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Why the U.S. surgeon general says feeling lonely could lead to an early death

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

About half of all adults in the U.S have experienced loneliness. That's according to a new report from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. He claims there's an epidemic of loneliness and isolation and that it's bad for your health. He spoke on Tuesday to NPR's All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VIVEK MURTHY: I'm worried about this from a public health perspective because it turns out that being socially disconnected has real consequences for our health. It increases our risk of depression, anxiety and suicide, but it also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, of dementia, stroke and premature death.

MARTÍNEZ: For some possible solutions to this, we're turning to Eric Liu, co-founder of Citizen University, a nonprofit that aims to build community and civic awareness across America.

Eric, how surprised were you by what the surgeon general said?

ERIC LIU: Well, A, thanks for having me. I was not surprised, unfortunately. I think everything that the surgeon general said about the effects on the body of loneliness are true, as well of the effects on the body politic.

MARTÍNEZ: I think that surprised me. That part surprised me, Eric, because, like, depression, OK, fine. Anxiety, yes. But dementia, stroke, cardiovascular disease?

LIU: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you think about the ways in which - I mean, a broken heart is a physical diagnosis, and it's a social diagnosis.

MARTÍNEZ: I know.

LIU: When you are alone and disconnected, there's more stress. There's more inflammation. There's more anxiety. And that has effects not only on the body, but on the ways in which we see each other in community and feel connected to one another.

MARTÍNEZ: What do you think is causing such widespread loneliness?

LIU: Well, I think there's a lot of forces. One, of course, is just we've come out of this pandemic. And even though we want to pretend it's normal, I think there are deep persisting effects of that kind of forced traumatic isolation. But I think much more deeply than that, and this is a problem that's been unfolding over decades, is the grinding inequality, the tectonic crushing of people's sense of solidarity and connection to one another. And the ways in which that's unfolded in the United States leaves people more isolated, more zero sum in their thinking and more feeling like, you know what, I'm not sure I am with you or you're with me.

MARTÍNEZ: You know what? I think sometimes, too, the pandemic shoved a lot of people into loneliness, Eric. But when people started coming back out into the world, I don't know if everyone followed. I think everyone assumed that everyone was just dying to get out. But I don't know if everyone followed that.

LIU: Well, I think everybody wants to connect. It's a human yearning. But the reality - I mean, the phrase that came - that stuck out for me in the surgeon general's report was that we are sick, angry and alone when we get this disconnected from one another. And I think the work that we do at Citizen University is so much about just inviting people into reconnecting with one another, into creating human bonds in a way that our culture, our media, our social media do not really incentivize anymore.

MARTÍNEZ: This isolation, Eric, what does it do to trust or people or people being afraid?

LIU: Well, I mean, I think it - you know, the decline of trust in American life is pretty well documented, and it's both a cause and an effect of this kind of isolation, fragmentation and and loneliness. And when you are disconnected from other people, over time, you will just stop believing that they have your interests in mind, that you can find common cause on anything. And so much of the challenge that we have right now is far upstream of electoral politics and policy. It is a culture problem. That's why I think one of the things that's so important about the surgeon general's report is this idea of we need to create a culture of connection, a civic culture in which we actually see one another's fates as entwined.

MARTÍNEZ: Eric, I work kind of alone, like, 2,000 miles away from everyone I work with. And I work overnights, too. And I know there's a lot of people just like me. And I think I kind of prefer it, being alone. But for someone like me, is there a loneliness line that maybe I should be careful not to cross?

LIU: Look, I think we all exist on a spectrum of how much we like alone time. But I would distinguish one thing. Solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Solitude can be OK. It's necessary. It's recharging. But the question is, how much do we have social connection? How many bonds of trust and affection can we activate with people when we need them? When do we realize when we do need them? And I think being able to check in with ourselves individually but also with each other in community is the most important thing we can do. And it, you know, one of our programs, Civic Saturday, is a civic analog to a faith gathering that invites people...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

LIU: ...To just come and meet strangers and actually rekindle faith in community.

MARTÍNEZ: Eric Liu is the co-founder of Citizen University. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Eric, thanks.

LIU: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.