Everyday, I speak with leaders who are surrounded by people and yet admit that they feel lonely. Loneliness is defined in Vivek Murthy’s book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World as “the subjective feeling that you are lacking the social connections that you need.”

When I began reading Murthy’s new book I was surprised to learn that loneliness is much more than an unpleasant experience of isolation. According to the author, a former (and future) US Surgeon General, loneliness hurts our physical and mental health, and decreases our longevity. The book cites one study that suggests people with strong social relationships are 50% less likely to die prematurely.

Murthy notes that dominant US culture is becoming increasingly individualistic. We are barraged each day with messages that encourage us to “prioritize fame, wealth, and status ahead of kindness, honesty and character.” Too much social media, according to Murthy, creates the illusion of connection but is actually shown to amplify our sense of loneliness by distracting us, discouraging empathetic communication, and fostering a comparison culture. It’s worth noting that Murthy does not vilify technology while describing these risks.

Together posits that the most beneficial relationships for our health are reciprocal and mutually beneficial. These are relationships in which we create and participate in a positive feedback loop, “teaching us to love ourselves as we love our friends.” Murthy describes three “circles of connection” that we must learn to intentionally cultivate.

1: Intimate: Partner, Spouse and Close Confidantes
A well-known longitudinal study from Harvard that has run for more than 80 years found that inner-circle relationships were better predictors of health and happiness than IQ, wealth or social class. However, Murthy emphasizes that “inner circle” relationships are not enough. We also need healthy middle and outer circles to strengthen our emotional core.

2: Relational: Circle of Friends
Middle-circle friends protect us against relational loneliness. Murthy suggests that we can redevelop our middle circles by gathering for common interests. These relationships provide for opportunities to laugh, enrich others’ lives, and feel seen.

3: Collective: Community
Outer circle relationships are those we encounter by virtue of having a shared purpose and identity. This circle includes affinity groups based on shared religious beliefs, nationality, and interests. It also includes the workplace. In individualistic cultures like that dominating the US, these can be more challenging to find and sustain.

One of the most common barriers to overcoming loneliness is the fear and shame we attach to feeling and admitting to loneliness. So, we must first realize that we are not alone in our loneliness. Murthy suggests that we step back and take stock of the relationships in our lives, asking: What role do I want people to play in my life and how can I organize my time in ways that maximize the quality of relationships within each of these circles?

What are your strategies for fending off loneliness and feeling more accompanied in your life?

Image credit: Frank McKenna on Unsplash

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