April 10, 2020
Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy joins Jameela this week to discuss how widespread the problem of loneliness is, Western culture’s tendency to give too much space, social media’s role with loneliness, and how to foster connectivity.
Vivek Murthy’s book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World is out now!
2 — Vivek Murthy
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to “I Weigh” with Jameela Jamil. I hope that you are doing okay. We are now weeks and weeks into this fucking lockdown and this pandemic. And I know from what I’m hearing about online and from friends that people are starting to fray at the edges. Couples are starting to break up while stuck in quarantine together. And some people are not in a coup or not being driven mad with their families because they’re having to isolate completely on their own. And that’s why I thought today’s chat would be perfect, cause it is about loneliness, which I know so many of us are struggling with in this moment. Even if you are with other people, you can still sometimes that can make you feel even lonelier or you’re just so far away from your friends and your family and you are missing human touch. I got the chance to speak to Vivek Murthy, who is the Surgeon General of the United States, or he was the Surgeon General of the United States. He is an absolutely brilliant man who has done a study on loneliness and the impact that it has on our lives, not just emotionally, but also physically, the impact it has on our actual health and the longevity of our lives. He has gone around the world to learn as much as he can about it, and I was able to learn. So I’ve never felt dumber in my life. I’ve never felt more, I’ve never felt like more of a stupid person than when sitting opposite someone who has this prestigious job and level of knowledge. But I learned so much from him. He broke it down in a way that even I could understand. And it made me really, really think about the changes that I need to be making in my life to prolong it and to fill it up more. I’m such an introvert. I’m someone who naturally like a kind of house cat can just slink off and be away from people for weeks at a time. So therefore I’m actually doing okay during this crazy time. But because of that, it means that I have learned how to hyper-normalize my own loneliness in a way that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable to me. But speaking to Vivek really made me think twice about that, and also think twice about whether or not I’m checking in enough with the people that I love and making sure that they are not lonely. It’s, it’s such a stigmatized conversation that we don’t think about enough and people are afraid to put their hands up and admit that they’re lonely. And I think that this is a great way to start destigmatizing that conversation. He has a book that’s coming out this week. It’s called “Together” and it’s wonderful. And he’s wonderful. And I just really hope that you learn something from this episode and enjoy it. Lots of love sending you so much fucking love. I can’t believe what is happening. And I know that the news is so stressful and I just hope that you’re safe. So I am joined by Vivek H. Murthy. He is an author. He is a physician and was the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. He’s talk to me about loneliness. Hello, Vivek.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:03:37] Hello, Jameela. How are you?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:03:38] I’m great. I’m so happy to have you here.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:03:40] I’m really happy to be having this conversation.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:03:42] Over at “I Weigh”, we are huge fans of yours and this subject couldn’t be more important, I think, to our community, considering that this is predominantly a mental health movement. And I think that loneliness is one of the pillars of the things that are creating mental health issues in our society and in our world today. And so that’s why you having written this book, which we’re here to talk to me about, it’s called “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” is a sort of perfect topic. And I wanted to start off by just asking you why you wrote this book.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:04:15] Well, Jameela, it wasn’t the book I thought I would write.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:17] No.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:04:18] I had ideas for other books when I finished my time in government. But something happened to me when I was serving in government that made me realize that my view of health, and of public health in particular, was more narrow than it should be. When I was traveling around the United States and meeting with people in town halls and living rooms all across the country, I was hearing stories about illnesses they were struggling with. Sometimes this was challenges with addiction. Sometimes it was obesity. It was depression. It was anxiety. And I was not surprised by that. But what I was surprised by was that behind so many of these stories were stories of loneliness and a deeper emotional pain that people were experiencing. And what was interesting is people wouldn’t come up to me and say, “Hi, my name is Vivek or Jameela and I’m struggling with loneliness”. But they would say things like, “I feel invisible. I feel like if I disappeared, nobody would even care. I feel like I’m struggling all on my own, like all these issues I have to deal with. It’s just me. There’s nobody else”.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:05:22] And these were people coming up to you with physical ailments? And then telling you that aside from their physical ailments, they also suffer from terrible loneliness or depression?