Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World
© 2020 Vivek H. Murthy
352 pages

People are generally open about their physical health; indeed, for men of a certain age, it’s their favorite topic of discussion — at least, judging by the chatter I hear nursing a morning coffee at the diner across the street from where I work.  Mental health, though, is usually buried away like it’s a shame, evidence of personal failings – and loneliness  is no exception.  Vivek Murthy’s Together reviews various facets of loneliness, its consequences for our overall health – both for private individuals and for society at large –   and then shares ways in which people are restoring connection in their own lives. One of its more interesting lessons, though, is that loneliness is pervasive –   torturing its victims with double isolation, for they believe themselves to not only be alone in their lives, but alone in their suffering.  But, Murthy notes,  the loneliness engendered by the modern world affects nearly everyone,  respecting no boundaries of sex, class,  religion, or political affiliation. . 

Loneliness, Murthy begins, is not a disease. It is instead feedback from our brain – a warning sign, like pain.  Mental and emotional trauma are not fictitious simply because they occur in our heads:  our brains light up from emotional pain in the same way they light up from physical attack.   The pain of loneliness is a warning that we are disconnected from the tribe, weaker by isolation and more exposed to danger. Instincts born of a hundred thousand years of human evolution, of small tribes intensely dependent on their members for mutual survival, do not go quiet simply because we have paved over the world and suffer more from diseases of material prosperity than from poverty and environmental dangers.  We are hardwired for social connection, even self-described loners. Ted Kaczynski and Henry David Thoreau may have been hermits living in the woods, but  Kaczynski regularly visited the local library to enjoy company, and Thoreau often invited friends to join him for dinner at Walden.  We need connection at multiple layers, Murthy suggests: intimate connection, like that of a spouse or close friend who knows our inner being and supports us, as we do them; social connection, of solid core friendships, and collective connection, or a feeling of being tied to the society we live in. It is possible to be fulfilled in some degrees and impoverished in the others, as might happen when newlyweds focus solely on one another and let their friendships wither. The difference between the pain of loneliness and physical pain, though, is that loneliness is not self-correcting: a burned hand drives us away from the hot stove, a cutting wind sends us scurrying for shelter and warm clothing. Loneliness, however, creates a positive feedback loop: feeling isolated, we grow wary and defensive, and withdraw further from the company of people whose presence could give us comfort. It’s crucial that we be aware of this and fight it, going against our protective instincts — because just as communion with one another brings us benefits like increased creativity and optimism, loneliness carries with it increased risks for heart disease, hypertension, dementia, and other diseases. Loneliness puts our brains into chronic low-grade stress, taxing our bodies and interrupting our ability to sleep. Murthy muses that one of the reasons women may outlive men is that women in retirement are far more likely to seek out opportunities to stay socially active, joining clubs and classes, whereas men are more likely to conceal their feelings of newfound loneliness and fall prey to further isolation and feelings of uselessness that foster depression and weaken overall health.

American society has been unraveling for decades now: Robert Putnam first drew attention to it with his Bowling Alone, on the cratering of civic and social participation across the board. One may look for reasons where they may: blame television, suburban sprawl, the establishment of the Individual Consumer as God. Murthy shares thoughts on additional factors, particularly technology — which promises connection but often makes us more self-absorbed and distracted, and is changing so rapidly that we’re unable to create social norms to moderate abuses inherent in experimental phases. The ubiquitous use of technology to make things more efficient has also increasingly removed or marginalization human connections. It is now possible for someone to live their existence completely from within their home, picking up groceries from their patio after a contactless, person-less dropoff. Even if they go into a store, it’s increasingly possible not to to have to talk to clerks at all: in Walmart, for instance, an app can tell people where to find a given item, and most checkouts are self-checkouts. I couldn’t help but think of Kurt Vonnegut’s resistance to this: any time he mailed a letter, he said, he insisted on walking to the drug store to buy An Envelope, then walking to the post office to buy A Stamp. Yes, he wrote, he could buy a box of envelopes and a page of stamps, but he valued his amiable chats with people in shops and on the street more than he valued convenience. There’s also the fact that we are rarely who we pretend to be on social media: our presented selves are curated, and while they may receive validation in the form of likes and shares, it’s only a fleeting hit of a dopamine which is ultimately empty. This has a bearing on political polarization, because when we see content from the other side, we’re getting the public offering — the controversial, the aggressive, the smarmy. We see only Joe Biden doing a bad Palpatine impression, not the grief-crushed and declining father anxious to leave a positive mark on the world.

