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Thought Leadership

The Hidden Crisis: Loneliness

Last year I came across an article that took me completely by surprise. Former surgeon general Vivek Murthy wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” Really? This coming from the same guy that guided our country through the Zika virus and Ebola outbreak- it just didn’t make sense. But, as I started to dig a little deeper on the topic, I discovered this “loneliness crisis” has been developing for decades.

From 1985 to 2004, the number of Americans who say they have no one to confide in reached 25% of the population – a nearly threefold increase. A report released last year by health insurer Cigna found that about half the U.S. population (over 20,000 participated in the study) can be classified as lonely. Surprisingly, the younger generations (Gen Z and millennials) reported higher levels of loneliness than older generations. A British study published around the same time turned up similar results. Unsurprisingly, many experts blame social media use, which they argue hinders the ability to develop real-world relationship skills. The physical and psychological toll is horrific. Loneliness has been found to reduce lifespan equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and it’s fully twice as harmful as obesity.

Since 1999, the U.S. suicide rate has risen by 30 percent. The plague has hit the young particularly hard, with a 70% increase between 2006 and 2016. Just last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the life span of the average American had declined three years in a row. This is a stunning trend when you consider the last time our life span contracted for this length of time was 1915 to 1918 when we faced World War I and a flu pandemic.

In order to begin to understand this issue, it’s important to define loneliness. It’s distinct from social isolation – one can feel lonely in an office with hundreds of people or in a marriage. What’s difficult about loneliness is that it’s a subjective experience- the discrepancy between the social connection we desire and what we actually experience. We are a social species that require not simply the presence of others, but significant others. And on top of that we need to feel deeply connected to our significant others to not feel lonely. Robin Williams is a tragic example and illustrated this point when he said: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”

Like the classic example of buying a car you think is somewhat unique, but suddenly seeing it everywhere, I’ve begun to see loneliness everywhere. There are a lot of different thoughts about the causes of the crisis, and the far-reaching implications. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse wrote a book about the political division in our country and said, “We're living through a digital revolution which is an undermining place. I think the biggest problem in America right now is loneliness.” David Brooks, one of the most syndicated columnists in the country also wrote a book about his own experience with debilitating loneliness. Brooks equates the shortcomings of Western culture with his own failings as a husband. “My first mountain was an insanely lucky one,” he writes. “I achieved far more professional success than I ever expected to. But that climb turned me into a certain sort of person: aloof, invulnerable and uncommunicative, at least when it came to my private life. I sidestepped the responsibilities of relationship.”

The obvious question is what are we supposed to do about it? Dr. Murthy addresses the corporate world because it’s where we spend so much of our time. He advises that we first assess the relational connectivity at our workplace, then create a culture that prioritizes and protects our “non-work” time. Lastly, he calls on companies to create opportunities for social connection. At Vine Society, a company I founded in 2017, we created a concept called the “long, slow, dinner.” For thousands of years, we’ve done our primary “connecting” as human beings over shared meals. We believe it’s a powerful antidote to what ails us as a society. Our dinners include a private chef and sommelier and five or more courses over a 2-3 hour period (and often extends late into the night) which creates a context for connections to deepen. We put a lot of intention into curating the food and wine pairings, but what we're really excited about is curating the conversation. Many of us have been to more “networking” functions or fundraising dinners than we care to count and the conversation rarely transitions from small talk to meaningful topics. The opposite is a “Jeffersonian” dinner, modeled after Thomas Jefferson who famously hosted dinners for 8-12 guests and moderated a single conversation over an important topic – rather than a bunch of side conversations happening at the same time. Charities use this format to connect hearts to the mission of the organization and companies to foster relationships both internal and with top clients. If you’re curious, you can find more information HERE.

A shining example to highlight is the Mayo Clinic, the number one rated hospital overall in the nation. They recognized that the increasing productivity expectations and documentation requirements led to an erosion of peer support and a greater sense of isolation. Around the same time that many institutions were eliminating the physicians’ lounge (2001) they introduced a dedicated meeting area with free fruit and beverages, computer stations, lunch tables, and limited food for purchase. The space so rapidly became an incubator for peer interaction and comradery that within 3 years they remodeled 3 other campuses. But, they didn’t stop there. Through a randomized trial they discovered that providing doctors with one hour of protected time every other week to meet with a small group of colleagues and discuss topics related to their experience as a physician improved meaning in work and reduced burnout. This led to the creation of small groups of 7-8 doctors that shared a meal at a local restaurant and spent at least the first 20 minutes discussing a question that explored the virtues and challenges of being a physician (Mayo Clinic picks up the tab). They made it available to all 3755 doctors and scientists and within 10 months 1100 signed up. A follow up survey revealed that 97% found it valuable.

Loneliness is a complex problem and we’re only beginning to understand its implications. It’s time that we take a moment to consider the physical and psychological impact of modern society and bring a new level of intentionality to our lives and organizations. What would it look like to design our physical spaces with relational connection as the highest priority? What if we didn't feel guilty about scheduling time to maintain and deepen relational bonds during the workday? It’s time to ask the hard questions about how we approach relationships. We spend dramatically more time strategizing next quarter's sales and marketing than we put into a strategy of building and maintaining our relationships, the quality of which -in the end- are all that matter in this life.

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