In a room off-campus at the University of Pennsylvania, a group of students gathers. 

Serena, a sophomore who felt alone, has organized this evening of personal conversation she calls a ‘Space Gathering’. 

It helps students connect as they talk on questions like: “What is the one thing that is going really well in your life?” and “What is an area where you are struggling?”

Serena’s story is told by Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the US, in his recent book Together: the Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

Serena’s story recurs everywhere, Murthy says. 

College students, executives at work, elderly people living alone, young people in a crowd, so many of these suffer the physical symptoms of loneliness. 

Research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology confirms this.  

In interviews and podcasts about his book Together, Murthy says this book was triggered by two things: his own story and the stories of the patients he saw.

As a little boy, Murthy had long bouts of loneliness. School gave him anxiety, he said, as he struggled to start conversations, and failed to get into cliques or the ‘in‘ group. 

Later, after he graduated to be a doctor with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and an MD and MBA from Yale, he began to see a common theme among many patients: they were physically worse off because they were lonely.

“At the first sign of isolation, our nervous system goes on alert…triggering the release of mineralocorticoids and cortisol, which raises our blood pressure and increases sugar levels,” Murthy explains.

What Loneliness Does To Us

  • Loneliness can feel like you are invisible to the world around you. It’s not only that others fail to see you accurately; even you stop seeing the value you have to offer and to see the meaning of your own life.

  • Being alone can take a toll on the quality of your sleep. When you are profoundly lonely you tend to sleep less and lightly, just as our ancestors who were alone did to prevent being overtaken by wolves or enemies. 

  • Loneliness can become a spiral if you let it. A lonely person can flee into self-preservation mode and start to avoid people.

Six Ways You Can Avoid Being Lonely

  1. Understand loneliness:  It is different from solitude, which is about being truly comfortable alone and not feeling left out or anxious. Some people feel energized by solitude and quiet conversation.

  2. Know yourself: Gain insight and self-acceptance about yourself. What do you most love doing and why? What do you dread? How do you respond to stress?

  3. Reflect on society: Consider how your traits and tendencies conflict with or complement other people’s, thereby understanding the cultural attitudes that surround you.

  4. Reduce competitiveness: Understand that a highly competitive culture can make you value material markers of success way too much. Are you being too critical and judgmental with yourself? This will increase your loneliness as you magnify your weakness, distrust your strengths and your natural instincts.

  5. Detox from social media: Recognize that social media propagates pernicious ideals. Hundreds of followers and likes, constant parties, and playdates don’t always translate into the deep and meaningful connection you need.

  6. Meet like-minded people: Volunteer, participate in choirs, book clubs, and advocacy organizations. This will decrease activity in the brain’s stress and threat centers and raise your sense of well-being.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury writes for publications such as Mint and The Hindustan Times. An alumnus of IIM Calcutta, she is also the author of Career Rules: How to Choose Right & Get the Life You Want.

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