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Social connection is critical, but many struggle to form and maintain meaningful relationships

Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

Vivek Murthy
Harper Wave
2020
352 pp.
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As a fledgling physician, Vivek Murthy considered social issues such as loneliness to be outside the domain of doctoring. That all changed when he met a patient named James, whose health concerns appeared to stem from social isolation that started after winning the lottery. In restructuring his life to his new economic standing, James had inadvertently cut himself off from his existing support network, sending his health into a downward spiral. In his book Together, Murthy—who served as the 19th surgeon general of the United States—draws from decades of scientific research and his own experiences with patients like James to show just how damaging loneliness can be.

The timing of the book’s release coincides with a global public health crisis, as people around the world adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Murthy’s account of the factors driving loneliness and his suggestions to combat isolation are particularly poignant now, as many abide by recommendations to stay home and avoid social contact with others.

The link between loneliness and health is rooted in the evolutionary history of humankind. As a social species, early humans depended on their communities for food, shelter, and safety. Survival required building and maintaining relationships with others, and exclusion from these relationships was deadly. Given this history, it is no wonder that the drive to connect with others—and the pain experienced when disconnected from others—emerged as a very important survival instinct.

Just as experiencing physical pain signals our body to move away from the pain source, the pain we feel when separated or excluded from social relationships can serve as a signal to reconnect with our friends, family, and community. When forming or maintaining these important social bonds proves difficult, our mental and physical health suffers.

Whereas early humans would have lived in tight-knit communities where social connections were guaranteed, advances in mobility and technology in modern society make sustaining social relationships both effortful and difficult. Many of us live far away from our families and friends, and hectic careers quickly absorb the time needed to cultivate relationships. Many of our social interactions now take place through screens rather than in person, and increasingly individualistic cultures cause us to put less priority on our relationships.

Murthy describes how many such cultural and technological factors can have both positive and negative impacts on our relationships. Social media, for example, can help us keep in touch with friends and family across long distances and enable us to reconnect with loved ones from whom we have grown apart. At the same time, technology can prevent us from investing in our relationships with those closest to us, leading to greater disconnect.

Collectivistic communities—those that emphasize the needs of the group over the needs of individuals—can foster connectedness by providing social institutions that bind people together. But oppressive social norms inherent in many such communities can cause undue stress, and those who do not conform to these norms can be ostracized and left even more isolated than those from individualistic communities. Understanding the profound necessity of connectedness and how we can protect ourselves from isolation in modern society can help us to take deliberate action to cultivate our relationships with others.

For those who are fortunate, the practice of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic may provide valuable opportunities to reconnect with family and loved ones quarantined at home. For many others, the situation will be dire. Those living alone will experience increased isolation, and those most at risk, such as the elderly and ill, may be kept in isolation from their loved ones. On a societal level, the public health implications of this widespread disconnect may be severe.

By showcasing research on the impact of loneliness and its social and environmental antecedents, Murthy presents a road map of the various pathways that lead to connection or isolation. Although the path to connectedness may be long and arduous, particularly while social distancing, the direction in which we must head is clear.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Psychological Sciences, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23185, USA.