How to Know You’re Lonely
Dr. Vivek Murthy and Arthur Brooks discuss loneliness—what it feels like, how difficult it is to identify, and the remedies to alleviate its impact on our daily lives.
The irony in loneliness is that we all share in the experience of it. In this episode of How to Build a Happy Life, we sit down to discuss isolated living and Americans’ collective struggle to create a relationship-centric life. As we continue along our journey to happiness, we ask: How can I build my life around people?
This episode features Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general.
This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and hosted by Arthur Brooks. Editing by A. C. Valdez. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Sound design by Michael Raphael.
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Music by Trevor Kowalski (“Lion’s Drift,” “This Valley of Ours,” “Una Noche De Luces”), Stationary Sign (“Loose in the Park”), and Spectacles Wallet and Watch (“Last Pieces”).
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This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy: Loneliness is a subjective feeling that the human connections we need in our life are greater than the human connections we have. And that subjective element is really important because what loneliness is not is something that’s determined by the number of people around you. You could be surrounded by just one or two people and feel perfectly content if you have strong relationships with them. But you could also be, like many college students are, on a campus that has thousands of people—or you could be in a workplace surrounded by hundreds of people—but feel profoundly alone, which is sadly the experience that many people have today.
Arthur Brooks: And so it’s subjective, depending on both your needs and your particular circumstances. So I can’t just look at somebody’s life, look in on it, and say, “Boy, that person must be really lonely.” A farmer who is in a combine 16 hours a day and barely sees anybody over the course of the day—that seems really, really lonely. Meanwhile, No. 1 in lonely professions is physicians. And they’re with people all day long. And that makes your point, right?
Dr. Murthy: That’s exactly right. We have this stereotype, Arthur, of the lonely person as being the guy or the gal who’s in a corner at a party all by themselves, not talking to anyone. And sometimes loneliness looks like that. But loneliness can masquerade like lots of different things. In men, anger and short-temperedness is a common way that loneliness manifests. For other people, it might look like them being quiet or reticent or withdrawn. But you’d be surprised at how often, because of this stigma around loneliness, people will seek to compensate by seeming like they’re having a great time or they’re super connected or talking about all the people that they’re going to hang out with. But again, it’s the quality of the connections that matter— they may be profoundly alone. I’ve been often quite surprised that the people I thought were perfectly content, and seemed to be out at parties all the time and have a vibrant social life, were actually often quite alone. But they didn’t feel comfortable saying that, because in the United States of America—in Western society in the modern age—to say you’re lonely, feels like saying you’re a loser, so we don’t talk about this even though millions and millions of people are struggling with loneliness.
Brooks: So, loneliness can be a hidden phenomenon like many other areas of psychological difficulty or even mental illness—you can’t tell. Sometimes you can’t tell who is struggling with alcohol abuse, for example. You can’t tell somebody who’s depressed and you can’t tell somebody who’s lonely. And so it’s hard to help them, right?
Dr. Murthy: That’s exactly right. If you look at the numbers around loneliness and you realize that you’ve got more people who are struggling with loneliness than have diabetes in this country—it made me realize I should probably change my default a little bit in terms of how I approach other people. Rather than assuming that people are connected and great and fine. I should probably recognize there’s a very real chance that the person in front of me might be struggling with loneliness, and what that means is that I try to remind myself to go the extra mile a little bit, ask how they’re doing.
Brooks: There’s a very famous study at the University of Rochester where students were asked about what their goals in life were, and then it followed up a year later to see whether or not they hit their goals after graduation and to see how happy they were. And those who had extrinsic goals, which is money, power and fame—they wanted to get ahead; they wanted to do really well; they wanted to make more money—they got those things. They were doing better than average. But they were a lot less happy than those who had intrinsic goals. And those intrinsic goals were all about love and relationships.
Dr. Murthy: When we give love, when we receive love, we feel replenished, we feel empowered and we’re able to do more, to be more, for those around us. That is a consistent theme in the history of humanity and borne out often by our own life experiences. And, Arthur, I actually think we know that when we’re born. If you watch small children interact, they don’t really care how famous they are. They don’t care how much money they have, or possessions. They can be happy in a small house or a big house. But, they derive so much in those moments of love they have with their parents, their siblings, with other family members and friends. They hone in to what really matters.
But over time, society and people around us teach us different things, right? We think about love as something that’s squishy. That’s something that maybe makes you weak. And we gravitate toward these other measures of success, but they don’t really drive happiness. And so, ultimately, the question we have to ask ourselves is, what do we really want out of life? What will determine whether a life is truly a life well spent? What I can tell you, Arthur, is about the conversations I’ve had with many patients at the end of their life, and what is remarkably consistent about those conversations. And I’m talking about those last moments in someone’s life, those last hours, last days when I’ve been privileged to sit by their bedside and hold their hands and look into their eyes and just hear their final reflections on their wonderful life. What people talk about in those final moments, Arthur, is not how big their office was or the promotion they got or the prestigious job or how big their bank account was. What people talk about are relationships. They talk about the people they loved, the people who broke their hearts, the people who they wish they had spent more time with.