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:05:30] So they told me about the issues that were in the front pages of the paper. The big illnesses that we read about every day. But it was this deeper thread of loneliness that really caught my attention because while nobody named it specifically, what I found, Jameela, is when I started to surface it, more explicitly, when I started asking people, “Hey, how many of us believe that loneliness is a problem either for us or for our families”? Was like nothing I had seen before to that point. I saw these flickers of visceral recognition in their eyes as if they had felt that or somebody they loved had. It felt real to them. And it was very different from this cerebrally recognition that I would sometimes see when I talked about other issues like the Zika virus or other topics where people were, you know, processing cerebrally the different steps and risk factors and then deciding, “Okay, I should take action to protect myself”. This is different. This is a very visceral recognition that, yes, this is something I’ve seen that I’ve felt that I’ve experienced. And once that was there and once we opened up the topic, it was like the floodgates open and everyone seemed to have a story to tell about their struggles with loneliness.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:38] Would you say that there is a stigma around loneliness here?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:06:41] Absolutely. And I may have made it seem more forthcoming than it was. People eventually did talk. But what I had to do in order to get people to open up is I not only had to raise the issue explicitly, but I often would lead with my own story of loneliness.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:57] So you were forthcoming about your own stories of loneliness. Would you mind telling me briefly your own experience?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:07:02] Sure. So I, I struggled with loneliness from fairly early in life. When I was a young child in elementary school, like third grade. Fourth grade. I remember being, you know, feeling in this pit in my stomach. You know, when my parents would drop me off at school and it wasn’t because I was nervous about teachers or about exams, but I was anxious about interacting with the other kids. Now, I wasn’t deeply introverted. I actually wanted to hang out with other children. I wanted to, you know, play on the sports teams. I wanted to have fun with the others, but I was really shy. And as a result, I had a hard time sort of opening up, you know, conversations and, and fitting in, if you will. Now, it didn’t help that I also felt different because of my cultural background. I was in a school where I was the only Indian kid in the school.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:07:55] Same.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:07:55] Yeah. People found the food that we ate and the sweets that I would sometimes bring in for birthdays and things like that to be strange and weird tasting and-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:05] Fantastic tasting. I will say for the record.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:08:08] At least I thought so.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:08] I can’t speak personally to your mother’s or father’s cooking, but-.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:08:12] They’re very, very good cooks.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:13] Yeah. Our food is brilliant. But it took me years to know that. My brother and I, we didn’t eat Indian food until we were in our 20s.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:08:21] Really?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:21] Because we used to feel ashamed of it and be afraid of smelling like curry spices.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:08:25] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:26] Because of the bullying associated with that from school. Or even just the mild prodding and laughing and ridiculing.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:08:32] Exactly. They were there was a lot of that. So that was fresh in my mind. And you know, the funny thing, Jameela, about these experiences we have when we’re children is even though we may outgrow them. As I did, I was able over time to build confidence and make friends in high school and to be blessed with strong friendships. But that experience is one that I’ve never quite forgotten.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:53] No.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:08:53] You know, took me many years, actually, to shed some of that initial anxiety or some of those butterflies in my stomach when I was thrust into a new situation and meeting new people. So, yeah, so that was fresh in my mind. So when I would go to these town halls in different parts of the country. I would often share this story, you know, and not because I needed people to know about me, but because I thought if I was going to ask people to talk about personal experiences, I should lead by example and be willing to do the same.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:09:22] Mmhmm. So then from traveling around, not just the country but also then the world, you’ve collected data and experiences and case studies and pulled them together to create this book that helps us understand global loneliness. And so it sounds like a ridiculous question, but what is loneliness?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:09:43] I think it’s a really good question. Because it gets confused with a lot of other things. So what loneliness is, is this subjective feeling that we do not have enough social connection in our life. And this is different from isolation, which is an objective term. It’s an objective measure, in fact, of how many people I have around me. But the reason these are distinct is because what matters is what you feel. Just because you are not isolated, because you may have hundreds of people around you all the time, doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel connected to them or that you feel you have strong relationships with them. And so you could feel quite lonely in that setting. And by contrast, just because you don’t have many people around you, if you, let’s say, just have one or two good friends, it doesn’t mean you’re consigned to be lonely. You can be quite content with one or two good friendships. So what matters in whether we’re lonely or not is the quality and strength of our connections. And to me, one of the hallmarks of a strong relationship is one where we feel that we can be our authentic selves, where we can show up as who we are, where we don’t have to wear a mask and try to be somebody who we’re not just to be acceptable or to impress somebody.