Loneliness has reached epidemic levels in the United States, with as much as half the population feeling socially disconnected at any given time. United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, on May 2 about loneliness and “the healing effects of social connection and community.”
Depression and suicide are also on the rise.
“Mental health is the defining public health crisis of our time,” Dr. Murthy said during an onstage conversation with Oprah Winfrey on May 4 at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
The two discussed loneliness, mental health and what makes life meaningful during WOW 2023, UCLA Health’s annual mental health summit. Other guests who spoke with Winfrey during the three-hour program included Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician Jon Batiste, author and Harvard Business School professor Arthur C. Brooks, PhD, and three UCLA students, who shared their personal experiences with mental health challenges. Actress Lisa Kudrow hosted the event.
The inspiring program, a fundraiser for the and the honored philanthropists Andrea and Peter Roth, who recently donated $1 million to support autism research and intervention. It was also announced that a grant for early-career faculty at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital would be named in honor of Winfrey.
Loneliness is as detrimental to human health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, Dr. Murthy said, because human beings evolved as hunter-gatherers who lived in tribes. We’re hardwired for connection with each other and feel safest when we’re together.
In hunter-gatherer times, separation caused stress because humans were less likely to survive on their own. Loneliness still causes stress to the human system today, he said, and chronic loneliness causes chronic stress that can raise levels of inflammation, damage tissues and blood vessels and increase the risk of physical illness including heart disease.
“As much as our circumstances are very different today than they were in our hunter-gatherer days, our brains and our nervous systems are still very similar to how they were back then,” Dr. Murthy said. “That’s why we see such an impact of loneliness and disconnection on physical illness and mental illness. This is much more than just a bad feeling. Our social connections are something we need for our survival, for our well-being, and we need to treat them as such.”
He said he learned this the hard way.
Dr. Murthy shared that during his first stint as surgeon general — he was originally appointed by President Obama in 2017 — he threw himself into the job and stopped reaching out to his family and friends. When he was dismissed from the position a year and a half ahead of schedule, Dr. Murthy was left without his work colleagues and the relationships that had sustained him before.
“I felt profoundly alone. But I also felt ashamed,” he said. “Because it was my fault — I had neglected those relationships. It was a choice I had made. And I felt embarrassed to call those friends and say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you for the last two and a half years.’”
It was his wife who urged him to reconnect with his friends and helped him overcome the shame that kept him isolated.
“We can’t think our way out of shame. What we often have to do is experience our way out of shame,” Dr. Murthy said. “And that means we often need somebody in our life who can check on us, who can remind us that we’re loved.
“One of the best definitions of a friend that I ever heard was when I was in college: A friend is somebody who reminds you of who you are when you forget.”
He told Winfrey and the audience that connections can be built by spending just 15 minutes a day reaching out to friends and loved ones, whether by phone or in person. The key, he said, is to stay focused on that connection the whole time, without simultaneously checking email or scrolling through social media.
Dr. Murthy also led the crowd through a brief exercise that brought several audience members to tears.
He asked attendees to place their right hand on their heart, close their eyes and spend 20 seconds thinking about the people in their lives who have loved them over the years and supported them during difficult times, the people who reminded them of their inherent worth.
“Feel their love flowing through you, strengthening, lifting you up, filling you with peace,” he said. “And I want you to remember that their love is always with you, even if they’re not physically with you, because it resides in your heart.”
Dr. Murthy acknowledged that sometimes people say to him, “You’re the surgeon general, aren’t you supposed to be talking about tobacco?”
But, he said, “there's nothing more fundamental to the health and well-being of people in our country than ensuring that we are building that moral and spiritual foundation that is driving how we interact with each other and how we think and how we act.”
And that means embracing love, which he called “our oldest medicine.”
“It has extraordinary capacity to heal, and it’s the force that we need to reach for each and every day in our lives.”
Other speakers, including Dr. Brooks and the UCLA students, also addressed the importance of love to human thriving.
“Happiness is love, full stop,” Dr. Brooks said.
WOW 2023 also included appearances by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, PhD, and UCLA Health President , who announced that UCLA will open a new, dedicated hospital for mental health in 2026.