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A Social Prescription: Why Human Connection Is Crucial To Our Health

At a time of mandated physical distancing, many of us are struggling to feel socially connected.
Justin Paget
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Getty Images

Vivek Murthy was a newly-minted doctor when he realized that his thorough medical school education had fallen short. His training hadn't prepared him for one of the most frequent health issues he saw in the examination room: loneliness.

Vivek remembers feeling helpless when a patient recounted his sense of social isolation and the physical health problems linked to it. "I felt utterly ill-equipped to address what was clearly the issue that was on his mind," Vivek says.

Years later, when Vivek became the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, he witnessed a "dark thread of loneliness" in his conversations with Americans across the country. Loneliness, he realized, was more pervasive than he'd thought, and was bound up in other health issues in complicated ways. He calls loneliness "the great masquerader"; it often manifests as other emotions, such as anger, or through behaviors, such as drug or alcohol abuse.

Even after Vivek left his post as the country's leading spokesperson for public health, he continued his effort to understand loneliness. In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World ,Vivek highlights the importance of relationships, the hazards of loneliness, and what we can do to live a more people-centered life. His book arrived on shelves at a time when the vast majority of Americans are under orders to stay at home. This week on Hidden Brain, during a time of mandated physical distancing, we talk with Vivek about the importance of human connection and how we can strengthen our social ties.

Additional resources:

"Loneliness and Social Isolation As Risk Factors For Mortality: A Meta-analytic Review" by Julianne Holt-Lunstad et. al. in Perspectives on Psychological Science,2015.

"Loneliness and Social Isolation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan: An International Survey" by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 2018.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Parth Shah is an associate producer at Hidden Brain. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.