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:10:54] That’s great. And the two of the things that-. It’s so true what you say about being able to be surrounded by so many other people and how content you can be with just a few. I know that when I was coming up as a TV host, I was successful from an early age like 21, I think or 22. I entered the industry and had an immediate rise, which I was very fortunate for. But it meant that I was constantly surrounded by other people in my industry and constantly being told wonderful things about myself and flattered and everyone was doing everything for me. And I was making all these new friends who perhaps I might not have met or been of interest to had I not been famous and successful, and I’ve never felt lonelier in my life than I did in my 20s, even more so than my actual, literally lonely, isolated, sad teens. My 20s felt so lonely, surrounded by so many people that I didn’t have any true human, animal bond with that-. Not that human, animal bond makes sense, but I think you know what I mean.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:12:02] I know what you mean.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:12:02] That a bond that comes really, truly from within to another person. And that led me to feeling complete-, and being completely suicidal at 26 and then deciding that I had to completely reconfigure my entire social life and start to cut out everyone who I felt was just a surface level connection and basically only allow in the people who I found the most stimulating. I believe in that sentence. And you probably don’t approve of this but oh well, fuck it. If you are, if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. And I was like, I’m going to surround myself with not just the smartest but the most exceptional people. They might not have neccess-, the credentials or particularly high powered jobs, but they are incredibly smart and funny and the warmest and the best people. And I rejoined those relationships and made sure that I was surrounded only with those people. And so now I’ve got about 12 friends like Jesus. And that might not sound like many like I can’t throw a big birthday party. I can’t really have a big wedding. So I’m going to have to elope purely out of-, like how depressing the tiny wedding reception would be.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:13:16] Given your South Asian background, lots of people will show up at the wedding, Jameela. Don’t you worry.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:13:22] And so I have a kind of chosen family of these 12 people that are my tribe now that I have with me everywhere and I’ve never felt so whole as a human as I do now. Way more so than when I was surrounded by people at parties and at the top of every guest list, which is just a really shit weird time in my life.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:13:40] It’s amazing that you made that journey. You know, I’m curious, how long do you think it took you to realize what was making you lonely when you first felt, you know, in the beginnings of your being famous that people were coming and, you know, coming to you and wanting to spend time with you but that it wasn’t exactly fulfilling in the way you wanted it? Like how long did it take you to connect the dots and realize, you know, these connections are feeling fulfilling in the way that I need?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:03] Well, I tried to commit suicide when I was about 26, and it was probably in the 6 months after that because I decided, I made a very, very intense decision that I was going to do everything in my power to find mental health. Whatev-, however ruthless I had to be, however ridiculous I had to be, however brutally honest with everyone I had to be. That was the only terms upon which I was going to be willing to stay on this earth. And so because of that, I was in a kind of die hard focused analysis just on what had gotten me to such a desperate point at such a young age when I was someone who was so privileged. And so I, that was one of the first. I didn’t have therapy. I was still too stupid and proud to have therapy at that age. But I started kind of disecting all the different parts of my life and looking into them very, very-. I guess almost as if I was analyzing data and working out which things felt right in which things felt wrong and my lifestyle felt completely wrong. This It Girl Party D.J. just didn’t suit me at all. I dont know if it really suits anyone, but it really didn’t work for me. And because I didn’t do drugs and I didn’t drink alcohol, I was even more painfully aware of my own loneliness because sometimes I think that we drink at parties and we take drugs to feel a kind of topical sense of happiness and connection because that becomes the connection. I think a lot of people I know they’ll go out in a social environment and not even out of nerves, but out of out of boredom, they will inebriate themselves in order for the inebriation to become the common bond amongst everyone. And the hangover in the morning can become a common bond between everyone. And I think my generation are doing that to a point where they’re hurting themselves. So for whatever reason I just didn’t. And so therefore, it made me able at a very young age to become potently aware of my loneliness, and how it was effectively killing me. But back to you.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:16:04] I’m so sorry you had to go through that experience.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:16:06] No, that’s all right. I’m okay now. I’m here to tell the tale. Got a bloody podcast. So I, you know, and this is about shame, this podcast predominantly, and loneliness, as I was saying earlier, is such a huge cause of shame amongst people and myself included, I still feel slightly flushed in the cheeks whenever I admit to my own loneliness. Even right now with you, a stranger, I, even though you are now my sports team mate forever, I-
