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Kathy Whelan

Posted on July 06, 2020

As a nation, America prides itself on its independence, which we commemorated last weekend. As a culture and as individuals, we value independence throughout the lifespan, beginning with the praise we heap on children each time they learn to do something by themselves. Among adults, we admire independent thinkers. We are so independent that we lead the world in our growing percentage of adults who live alone, even in our later years.

But is there a cost to this cultural independence, and if so, what? After Vivek Murthy, MD became US Surgeon General in 2014, he embarked on a listening tour across the country, where he encountered something unexpected. In stories of addiction, violence, anxiety and depression ran a “dark thread,” an “undertow” of loneliness, he writes in his new book. He began to wonder whether our American values of individualism and self-determination were contributing to this troubling phenomenon.

It became clear to Surgeon General Murthy that having strong human connection is the antidote to loneliness. We are hardwired to connect with others; if we weren’t, the human species would not have survived. This much may be obvious, but what may be surprising is the strong impact social connection continues to have on our health and aging.

Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, MD is the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, possibly the longest-running study ever of adult life. At its 1938 inception, the study tracked the health of 724 men, some Harvard sophomores and others residents of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Since then, it has expanded to include offspring and wives of the original group. The study broadly covers physical and mental health as well as areas like career and family life.

According to Dr. Waldinger, the clearest message from the Harvard Study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier, more than wealth, fame or anything else. In his 2015 TED talk, he outlined the study’s three major lessons about relationships: 1) social connections are really good for us, 2) loneliness kills and 3) people who are more socially connected to family, friends and community are happier, physically healthier, longer-lived and mentally sharper than people who are not as connected.

Since Drs. Murthy and Waldinger voiced these thoughts, the COVID-19 pandemic has struck, forcing us into isolation. To be clear, being alone does not necessarily lead to loneliness, which is a subjective feeling of lacking social connectedness. Loneliness can exist anywhere, even in a crowd or a marriage. But, as we all know by now, isolation from relatives and friends makes keeping up social connections vastly more challenging.

In late March, I attended Dr. Waldinger’s webinar “How to Manage Relationships in a Time of Social Distancing.” This situation, he said, offers a chance to show each other our best selves. He suggested making kindness our default setting in dealing with others and thinking how we will feel if we look back in five years at how we and our loved ones treated one another. We need to cut each other some slack during this time, he warned. And if we think about reaching out to someone, we should do it!

Those who have studied loneliness agree that quality matters much more than quantity when it comes to social connections. In considering which relationships to nurture, we should prioritize those that are positive, involve reciprocity and cooperation, and allow us to really be ourselves: authentic, even vulnerable.

Communication is essential to a good relationship, yet most of us could use some improvement in this area. In my health coach training, I learned about mindful listening: being fully present in a conversation, moment to moment, with non-judgmental curiosity. I soon realized this skill was not just for coaching but for any conversation. Because loneliness can look like anger, frustration or irritability, deep listening can help uncover the real message. This short article explains a few basics everyone can learn: mindful listening.

Mindful speaking is important, too, becoming aware of when we’ve gone into a monologue and being alert to signs we’ve lost our listener’s attention. Even if we can’t see our loved ones or close friends in person, we can still communicate, and these skills can help strengthen that communication. Seeing others’ facial expressions and gestures is important, making virtual communication more powerful for connection than a phone conversation.

Returning to Dr. Murthy’s question about whether our cultural independence contributes to loneliness, I would answer that it may indeed do so, but it doesn’t have to. Remembering the value of our social connections and working to keep them strong – seeking help when we need it and offering it freely – should allow us to remain independent without being lonely. This year, with its unique circumstances, seems to me an excellent time to celebrate not only our independence but also our interdependence, which has never mattered more.

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