“Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world” by Vivek Murthy

  • Language : English
  • Hardcover : 352 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 0062913298
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0062913296

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States appointed by President Barack Obama. He also issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, calling for expanded access to prevention and treatment and for recognizing addiction as a chronic illness, not a character flaw. An internal medicine physician and entrepreneur, Dr. Murthy has co-founded a number of organizations: VISIONS, an HIV/AIDS education program in India; Swasthya, a community health partnership in rural India training women as health providers and educators; software company TrialNetworks; and Doctors for America.

Summary of  “Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world”  by Vivek H. Murthy, MD, 2020. Harper Wave.

Summarized by George Jacobs of HealthPartners.sg

James was a hospital patient suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. The doctor noticed that also James looked tired, listless, and defeated. “Winning the lottery was one of the worst things that ever happened to me,” James explained to the doctor’s surprise. Previously, James had been healthy. He had a job he loved at a bakery, and lots of colleagues to socialize with during and after work.

Upon winning the lottery, James did what he was expected to do. He quit his job, left his home for a large, secluded, protected residence. In other words, James separated himself from the social connections that had been so important to his health. As a result, not surprisingly, no one came to visit him in the hospital.

James’ story is one of many told in Together: The healing power of connection in a sometimes lonely world by Dr Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General. (The Surgeon General is the U.S. government’s leading spokesperson on public health.) Dr Murthy’s main message in the book echoes what Dr Dean Ornish and Anne Ornish wrote in Undo It! How simple lifestyle changes can reverse most chronic diseases. That message tells us of the powerful affects of social connection on our health.

When James won the lottery, he lost his social connections. We have known about the importance of social connections for thousands of years, but for some reason, many countries seem to currently be experiencing a pandemic of loneliness and ill-health due to loneliness, with no vaccine readily available. For example, in 2015, Professor Julianna Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues published a study1 that put together the results of 148 previous studies, involving hundreds of thousands of people. The researchers reported, as did the Ornish book, that people with weak social connections suffered much worse health.

Thanks to advances in neuroscience, scientists can now see what happens in our brains when we are lonely. This has increased awareness among doctors of the need to do “social prescribing.” Just as doctors have long given patients prescriptions for medicine, doctors can now treat patients in more wholistic ways by giving prescriptions for building social connections – https://www.healthline.com/health/social-prescribing.

Dr Murthy’s book digs deeply into the cause and prevention of our pandemic of ill-health due to loneliness. Firstly, loneliness and solitude are not the same. Solitude = voluntary isolation, whereas Loneliness = involuntary isolation. Developing comfort with solitude helps protect us against loneliness; learning how to enjoy sometimes being alone can strengthen our mental health. We can be alone to take a walk, prepare a meal, meditate, attend to our plants, watch a film on our phone, reflect on our life, or listen to music. Via solitude, we can strengthen our connections with ourself. This prepares us to strengthen our connections with others.

Social connections come in three dimensions – intimate, relational, and collective – the absence of any of these dimensions can result in loneliness. We form intimate connections with a very small number of people: a spouse or one or two best friends. Relational connections can involve more people with whom we form quality friendships, providing mutual support and companionship.

We obtain and nourish collective connections via networks of people with similar goals, interests, and identities. For instance, people might identify at badminton players, bonding with others in the way they dress, their knowledge of current and historical badminton knowledge, and their attendance at events, such as Sunday evenings where an entire school hall transforms into a sea of running, jumping, swatting badminton players and a sky full of floating shuttlecocks. Dr Murthy advises that we attempt to nurture all three dimensions of social connection.

The advice Dr Murthy offers also includes:

  1. Set aside time each day, at least 15 minutes, to spend with people we care about, such as family members and others.
  2. During that time, really focus, without phones or other distractions. Try for eye contact; give our full attention.
  3. Be of service to others and be willing to accept service from others.

We associate loneliness with sadness, but the book actually focuses of happiness. As the first word in the book’s title, Together, suggests, together we can help each other overcome loneliness. Readers will be inspired by the book’s many examples. Here is one. Enid’s husband had recently passed away. Now, in her senior years, Enid found herself alone, without connections to others or a purpose for her life. Fortunately, a local primary school had a program that fit Enid perfectly. Some of the mothers of the school’s children were inexperienced at raising children and far from family. Enid’s doctor wrote her a social prescription, connecting her to the program. Twice a week, for about two hours at a time, Enid provides support and knowledge that the young mums greatly appreciate.

In conclusion, Murthy explains that just as the feeling of thirst benefits our health by telling us we need to drink, the feeling of loneliness benefits our health by telling us we need to build social connections. This links to human survival and development. Our species survived despite the fact that other species are superior to us in so many ways: size, strength, speed, senses. To compensate for our disadvantages, early humans cooperated.

Today, due to our cooperation, we dominate the planet, and the other animals suffer because of our dominance. At the same time, we humans increasingly suffer from loneliness, just like James, the lottery winner. Let’s hope we can use our powers of cooperation to both save the other animals and overcome our loneliness.

Dr Murthy’s book Together is widely available at libraries, etc. and even online: https://books.google.com.sg/books/about/Together.html?id=LwCUDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

1Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(2), 227-237.