VIVEK MURTHY [00:16:39] That’s right, we’ll shake to that.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:16:39] It still something-. Yeah. There we go. It’s done. It’s still something that we really need to understand. You say that loneliness, social anxiety and depression often get confused with each other. So you’ve defined loneliness for me. What would you say is the difference between the other two things?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:16:57] It’s a good question because one of the challenges with loneliness and one of the reasons people look around them and sometimes say, “Hey, why are we saying loneliness is so common? I don’t see it around me”, is because loneliness can look like a lot of other things. Very often. Very often in men, when loneliness presents, especially in older men, it can actually look like irritability, it can look like social withdrawal. It can look like anger and frustration. Now it’s very common for older men when they either retire, lose their spouse or fall ill, actually have triggered an episode of loneliness in their life or a long period of loneliness. So this is important because if we were, if we don’t recognize that loneliness can look like sadness and withdrawal, that it can look like anger and, you know, grouchiness, that it can look like, you know, like general withdrawal, that it can look like aloofness, even, and we can end up judging people who look like them, like we can meet somebody at a party and say, “Oh, that person seems aloof. Seems like they don’t want to hang out. I’m trying to talk to them and they’re not being friendly”. You know, back with them?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:08] Sometimes that person is just an asshole. It’s important to also not get too much the benefit of the doubt. But yes, I agree, it’s important to be empathetic and kind.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:18:17] And the reason is when you understand actually what loneliness does to us, you can start to understand why people manifest like this. So, and I’ll take you on a slight detour here, but you’ll understand why. So if we go through the understanding of how we evolved to be social creatures, then you understand why we have the reaction of loneliness that we do today. So thousands of years ago when we were wandering the tundra, when we were hunter-gatherers, we depended on each other for safety. So there was literally safety in numbers. If you were with trusted people, you could take turns watching at night to make sure they weren’t predators. You could take the food that you gathered and you could pool it, so that you each had a little bit of food each day instead of starving, you know, from day-to-day. And you could also help out with general life duties like raising children, which is a tough thing for one person to do or two people to do on their own but with groups can actually really do well together.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:08] The expression of “it takes a village”.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:19:10] Yes. And we literally evolved in these villages. And so in that setting, what happened is that if you were separated from your tribe, that literally put you in danger. And because you were in danger or more likely to get eaten by a predator or to starve, your body reacted by going into a state of threat, increased threat. And that was physiologically in terms of how your body reacts to it. That’s a stress state. Now, stress isn’t all bad. If you experience stress for a short period of time, it can actually boost your performance, the kind of stress you might experience, for example, before a big exam or before you give a big speech or you give an interview, for example, that might actually enhance your performance. The problem with stress is when it’s chronic, because all of those stress hormones like cortisol and others that elevate during times of stress, when they persist for a long time in your body, they can actually increase the inflammation in your body. They can damage tissues and blood vessels and actually increase your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:09] And am I right in saying that our bodies haven’t really evolved over time to recognize that the old stresses of the sort of sabertooth tiger is no different from sort of online troll on the Internet or just bills or rent and and general life trauma or not being able to pay for stuff?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:20:30] Yeah. It’s a really interesting question. So are, the way are physiologies of all their bodies have evolved, hasn’t shifted all that much. You’re right.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:36] I couldn’t feel like more of a Neanderthal right now just talking to you because you’re so educated.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:20:41] No, no, no.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:41] But I just, all I mean is that I feel as though we, that our bodies still constantly respond to stress in a sort of quite maximum way. We don’t have a way of necessarily regulating according to how stressful the situation is.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:20:54] Yes, so I think, where I think you’re, you’re spot on is that our body is very similar to how it was thousands of years ago. The fact that technology has dramatically changed around us is not necessarily reflected in how our body reacts to stress. And so the problem is that, what used to happen way back then is when you felt, when you were separated from your tribe and you felt lonely, that was your impetus to go reconnect with your tribe. In that sense, loneliness is a natural signal, just like hunger or thirst.