After reviewing the consequences and some origins of loneliness (more factors are covered in The Lonely American), Murthy switches gears and shares the stories of those who have used their suffering as fuel to effect something good in the world — returning fire against loneliness by creating connection. One of the more inspiring stories in this book is that of Derek Black, the son of the man who created the internet’s chief gathering spot for racists and antisemites. When Black left for college, he encountered people not only different from him, but people he’d explicitly been told to hate — but, bonding over common interests, he fell into friendship and discovered his and ‘the other’s’ humanity. The story is doubling inspiring because one of his friends, an observant Jew, realized who Black was but persisted in the friendship because of his own hope that redemption was possible. From these stories, Murthy focuses on four key lessons: first deliberately spend time with people you love every day.  Make the time.  Don’t simply wait for a door to open – open the door yourself, or at the very least knock and rattle the doorknob.   When you are with people, be with them — put distractions aside. Some activities, like singing or dancing together, are especially conducive to bonding and fulfillment.

This topic has weighed on my mind for over a decade, ever since I left an isolating background, experienced the socially rich world of university, and came home intent on finding or creating ways of experiencing that richness outside of the college experience. I especially appreciated Murthy’s long look at the socially disruptive effects of technology, and am glad that I’ve previously read criticism from writers like Neil Postman and Sherry Turkle that helped me prioritize authentic connection against the often erstaz forms offered by the internet. This is an important book to consider, especially in the coronamania era where we have witnessed not only the eagerness of the state to impose inhuman measures like nationwide lockdowns, but their willful obliviousness to the consequences of sustained “social distancing”, particularly regarding mental health. Murthy, C.S. Lewis, and Jordan Peterson have all observed that we find ourselves in one another. I’m grateful to Murthy for not only writing a book like this that details the problem, but gives people insight into how they can resist atomization in their own lives.

Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, Ben Sasse
The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century, Jacqueline Olds & Richard Schwartz
Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, Arthur C. Brooks

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
This entry was posted in Politics and Civic Interest, Reviews, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Together

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    “Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours…..” Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1927)

    • Very true. It’s hard to find the golden thread between enjoying benefits of modernity without being led away from them from that which sustains us.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        I’ve long thought that most of what we’re presented with, most especially what we are ‘supposed’ to or encouraged to like, enjoy, acquire or admire is fake, at best a distraction or illusion. It does depress me sometimes that so many people think it’s real or as good as it gets. But apparently I’m an elitist snob… [lol]

      • Yes! This is especially true around the holidays. People make themselves miserable cooking food Because We’re Supposed To, and then they torture themselves in obnoxious stores among crowds just to spend money on stuff they’ll forget about.

  2. Marian says:

    This is such a mind-boggling topic to me, on several levels. Nature vs nurture, geography, and religious factors (the frequent loneliness of being a Christian) are threads I struggle to braid into a single coherent perspective. I recall the Bronte sisters and how isolated they were in spite of being active members of a pretty uniform society (by our standards). We know loneliness can be an issue in other well-organized societies like Japan. So there’s something more than culture that makes the difference, it would seem. In my case (as an INFJ) I suspect it’s a combination of being selectively social by nature and also being culturally dissonant by choice – I skip a lot of meetups in my area because they tend to center around alcohol. *sigh*

    That said, I’m grateful to hear the book highlights friendships, which is more accessible when you can find someone you vibe with. I really enjoyed this Truth Unites video about this topic:

    My grandma is still friends with people she’s known for decades and decades. I admire that so much, and wonder how many people today (myself included) will be able to say that in 50 years.

    • Hopefully it will be easier for you to find Christian fellowship where you now compared to where you were. May be a trade off with other changes, though. I know what you mean about being culturally dissonant…one of the primary bonding activities in the South is talking about football, and that’s just not something that interests me. I’ve been lucky and dogged enough to find and build little circles of friends who prefer other activities — books, movies, history.

      Thanks for the video link. I’ll check it out after work.

      I’m not sure about your question on friendships…I think it may depend on your culture and where you are. I can see urbanites who are forever moving cities and chasing new opportunities being more prone to losing friends along the way (for want of physical connection) than someone in the more insular South. We’re more likely to stay where we are, even if where we are has no economic opportunities whatsoever. It’s where our people are and were, so here we remain..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s