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Preventing Social Disconnection While Social Distancing

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

In our May 20/20 Book Club selection, TOGETHER, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, explores the importance of human connection, the hidden impact of loneliness on our health, and the social power of community. Read the book and join us for a virtual book talk with Dr. Murthy on May 26th to discuss why connection and community are critical to our global pandemic recovery.

TOGETHER: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World is a book about the importance of human connection, the hidden impact of loneliness on our health, and the social power of community. As a physician and the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy wanted to address these issues because of the physical and emotional toll of social disconnection that he’d watched rising throughout society over the past few decades. What he could not anticipate, however, was the unprecedented test that our global community would face just as the book was going to press.

The timeliness of TOGETHER cannot be understated—as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, the public health imperative is clear: to save lives, we need to radically increase the space between us. But will this crisis lead to social, as well as physical isolation? Will social distancing condemn us to loneliness and a “social recession?” Dr. Murthy believes healthy relationships are as essential as vaccines and ventilators for our global recovery and that we have the opportunity to fortify and strengthen our connections and communities during this crisis.

BOOK TALK: On Tuesday, May 26th (1:00 pm EST), Vivek Murthy joined Aspen Ideas: Health 20/20 for a LIVE conversation with Olga Khazan of The Atlantic about the importance of human connection and community in recovering from the global pandemic. Watch!

The lessons in TOGETHER have immediate relevance and application. These four key strategies will help us not only to weather this crisis, but also to heal our social world far into the future.

  1. Spend time each day with those you love. This is not limited to the people in your immediate household. Reach out also to the other members of your lifeline via phone or, better yet, videoconference, so you can hear their voice and see their face. Devote at least 15 minutes each day to connecting with those you most care about.

  2. Focus on each other. Try to eliminate distractions when interacting with others. Forget about multitasking and give the other person the gift of your full attention, making eye contact, if possible, and genuinely listening.

  3. Embrace solitude. The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Solitude helps us do that by allowing us to check in with our own feelings and thoughts, to explore our creativity, to connect with nature. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent outdoors can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy.

  4. Help and be helped. Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Giving and receiving both strengthen our social bonds, so checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger.

During Murthy’s tenure as Surgeon General and during the research for TOGETHER, he found that there were few issues that elicited as much enthusiastic interest from both very conservative and very liberal members of Congress, from young and old people, or from urban and rural residents alike. Loneliness was something so many people have known themselves or have seen in the people around them. In the book, Murthy also shares his own deeply personal experiences with the subject--from struggling with loneliness in school, to the devastating loss of his uncle who succumbed to his own loneliness, as well as the important example of community and connection that his parents modeled. Simply, it’s a universal condition that affects all of us directly or through the people we love—now more than ever.

As Murthy writes, “This pandemic isn’t the first and won’t be the last time our social connections are tested, but it is rare for the whole world to face such a grave challenge simultaneously. For all our differences, our shared experience is itself a bond. We will have this memory in common for the rest of our lives. And if we learn from this moment to be better together, we won’t just endure this crisis. We will thrive.”

About the Author:

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States from December 15, 2014 to April 21, 2017. As America’s Doctor, he called the nation’s attention to critical public health issues including the opioid epidemic, e-cigarettes, and emotional health and wellbeing. As the Vice Admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, he oversaw a uniformed service of 6,600 officers dedicated to safeguarding the health of the nation. Prior to serving in government, he conducted research on vaccine development and clinical trial participation and founded several organizations focused on HIV/AIDS education, rural health, physician advocacy, and clinical trial optimization. He received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard and his M.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Yale. He completed his internal medicine residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School where he later joined the faculty. Dr. Murthy resides in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Dr. Alice Chen, and their two children.

Watch Dr. Murthy Discuss the opioid epidemic at Aspen Ideas: Health:

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