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:21:24] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:21:24] When you’re lacking in nutrients or in water, your body tells you you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, then you go find food or water, and then the feelings of feeling subsides. Similarly, with loneliness, a natural signal that tells you something you need for survival, social connection is missing, should motivate you to find social connection. The problem is, just like with hunger or thirst, when that need goes unmet and that chronic state of loneliness, which is a stress state, just wreaks havoc on our bodies. And it does two things that are actually quite paradoxical, which actually make things worse. Number one is because you’re in an elevated threat state, it leads you to see sometimes even well-intentioned outreach as risky or dangerous. And this might seem strange to us. So we might go up to somebody at a party who looks lonely and say, “Hey, you know, my name is Jameela, just wanted to see how you’re doing”. And that, you might think, “Hey, I’m being nice, I’m reaching out”. But that person might make you look at you with suspicion and say, “Well, is she here to make fun of me? Is she taking pity on me. Well, I don’t want to be a part of that”. So we might misconstrue, you know, what’s actually happening in front of us. But the second thing that happens as a result of this elevated threat state is that we turn our gaze inward. So when we are under threat, we tend to focus more on ourselves because it’s a survival instinct. But imagine if you’re with somebody who’s chronically lonely and who’s predominately focused on themselves all the time. Not always a lot of fun to hang out with such people. And they often have challenges connecting with others. But perhaps the last reflex reaction to loneliness, which makes it really tough, is that the more lonely you are, the more your self-confidence erodes. And what happens in loneliness is you can start to believe the narrative that you’re lonely because you’re not likable, because you’re not lovable, because you’re broken or deficient in some way. In the beginning you may know, you know, that’s not true, that your loneliness is just circumstantial. But when it continues for a long period of time, you start to doubt yourself. Start to ask these questions. So when you put all this together and you’ve got a chronically lonely person, who has an elevated threat state and is misconstruing well-intentioned outreach as something suspicious, who’s focused excessively on themselves and who has real challenges now with self-confidence, you can imagine how getting out of that spiral of loneliness can be really challenging. And it’s a lot more complicated than just telling a lonely person, “Hey, go to a party or go to a happy hour and you’ll just meet people and you’ll be fine”.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:23:49] I agree.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:23:49] Sometimes can be hard to know if what you’re feeling is loneliness or depression or anxiety. While these things are distinct, there is a relationship there, and when you are lonely, you can often feel depressed and anxious, which is why it’s so important to figure out how we can break that cycle so that you can move away from those and then seize to look inward, to be sort of more suspicious of people around you, to be less confident in yourself and can actually buil-, build the kind of connections to yourself and others that truly make you happy.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:24:21] Ok, I am going to stop you there. Because we are going to go to a quick break.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:24:24] Sounds good.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:24:37] And we’re back. What’s running through my head right now is just thinking about all the different friends I have who have depression and who have anxiety and, wondering if perhaps part of that, a big part of that might be loneliness, because I do know that all of them tend to have the same trait of isolating themselves when they feel depressed sometimes because they don’t want to burden other people. I’ve definitely done this. When I was younger. I don’t want to burden other people with my sadness or be this sort of the downer when I desperately probably just need a cuddle, not say that that is the antidote to mental illness. But I do think that physical affection or just a sense of community would have helped me. But I did the most counter-productive thing, which was to remove myself for other people’s sake and therefore just become more and more isolated and also make the other people around me feel like I didn’t care about them and I didn’t want to see them. And I know that I sometimes take it personally when my depressed friends sort of have shun all of us for long periods of time. And so that’s, this is really helpful, ’cause it’s giving me a different kind of angle of looking at things and how to approach things with those people.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:25:45] And what you’re describing, Jameela, is very, very common. It’s a tendency a lot of us have who have struggled with loneliness to just isolate ourselves further. But then ironically to-, you feel concerned or upset or sometimes even angry, when other people do that, when they withdraw themselves, when you know that what they need is human connection. You know, what I’ve found and what I’ve wondered about a lot is I look at the culture that I grew up in, in the United States, which I think is similar to, to many, you know, cultures in the modern world where we put a premium on respecting people’s boundaries, on like giving people their privacy and not intruding on their lives. And I think a lot of that is good. It’s important. But I wonder sometimes if we do it to an extreme where sometimes we do not know, where we’re sometimes we’re not proactive enough in reaching out to other people when they’re in a difficult state. You know, somebody, I’ve had friends who, for example, have lost loved ones and who have said that they went through weeks where nobody reached out to them, not because people didn’t care, but because people were just giving them space. But it’s sometimes I wonder if we give each other too much space.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:59] Mmhmm.