanted to connect with other kids, it was hard for me to do so. So each morning when my parents dropped me off to school, I had this sense of dread.
I didn’t want to be alone once again on the playground and I certainly dreaded walking into the cafeteria each day, not knowing if there would be somebody to sit next to. That stayed with me for many, many years, that sense of deep loneliness, but also the shame that came with it because I never told my parents about those struggles with loneliness, because I somehow felt it was evidence that I was broken or deficient in some way and I was embarrassed.
I was reminded of those childhood experiences when I began my career in medicine, because I encountered more loneliness among my patients than I ever thought I would.
I spent all of these years in medical training, learning about how to diagnose and treat heart disease, how to think about Diabetes, but I learned nothing really about loneliness.
So, I wasn’t prepared, or when I entered the hospital to see so many patients who would come in alone and at critical moments, when we had to have a really tough conversation with them about a new diagnosis or about a treatment decision, that there was nobody there other than them to participate in that conversation.
I would ask sometimes I would say, you know, is there somebody you’d like me to call. And they would say, you know, I wish there was, but, but there’s nobody. Even though I was more able to see loneliness around me as a result of what I had gone through, I didn’t know how to address it.
During all those years in medicine, I felt that, gosh, I was seeing a profound problem, but did not have the tools to know how to respond to it or how to help my patients, and that felt bad.
Dacher Keltner More than three out of five adults in the United States are either always or mostly lonely. And those are numbers that actually come from before COVID-19.
We know that when we feel lonely or excluded or rejected by peers a part of our brains that’s associated with pain gets activated. We know that loneliness is associated with anxiety and heart disease and obesity and shorter life expectancies. It even has been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
I’m Dacher Keltner. This is the science of happiness. And I’m joined today by Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General and author of Together: The Healing of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Vivek tried to practice that helps strengthen human connection in his own life and he’s going to talk about that today on our. show.
Vivec, it’s great to have you here.
Vivek Murthy Thanks so much for having me. It’s good to be with you.
Dacher Keltner Vivek, when I talk to people about this epidemic of loneliness and what to do about it and how to find connection, I always direct them to this research by Shelly Gable at UC Santa Barbara on capitalizing on positive events.
So to do this practice, you ask a friend to talk about something good that happened to them. And then you’re given these prompts that come out of the scientific literature to help you respond in a warm way, like making eye contact, giving supportive feedback, asking really good questions, things like that. In this practice, you use the conversation about a positive event to get closer to the person you’re talking to. Why did you choose this practice?
Vivek Murthy I think I’ve noticed since I was young that I have a tendency to focus on the things that are not going well. And I think it’s one of the reasons that I’ve struggled with self-esteem for much of my life.
Sometimes people look at you from the outside and they say, “Oh, well, It seems like you’ve done pretty well in life, why would you have issues with self-esteem?”
It’s not about what you’ve done. It’s not about what’s on your resume. It’s not about how much is in your bank account. It’s about how you perceive yourself and how you measure the world and do you tend to look more at the darkness or at the light? And what I realized has been true for me since really, since I was a child, is that, that focus on the dark is part of my pattern and it’s something I need to be aware of so that I can address it proactively. That’s why this exercise in particular really stood out for me. It was an opportunity to focus very consciously on what was good on the positive on what I have to be grateful for.
I raise this because some people naturally do this in their lives very easily. They tend toward the positive. But for those of us who may not, or for whom life circumstances have allowed those dark clouds to gather — you know when we maybe are going through a particularly hard time — we need to consciously put ourselves in a position where we can focus on what we’re grateful for.
Dacher Keltner How’d it go for you?
Vivek Murthy The way that I did it is I identified a friend that I wanted to speak with on a regular basis and every couple of days we got on the phone, often we actually tried to video conference because we wanted to be able to see each other and during the few minutes that we had together I just asked him what few things could he remember in his day that he was grateful for?
What points of light was he willing to share with me?
And then I did the same for him, but during the time that he was speaking, even though it wasn’t long, I just tried to be fully present and to listen, not to multitask, check my email do other things. I just try to sit in a quiet place and listen.
And what was really striking to me, Dacher, is number one, I just felt better about the world by having the chance to focus on what was positive. Not even by focusing on the positive things that were happening in my life, but even just hearing what was going well in his life actually made me feel better.
