The link between community, connection, and optimal health and longevity is well established scientifically, as is the causal relationship between loneliness, social isolation, and disease risk. In normal times, the solution might be obvious. Join a group! Attend a church! Seek social connection through activities like singing, dancing, drumming, and knitting together. We know, for example, that adults with strong, healthy social connections are 50% less likely to die prematurely. Yet how do we leverage this powerful medicine in the midst of a pandemic? How do we make sense of public health officials telling us that our community connections, friendships, churches, and other public gathering places are likely to make us sick, rather than optimizing our chances of relaxing our nervous systems, fending off disease, and living long, healthy, love-filled, connected lives?
The data shows us that people who attend spiritual services live up to 7–10 years longer, but what if the church or temple becomes a hotbed of contagion? We know from good data that air pollution increases your chance of dying by 6%, obesity by 23%, alcohol abuse by 37%, and loneliness by a whopping 45%. Loneliness is as dangerous for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Researcher Robert Waldinger, who has been tracking the Harvard Men’s Study—700 men over 75 years—found universally that “the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships—with family, with friends, with community.”
This pandemic of loneliness is why I started the Healing Soul Tribe 2 ½ years ago, to try to bring people together online in a healthy community of people who will accept and support each other, no matter what. This community originated with the intention of being a community of practice, purpose, and belonging who were working through the Six Steps To Healing Yourself, the pathway to optimal physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing based on my book Mind Over Medicine. Given that we’re still being asked to keep our distance from others, we want to make this safe, virtual community as accessible as possible to anyone who feels ready to do a deep dive into healing work in community. We’re offering a free 30-day trial to anyone who wants to deepen into presence with others in a safe, non-polarizing online community that gathers twice a month on teleclasses.
We Have To Get Through This TOGETHER
I’m not the only one who has been tracking this pandemic of loneliness, and as a doctor who takes public health seriously, longing to be part of the solution. The publication of the recent book put out by our 19th Surgeon General under Obama, Vivek Murthy, MD, couldn’t be more timely. His book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection In A Sometimes Lonely World details the health risks of loneliness and the health benefits of community and connection. According to Dr. Murthy, it’s not just any connection that matters. The connections that heal require a feeling of being loved, of belonging, of being accepted just as you are, of feeling an intimacy that arises from shared vulnerability and social risks, of baring your soul and having it witnessed, received, and celebrated. We’ve all had the experience of feeling more lonely in the presence of a crowd of people than we would by ourselves, so it’s not the number of connections you have but the quality of those connections that creates healing.
As Dr. Murthy traveled around the country as surgeon general and kept his finger on the pulse of the health of our country, he was shocked to discover that the biggest risk to public health was not the opioid epidemic, obesity, or vaccine-preventable diseases; it was the health scourge of loneliness. He dug deeper into the subject and consulted with experts. In doing so, he discovered that loneliness is both pervasive in American culture, but also vastly misunderstood. Loneliness is a subjective experience that is different from solitude, which is a state of peaceful aloneness. “What defines loneliness,” Murthy tells us, “is our internal comfort level.” Because of the tendency towards rugged individualism in America, people feel uncomfortable even admitting it if they feel lonely as if admitting loneliness means you’re in some way unlikable or even defective, which can elicit paralyzing feelings of shame that prevent lonely people from reaching out.
The Pandemic of Disconnection
It’s not just quarantine that is causing people to experience the health risks of loneliness. The pandemic of loneliness preceded the coronavirus—and is now skyrocketing as a public health risk. This pandemic of loneliness is making fewer headlines, and when it’s a cause of death, it doesn’t get tracked that way on death certificates—because it’s an invisible threat, one the CDC doesn’t track.
I’ve been tracking this problem, along with my mentor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, who was also the mentor for Vivek Murthy, for eight years now, alongside Vivek. It’s why I delivered my TEDx talk The #1 Public Health Issue Doctor’s Aren’t Talking About—as a Public Service Announcement to raise awareness of a little known public health epidemic; one that has been taken to a whole new level during quarantine. We now also face the health risks of being touch-deprived, when touch is so necessary for co-regulation of the nervous system during triggering times. Such social isolation can also up-regulate trauma responses, leading to emotional flashbacks with little access to the medicine of a hug or someone holding your hand to comfort you. Such isolation puts the body at risk, not just from contracting the virus and having a rough bout with it, but also of heart disease, cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses.
The Pandemic Solution
So what’s the solution? The short term solution for many has been virtual connections, like the ones we’ve crystallized in the Healing Soul Tribe, or the family dinners people are having on Zoom. As we start to reopen, other solutions will present themselves.
For example, in my little coastal beach town, my neighbors all walk up the street to the overlook, where we gather every night with our dogs and our kids to watch the sunset while complying with social distancing. People with extra lemons from their trees bring bags to share, and others bring wine or kombucha. We never used to do this before lockdown. Now I’m meeting neighbors I’ve lived near for eleven years and haven’t known well. Each night, we check in. Some people in our community are now jobless and hungry, so we are strategizing to make sure those of us with enough take care of those without enough while maintaining their privacy and pride. People are planting gardens and sharing the bounty in a popup farmer’s market in the cul de sac on the street on Tuesday mornings. Someone else just extended his chicken coop and offered to share eggs. Because publishers send me so many free books, my housemate and I are planning to build a free library box, where our community can take books and donate to the free box. We’re also talking about starting a free box like they have at Esalen, where you can donate clothes or extra blenders or anything you might sell at a yard sale or donate to Goodwill. Why not keep unwanted material goods in the community and share with each other? Why not generate the feeling of belonging to a community that cares for and nurtures each other in trying times?
The way my community is changing during lockdown makes me think of the “blue zones” scientists have been studying for decades. Blue zones are those pockets of community around the world that have a higher than usual percentage of community members who live disability-free lives until they’re over a hundred years old. What conditions make so many healthy centenarians? One consistent factor is that nobody is ever lonely. They live in multigenerational homes. They have block parties and share food, as well as cooking, childcare, and cleaning responsibilities. People in these blue zones never rely on welfare, because they’re tribal, and they look out for each other. They tend to be either physically or philosophically isolated and often are hostile to outsiders; they’re on islands like Ikaria, Greece, or they’re in religious groups like the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, so they tend to keep to themselves and bond tightly with each other. That makes them insular but never lonely. They walk together, pray together, grow food together in their gardens, celebrate holidays together, eat together, and engage in activities that make them feel relevant and necessary, even into old age.
You may not live in a blue zone, but what if your community decided to be proactive about cultivating the qualities that make a blue zone? Since people in blue zones tend to spend a great deal of time outside, transforming your community into a blue zone could still comply with social distancing!
The qualities of blue zones include:
- Multigenerational homes, so nobody ever lives alone
- A largely plant-based diet
- Consistent moderate physical activity.
- A strong sense of community and engagement in the community
- Regular spiritual practice
- A strong sense of life purpose
- Low rates of smoking
If your community doesn’t lend itself to leaning into each other and offering comfort in the midst of uncertain times, please know you’re always welcome in the Healing Soul Tribe, where you can gather from anywhere, anytime, and know that you will be nurtured and accepted. Join free for 30-day access to all past content, including previews of healing tools from my Sacred Medicine book that will come out Fall 2021.
Sending you love and salve for loneliness,
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