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Show 1368: Why Overcoming Loneliness Is Crucial for Your Health

Social isolation is a serious risk factor for chronic diseases. As a result, overcoming loneliness is an essential step toward better health.
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Why Overcoming Loneliness Is Crucial for Your Health

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In this week’s interview, Dr. Robert Waldinger of Harvard University explains why overcoming loneliness is essential for our health. His research, summarized in The Good Life, shows that close relationships are crucial for a satisfying life. In addition, the Surgeon General has issued a comprehensive report on the epidemic of loneliness and its effects on physical as well as mental health. How do we reach out to others and vanquish their loneliness as well as ours?

You may want to listen to it through your local public radio station or get the live stream at 7 am EDT on your computer or smart phone (wunc.org). Here is a link so you can find which stations carry our broadcast. If you can’t listen to the broadcast, you may wish to hear the podcast later. You can subscribe through your favorite podcast provider, download the mp3 using the link at the bottom of the page, or listen to the stream on this post starting on January 8, 2023.

Why Overcoming Loneliness Is Important:

Loneliness may not seem like an urgent health issue, but it is. That was clear even before US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy MD issued his 2023 report: Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. This report summarizes the research linking lack of social connection to serious health outcomes like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and dementia. A graphic on page 25 demonstrates that social isolation is as dangerous to a person’s health as smoking half a pack a day or drinking too much.

These findings do not surprise our guest, Dr. Robert Waldinger. He is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, the world’s longest-running scientific study on what makes a satisfying life. What Dr. Waldinger and the research team found is that relationships of all sorts–friendships, romantic partnerships, family ties, even casual acquaintances–are critical for a meaningful life. Warm relationships seem to provide a buffer against stress. Without them, we are literally on our own.

Why Has Loneliness Become an Epidemic?

The United States is not the only country in the world where people are experiencing social isolation or loneliness. But there are some cultures where people place a higher priority on maintaining social connections with extended family or classmates. Our emphasis on maximizing productivity may interfere with placing a value on spending time with others.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Ever since most American homes acquired television, people started spending more time at home rather than interacting with neighbors. The small screens that currently scream for our attention are even more likely to result in isolation, even as we scroll through our “social media” feeds.

How Communities Can Tackle Overcoming Loneliness:

For the past century, at least, many Americans experienced social connection simply by showing up at work. Accomplishing a shared task might be one bond, but hanging out together around the water cooler is also a way to make work friends. The pandemic accelerated a trend towards working remotely and not interacting with coworkers casually. Companies might want to re-think their policies. People are more productive as well as happier and healthier if they have friendly interactions with others at work, and that means not being chained to the computer all day long.

Introverts and Extroverts:

Some people are introverts. They may find it hard to get to know new people. Extroverts, on the other hand, often make friends easily. However, they may also need more friendships to feel socially satisfied. Some schools are starting to teach children much-needed social and emotional skills. Even older people may find it useful to practice such skills. Both young people, between 16 and 24, and the elderly (over 65 in this context) are among the groups most likely to suffer social isolation.

Counteracting the Stress of the News:

There are some things we can do as individuals to help protect ourselves from the stressors of everyday life. Dr. Waldinger quotes Thich Nhat Hanh to the effect what we put into our minds becomes the content of our minds. He makes the argument that we should be mindful about how much news we consume every day as well as how we consume it.

Another practice that flows from the Buddhist teacher is to pay attention to what is good in your life. Acknowledging gratitude, whether by speaking or journaling, can help buffer the feeling of living on the edge of catastrophe. Being grateful for your friends, and letting them know it, is another approach to overcoming loneliness.

Finally, spend time with people who make your hands warm. This is a quick way of judging whether you are comfortable with them. Dr. Waldinger recognizes that we often let our busy lives get in the way of connecting. When he gives talks, he frequently invites the audience to send a text or email to someone they like but haven’t seen in a while. Sometimes, this results in plans to get together soon. Most of the time, people get a heartwarming response. His advice for all of us as we face the new year: turn toward people who make you feel hopeful.

This Week’s Guest:

Robert Waldinger, MD is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, and cofounder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. Along with being a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Waldinger is also a Zen master (Roshi) and teaches meditation in New England and around the world. Dr. Waldinger, with co-author Marc Schulz, PhD, is the author of The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness.

Dr. Robert Waldinger discusses the findings on happiness and overcoming loneliness from the Harvard Study of Adult Development

Robert Waldinger, MD, author of The Good Life

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available Monday, January 8, 2024, after broadcast on Jan. 6. You can stream the show from this site and download the podcast for free.

Download the mp3.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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