But the second thing that struck me is how little time it took. I think we sometimes might assume that, okay, if we really want to have a positive interaction with somebody we’ve got to put aside an hour to have a really thoughtful conversation, and sometimes those can be wonderful, but I’m also struck by how just by being fully present with somebody for a few minutes, we can actually stretch time. We can make five minutes feel like 30 minutes when we’re both fully there.
Dacher Ketlner One of the most enduring things I took from reading your book, and it’s a wonderful read, is this idea that it’s really the quality rather than the quantity or amount of time you spend with people. You know, we know from the science of taking in people and admiring them, that it actually stretches the sense of time so it’s, it’s fascinating to think about that.
I’m curious, Vivek, what other things did you notice in your own wellbeing and emotions as you took in the descriptions of good things in his life?
Vivek Murthy Well, I noticed that my mood lifted, I felt more often domestic about the world and less weighed down by the challenges I was dealing with, even though those challenges hadn’t changed at all, they were still there. I noticed that I had more physical energy as well. All of that was, was so striking because it required very little time to generate those feelings. I also noticed that those feelings have lasted for a while, like, and by a while, I mean, for many hours after that conversation and I look forward to the next conversation.
This was our small but unexpected thing, which was that I realized that having regularity in this kind of experience was really helpful, not only because it grounded me during times when I would drift away, but also because it gave me something to look forward to.
Somebody once said to me that 90% of the benefit of vacations is in the anticipation of them.
I actually think this was somewhat true here as well, knowing that I had this short conversation that was going to be really fulfilling and gratifying. It just gave me something to look forward to, even right after the first one finished and waiting for the second one.
That act of having a conversation with somebody, even though it was short, that also was focused on listening to them, that was incredibly powerful because there is something extraordinary about listening fully to someone else about being present for someone. So much of, I think our society guides us to focus on action.
When we hear a problem, we think we need to solve it. When we see someone in distress, we think we need to talk them through it. Sometimes it is our presence, the power of our presence, and that itself can be deeply healing. I was reminded of that during this exercise.
Dacher Keltner The instructions for the Capitalizing on Positive Events practice are to listen and respond to someone else talking about a good moment in their life, and you added an extra step where you took turns sharing positive news with a friend. Vivek, what compelled you to do that?
Vivek Murthy Well, I added this step because I realized that I needed to remember what I was grateful for, too, and that, by saying it aloud, there was something powerful about emphasizing to myself with somebody else there as a witness that this was something I should focus on, this positive development, and there also felt like there was an accountability as well by talking to someone else about it. My friend would be affirmed for me: Yes, this is a really powerful experience you had. This is something you really should be grateful for. So, that’s why I did it as well.
It was because I realized as powerful as the listening was, and as good as I felt hearing when my friend was grateful for that, that I also benefited from sharing and I’ve found that he did, as well.
Dacher Keltner You know, Vivek, your instinct was correct. Studies show that when we share our good news with other people, it makes us happier about the news for a longer period of time, and we’ll come back to that science later in our show.
So, what were the recurring themes or positive events that you two talked about?
Vivek Murthy My friend would often talk about people in his life, the kind words that his partner expressed, the unexpected act of kindness that came from a colleague at work, who was looking out for him. It was striking to me that very few of those moments of gratitude were centered around him receiving praise or getting a certain recognition or award. While all of those do bring some degree of joy, it was really through relationships at so many of his most precious moments for which he was grateful or actually delivered.
Dacher Keltner You know, it’s so interesting after thinking about this practice, when I was, I actually teach it in human happiness and now it’s on Zoom during COVID-19, and I asked my several hundred students to share with me something good that’s happened to you and on chat share with your fellow students, and out came this outflow of, you know, reaching out to a parent or talking to a friend or, you know, cooking a dinner with somebody you’re sheltering with, or getting outside.
And what really struck me is how much listening to other people was part of the good things that were happening during this unusual time. In light of all the thinking you’ve done on loneliness and the health of the United States, and we’re in this very unusual time of COVID-19, what do you think are some of the ways that we can take on the profound loneliness that a lot of people are feeling?
Vivek Murthy I do think that COVID-19 poses a threat to our connection to one another, not only because of the physical distancing, but also because the virus, in some ways has made us fearful of each other, sometimes we may look at others in the grocery store and wonder if they’re a source of infection or, and try to stay away from them.