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:26:59] And that we-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:27:00] And you’re not even supposed to double text. Do you know what I mean? Like you’re a psycho, a stalker if you double text. FaceTime. It’s like if someone FaceTime’s me, I tho-, I immediately think “maniac”. Like maniacal murderer, if someone actually wants to have a face-to-face phone call.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:27:18] Yeah, let me just make a note here. Do not FaceTime Jameela.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:27:20] Yeah, never FaceTime me. Yeah, especially if we don’t know each other well. I can’t, I actually, I really can’t believe it when someone does it like we do. I’m definitely guilty of the ba-, of like a over boundaring myself and others and so-.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:27:34] And you know, I don’t think that one has to be extremely about it. But for example, if you have a friend, you know, who is, let’s say, going through a difficult time and just has sequestered themselves, to take the initiative and actually reach out and go over maybe even to their house and knock on their door to check and see how they’re doing. I think it’s often the right thing to do, now they may even see you at the door and not open it. They may open and say, “Hey, I really don’t feel like talking”. And they may say, “Can you come back later”, and they may close the door. But I guarantee you this, the fact that you had the heart and took the initiative to go in to check on them will mean something to them.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:28:11] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:28:12] And I think that the world would be better if we took more initiative like that to reach out to people in our life.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:28:18] I have a friend who struggles very much so with his mental health, and he does not like being around other people when he’s in one of his darkest moods. But I know that he does secretly like people trying. Just so he can know that people care. I don’t even think he’s aware that he likes it, but I am aware that it has a positive impact on him. But when I text him, he doesn’t respond. And then that sends me into a frantic worry for his safety. And so what we’ve now got is a system in which I will text him, and all he has to text me back is just the word “no”. And that “no” just means “I’m alive. I’m okay, but I don’t want to talk to you”. And that-
VIVEK MURTHY [00:28:58] It’s really wonderful that you got that system.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:28:59] That system. It’s great. The systems work so well for me. It’s a capslock “NO”. It’s a hard no, there’s no negotiating it. It’s it’s a polite “Fuck off. But thanks”, essentially. But I highly recommend that system if you have a friend similar to mine because it just, it just, it enables both of you to have the exchange that you want.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:29:23] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:29:24] At the minimal. I was reading as well from your work that 60 percent of students. I think sometimes when we think of loneliness, we think of older people or widows, you know, after the age of 70. People tend to just sort of put you by the window, leave you there, and visit every so often. And actually, it’s very young people struggling with this. And I think that’s something that’s really important to discuss. You know, young people who’ve grown up predominantly on the Internet and obviously we can’t categorically claim, claim that social media and the Internet are responsible for loneliness. But there’s definitely a connection between pursuit of online communities vs. in-person communities, to the point where 60 percent of students feel lonely.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:30:08] Yeah. So this is a really fascinating finding that I think surprised most people. Most people when they thought about loneliness, thought that this would be elderly people who are most impacted. But now there have been a growing number of studies which are showing that, in fact, one of the major peaks of loneliness happens during adolescence and young adulthood. So when those numbers started coming back. You know, people start to wonder, why is that? These folks in Gen Z and millennials are so connected by technology, they’re around people quite often. Why and why are they so lonely? And I think it comes back to this issue of what matters in loneliness. Is it the quantity of connections or the quality of connections? And there are several things that are driving loneliness, I think, especially for, for younger people. And the one of them is how we use technology. Technology itself is a, is a neutral tool. It’s really how we use it that determines whether it strengthens our connections or weakens them. So, for example, if I’m coming to New York and I decide to post on Twitter or Facebook or on Instagram, tat “Hey, I’m coming to New York if any of my friends are free for for dinner. Let’s hang out”. And assume that I have a circle of followers who are my actual friends.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:21] Impossible.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:31:24] Then that’s actually could be a quite powerful way of using social media to bridge to offline connection.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:30] Mmhmm.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:31:30] And then I have lunch with my friend or dinner with my friend, and I feel great about it. On the other hand, if I’m feeling lonely on a Friday night and I don’t have anywhere to go and I think, well, let me just scroll through Instagram and I’ll look at my friend’s pictures and I feel connected to them that way.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:44] Mmhmm.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:31:45] Well, that rarely works, because when you do that, what you’re doing is you’re comparing other people’s best days and highlight moments to your average days. And you always come up short in that respect. You end up feeling worse about your life.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:58] Speak for yourself, Vivek. Ok? My life is one big highlight reel.