As US surgeon general from 2014 to 2017, Vivek Murthy visited communities across the United States to talk about issues like addiction, obesity, and mental illness. But he found that what Americans wanted to talk to him about the most was loneliness.
Loneliness isn’t simply painful, it’s lethal. Several meta-studies have found the mortality risk associated with loneliness is higher than that of obesity and equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. So, Murthy decided to label loneliness a public health “epidemic,” a term that medical professionals don’t throw around lightly.
Murthy’s advocacy has changed the national discourse around loneliness. However, this isn’t a conversation simply about loneliness as a public health problem: It is about loneliness as a deeply painful lived experience — one that both Murthy and I are all too familiar with.
There’s a lot in this conversation. Murthy’s explanation of how loneliness acts on the body is worth the time, all on its own. It’ll change how you see the relationship between social experience and physical health. But the broader message here is deeper: You are not alone in your loneliness. None of us are. And the best thing we can do is, often, helping someone else out of the very pit we’re in.
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