Brooks: You’re a super successful guy that knows tons of people. You have a job where you’re around people pretty much 24 hours a day. You have a huge staff. How could the surgeon general of the United States be experiencing loneliness? Because there are a lot of people listening to us who feel like, No, of course I’m not lonely. Maybe they are. Were you lonely without knowing it? And how did you find out and how did it feel?
Dr. Murthy: I think I was lonely at many points in my life without really knowing it. As a child, I certainly didn't quite know how to think about it, but I remember feeling a sense of anxiety when my parents dropped me off to school, not because I was worried about tests, but because I was worried about being left out and being lonely. And the scariest part of the day, I should say, for me in school was lunchtime—walking into that cafeteria and not knowing if there would be anyone to sit next to. But as an adult, Arthur, I don’t think I really fully understood that at times—like the moments where I felt withdrawn or my mood felt off, almost like I was depressed, or when I was just feeling unsettled and unhappy that what I was craving was human connection.
Brooks: People are asking you this a lot about the post-pandemic environment: What’s your view on the decision that a lot of people are considering about keeping remote work forever? Do you believe that people should go back to work maybe more than they even want to, given the inertia involved?
Dr. Murthy: Well, it’s a really important question, Arthur. And here’s actually what I think. I do think that having in-person time at work, with some cadence to be determined, is actually very helpful because people do build strong relationships there and there’s nothing like in-person time. I think what’s really important, though, for many people in the workplace is some flexibility now, because for many people who have realized, during this pandemic, that they enjoy that flexible time at home, working from home, what they’ve done with that time is spend some of it with their family. They’ve used a few minutes in between meetings to check and see how their kids are doing. I think we can be much more deliberate and intentional about how we design that in-person interaction. And that is a choice that we have to make.
If we, for example, decide to design a society that supports relationships, we may invest more in social-emotional learning programs in schools. We may invest more in designing workplaces that strengthen connections between colleagues and also give them opportunities to serve in communities. We may measure things differently—we may measure success in part by the strength of the relationships that we create. We would live and look at life very differently if we truly built our life around people.
Brooks: As a happiness researcher, I’m curious to find out how people define happiness for themselves. A few weeks ago, we asked people to submit their thoughts on this question: When is the last time you remember being truly happy?
Listener Submission: Hi, my name is Alexandra and I live in Portland, Oregon. The last time I was, I think, truly happy was actually in the beginning of the pandemic. And it was when the world first shut down and I had this freedom that I’ve never known before. And I have a daughter. And I felt prior to the pandemic that I was pulled in about a million different directions with an intense career. And suddenly I was given this whole path to just be a mom, and go to the park every day and cook long dinners that I hadn’t cooked in two years and just lay in the grass and look at the clouds, and life seemed to slow down in this way that I’ve never experienced before, because the world was on a collective pause. And that has kind of since faded as, you know, I’m back at work and things have changed, but I just so fondly look back to that time and recall the roads being empty and the world taking this breath. And I know it wasn’t like that for everyone, but in my world, this feeling of [being] given a period of time in life to just really slow down in a way that I never have before was such a nice time. And it’s something I'll always cherish.
Brooks: I hope this conversation with Dr. Vivek Murthy has touched your soul a little bit. But what we need to do now is apply these concepts through practice. Today’s exercise is geared toward helping us migrate away from the extrinsic goals in our lives and toward the intrinsic goals. It’s an exercise that has three steps.
Here’s step one: Imagine yourself in five years. So let’s say you’re 27 years old. Imagine the 32-year-old version of yourself. Imagine what you’re doing, what you’re thinking. The five-years-older version of yourself is happy. I don’t have to tell you what that means. You know what that means. You’re a happy person.
Now comes step two. I want you to list five things that are actually making you happy five years from now. This might sound like it’s impossible, but it isn’t. You know perfectly well the kinds of forces that would bring you authentic happiness, don’t you? Think about the five things that are the reason that you’re the happy version of you in five years. Now I want you to put them in order: one, two, three, four or five, where one is the force on your life that’s bringing you the most joy five years from now. No. 5 is good, but it’s not No. 1. Okay now, what are they? The extrinsic stuff practically guaranteed is going to be Nos. 4 and 5; or Nos. 3, 4, and 5; or something like that. And Nos. 1 and 2 are going to be relationships, are going to be love. They’re going to be intrinsic.
And this leads us to step three. You need to manage Nos. 1 and 2—are you right now? If you want to get to that, if you want to get to the top two things on your list five years from now, so you can be the happy version of you in five years, you better be actively managing Nos. 1 and 2 on your list. Are you? You might not be.
The love that you want in your life, this spiritual journey that you’re yearning for in your life—it’s not going to make itself happen. It’s not going to manage itself; you need to manage it. Do this exercise once a week for a month and think about how it’s changing your priorities, and then do it for the rest of the year. I guarantee you your priorities are going to change, because you’re going to give more attention to the things that really matter. What you focus on more is what you will manage going forward, and you’ll become a more intrinsically motivated person reaping the happiness rewards.
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