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Ex-Surgeon General On A Way Out Of Loneliness: Put Down Your Phone

A pedestrian uses a smartphone as he walks along Market Street on June 5, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
A pedestrian uses a smartphone as he walks along Market Street on June 5, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Loneliness is a deadly epidemic, but there are treatments, the former surgeon general of the United States said Wednesday: finding real, face-to-face connections with people we love.

“It’s worth considering carving time out in your day to be with people, without your phone,” Vivek Murthy, who served under President Obama, said in an appearance Wednesday on the NPR show On Point. “Just spending five minutes with someone who you trust, who you love, can be incredibly important.”

He added: "What happens in many of our lives, mine included, is that our phones too often distract us from being fully present in conversation."

Our show Wednesday looked at the effect on loneliness in our modern lives. Researchers say it’s as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

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There’s science behind the devastating health effects, Murthy explained: We evolved to be social beings, and when we’re alone, we’re in a state of stress. That can lead to higher inflammation, which leads to disease. Loneliness also affects how we do at school and work.

And even though we might feel some sort of counterfeit connection to others via social media, when we're scrolling through email at the dinner table or on social media at a family gathering, we may “end up coming away from it feeling even more disconnected and worse off than we were before,” Murthy told guest host Jane Clayson.

"Loneliness is a solvable problem. We only need a heart full of compassion and the courage to express that."

Vivek Murthy, former U.S. surgeon general

Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist in Massachusetts, said it’s particularly concerning to hear about young people who are in their bedrooms interacting with friends through their devices, rather than in person, possibly stunting the growth of social skills.

"One could make an argument that we need to be in the presence of other people to have the full advantage of company, and that a text is a pale shadow compared to a one-to-one encounter," Olds said.

Being isolated, sometimes of our own choosing, is different from being lonely. But both pose risks, researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University explained.

“They can coexist, but isolation really refers to this more objective sense of having few relationships or infrequent contact with others, whereas loneliness is really a perception of feeling alone or feeling disconnected,” Holt-Lunstad said. “And of course someone can be isolated and not feel lonely. They may actually take pleasure or solitude in being alone. And likewise someone can feel lonely and yet be surrounded by others. And our data shows that both of these significantly predict risk for prematurely premature mortality and that this risk is equivalent.”

There’s also a prescription, said Murthy, the former surgeon general — whether that’s putting down your phone at the dinner table, or getting involved in activism, or just helping others.

“If we focus on rebuilding our connection with each other, that can have a real impact on our ability to dialogue, to come together to solve tough problems,” Murthy said. “The good news about loneliness is it's a solvable problem. We only need a heart full of compassion and the courage to express that.”

Related:

Brian Amaral Twitter Digital Producer, On Point
Brian was a digital producer for On Point.

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