When the Surgeon General of the United States this month issued an official “Advisory” on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, I was inclined to dismiss the paper as just another example of the federal government spending taxpayer money on an issue over which it has no reasonable jurisdiction.
While the Loneliness “alarm” published by Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is in fact another taxpayer-funded project over which there is no reasonable basis in the Constitution giving Uncle Sam legitimate jurisdiction, the nation’s “Top Doc” is actually onto something here, even if he fails to consider one of its primary causes.
Humans are fundamentally “social animals,” and for millennia social relationships have provided the context in which cultures develop and thrive (or not). Social discourse is the medium in which advances are made, in everything from the sciences to philosophy and from medicine to government structure. Failure to engage socially on both individual and collective levels can be, and demonstrably are, factors contributing to stagnation at the micro and macro level.
The very form of government and social structure embodied in our Constitution is framed as a “social compact.” Without social interaction, interpersonal discourse, and mutual understanding, the relationships between the citizenry and government, and the checks and balances incorporated into our constitutional republic, will no longer provide the essential ingredients for us to remain free.
There are, as Dr. Murthy describes in his Advisory, other very real benefits to social interactions.
The Surgeon General notes that isolation from fellow humans has been shown to diminish an individual’s mental and physical health, even leading to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia. The good doctor goes a bit far in declaring that loneliness can contribute to a person’s mortality to the same extent as “smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day” – a claim that led to headlines, but which lacks sourcing that clearly provides evidence for the conclusion. However, his thesis that socially active people generally are more likely to enjoy healthy lives than those who live apart from others, is well-made.
Additionally, Dr. Murthy correctly identifies that among the loneliness epidemic’s primary causes is the pervasive influence and easy availability of alternatives to inter-human interaction – namely, social media and other forms of non-personal communication. As illustrated graphically in the Advisory, over the past nearly 20 years, individuals’ “social engagement with friends” and with “others” have dropped dramatically, even as evidence of “social isolation” has increased significantly.
While the two-year long COVID pandemic increased both individual and social loneliness, the trends noted by the Surgeon General long predate the onset of COVID and the socially disastrous government responses to it (a valid topic for a far more lengthy “advisory”).
Dr. Murthy does not limit himself to identifying the problem and causes of loneliness and social isolation. In his Advisory and in subsequent interviews, he offers a number of ways to begin what will be at best a long road to recovery. Among these are recommendations to “scale back on social media” (an understatement), to actually “listen” and pay “attention” to other people (in my view, a completely lost art in today’s hyper-partisan political arena), and to “serve others” by civic volunteerism.
Kudos to Dr. Murthy for emphasizing the importance and benefits of such activities.
One factor that exacerbates the isolation and loneliness pervasive in contemporary America, but not discussed by the Surgeon General, is the divisiveness that results directly from the fact that in today’s society, great emphasis is placed on driving people and groups apart based on all manner of real or perceived factors.
It actually makes it harder for individuals to interact positively with each other when they are bombarded with signals if not demands that people must be differentiated and categorized according to artificially designated barriers such as race, gender, or political preferences.
Dr. Murthy’s Advisory did not touch on this major cause of social disruption, and perhaps it was beyond the scope of his effort; but if we are to take his warning to heart and actually endeavor to solve the problem he identifies, it is imperative that we openly and actively resist the ongoing drive for social tribalism and ostracism.