I worry that if we do nothing differently, that COVID-19 will deepen the loneliness that people feel and, and threaten a social recession of sorts that will be just as consequential as the economic recession we may be facing. But, I don’t think it has to be that way.
I actually think that the silver lining to COVID-19 is it presents an opportunity for us to engineer a social revival in our own lives and in society more broadly. We can do this by stepping back and using this moment to take stock of our lives, to ask ourselves where do we want relationships to fit in our priority list? Is there a gap between how much we say we value people and where we’re actually putting our time, energy and effort?
And I will say for me, there is a gap and I want to close that gap. The challenge that we have right now as a society and as individuals is to figure out how to build a people-centered life and a people-centered world. It’s where we build curriculum in schools and we design workplaces to support human connection, it’s when we put our relationships first and cultivate relationships, recognizing that that’s what actually enables dialogue to happen, nd without dialogue, we can’t come together. As a community to address difficult problems.
So, if I had a simple creative, it would be three words. It would be: Put people first.
Those three words are, I believe, the guideposts that I want to follow in my life as I think about how to lead the kind of life, not only that I want, but that I want to model for my children.
I hope that if we put people first in every dimension of our life, my hope is that we will have more robust, more connected, and ultimately more fulfilled experiences in life.
Dacher Keltner You know, over in the science of happiness literature, we’ve been documenting in some of the studies that you’ve cited, that loneliness costs us years of life expectancy. It just hurts us physically and mentally and social connection is such an antidote. I am very grateful that you are leading the way and what may be a social revival, as you say, coming out of this COVID-19 pandemic, so thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Vivek Murthy Thank you so much, Dacher.
Dacher Ketlner There’s so many challenges in the world these days, it’s easy to only focus on the negative.
Arpi Hovasapian Because our brains are so good at holding onto that and being aware of that. I think it’s helpful and good to try to basically hack or override that system and to do things that also bring positive memories.
Dacher Keltner More up next.
Arpi Hovasapian The brain is good at holding onto bad things, but when good things happen to us, they sort of roll off. This is actually adaptive. It helps us survive in our world.
Dacher Keltner Arpi Hovasapian is a social psychologist and a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University in Belgium. She says that fixating on the bad has helped humans survive because it makes us vigilant against threats.
Arpi Hovasapian But this tendency to not get as fixated on the good makes it a bit harder for us to savor and enjoy the good things that happen to us.
So, what I did was I contacted university students almost immediately after they found out about their exam grade and one of their classes. For the people that did well and felt a positive emotion, I asked them both immediately after and also a day after to tell us about their intensity and duration of their emotions and who they shared with and what their sharing partners responded with.
Dacher Keltner Arpi found that sharing their good news made them feel the positive emotions more intensely. And it also prolonged those good feelings.
Arpi Hovasapian And importantly, this was especially true when people’s sharing partners responded in these particular ways. So if their sharing partners highlighted the importance and the remarkability of the good grades, so they said things like, “Wow, that’s so cool. That’s a hard class” and basically highlighted the unique, surprising, interesting novel and valuable aspects of the event.
Dacher Keltner She also found the more people they shared the news with the more time they spend thinking about it afterward.
Arpi Hovasapian I think that, especially in a time right now, where there’s so much bad things happening in the world, and of course we’re bombarded by it and the news, and we really have just a lot of negative things on our minds and because our brains are so good at holding onto that and being aware of that, I think it’s helpful and good to try to basically hack or override that system and to do things that also bring positive memories and experiences and feelings into our lives and into our brains.
So, you know, savoring and sharing our experiences with other people, whether it’s a big thing that happened to us, or just a tiny thing, I think it’s a nice practice.
Dacher Keltner Next time on the science of happiness.
Jade Wu I don’t think I’ve ever experienced any real pain in my life. Like I didn’t really break any bones when I was little and didn’t really have any major illnesses. So going into this, I was really nervous about how painful labor and delivery would be.
Dacher Keltner A practice to help deal with pain and uncertainty.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the science of happiness. You can try our Capitalizing on Positive Events practice at our website, www.greatergooddotberkeley.edu/podcasts. We’ve also got a new book out on the science of gratitude, featuring many of our past guests like comedian W. Kamau, Bell and psychologist Sara Algoe. Learn more at www.greatergood.berkeley.edu/gratitudeproject.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our engineers, Jennie Cataldo of BMP audio. Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. Our science director is Emiliana Simon-Thomas.