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:32:06] So, well. Well, mine isn’t, so. So, you know, so I think that that’s another challenge is how we use technology. But the other thing about technology that I think is important, though, is that technology reinforces the predominant culture around us. And so we have to ask, well, what is that culture? And my concern with our world right now is an increasingly in more and more countries, the predominant culture is one that tells us that to matter in life, to be successful, that we need to accumulate either fame, wealth or power. And that could be a fancy title. It could be lots of friends, you know, on Instagram or, you know, to be a popular person, you know, in school. It could be, you know, being rich by whatever standard you measure that by. But this is what we associate with value and we hold those people up who have achieved those milestones as success stories. We write books about them. We produce movies about them. And we usually attribute these successes to one person also. You know, we like to tell the story of Steve Jobs who made Apple happen.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:14] Yep.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:33:14] Even though there were thousands of other people who likely helped make that happen.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:17] Nope, it was just him. No, he did the plumbing. He made all of food. He’s a really incredible guy.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:33:22] Packaged each iPhone by himself.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:23] You should show him some more respect. It’s so true that the leader of an empire is becomes the entire empire.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:33:32] Right. And that’s a story that we like because we have a culture that’s tilted away from interdependence to independence. And that tells us that to be truly successful, we’ve got to be able to do things on our own, not depend on other people.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:44] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:33:44] Got to be self-sufficient. But the reality is that we have evolved to be interdependent species. Right? So if we’ve evolved to be interdependent, if our biology responses-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:54] What does interdependent mean?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:33:56] Interdependent means that we need each other, that we actually rely on each other.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:00] Ok. That’s my new song. I’m going to release “Interdependent Ladies”.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:34:04] Interdependent?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:04] That’s it.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:34:05] I love it. I love it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:05] Go on.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:34:07] But if we have evolve to be interdependent.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:09] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:34:10] And social connection makes us feel better and it makes us safer and enables us to perform better and produce more. Then if we if somehow forcing ourselves to do the opposite of that, then it creates real conflict internally. It actually doesn’t make us feel good. Our bodies evole to feel good in one set of circumstances. But our culture is pushing us toward a different set of circumstances and that creates conflict. And I think that conflict manifests as people having just really low self-esteem and people being depressed and anxious because they are chasing an ideal that I think at our heart doesn’t really speak to us. Now, if you go out on a street corner in London or New York or anywhere and you get a hundred people together and you ask them, “Tell me what your top three priorities are in life”, I guarantee you that almost all of them will list a person as their number one priority. Maybe it’s their mom or their dad or their sister, their-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:02] Fiancé.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:35:02] Their spouse. Fiancé for you, your best friend. I understand. But the question I think we have to ask ourselves is, “Are those stated priorities reflected in how we’re actually living our life”?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:14] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:35:14] Meaning is that where we’re putting our time and our attention and our focus? And for many people, myself included, for much of my life, the answer has been no actually, there’s been a gap between what I’ve stated as my priorities, which are people and how I’m living my life, which is more oriented around a traditional model of success. And so I think part of, the reason this is so relevant and connects to social media is what social media does in such a powerful way is it’s an amplifier. It amplifies ideas and amplifies culture. And it is helped amplify a culture that has put wealth and fame and power. And as the definitions of achievement and success at the center and has made people often feel that if they don’t, haven’t achieved those or acquired enough of that, that they are somehow not enough. And so when you’re engaged in a culture of comparison and when you’re, it’s oriented around those kind of values, you can start to get lonely very, very quickly. This is not to say that pursuing fame or success in the workplace is wrong. Not at all. You know, that can be the path to happiness for you in some way, shape or form. The question is where does it fall on the priority list relative to people? And I think whenever the lower people slip on our priority list, the lower our relationships fall on our, on our in terms of our focus areas in life. I think the lonelier we get and the unhappier we are.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:36] So true. I’ve spent the last two years, I’m a full time activist, and then I’m also, I moonlight as an actress and TV host. And so I don’t think I’ve had time off, like a week off in maybe two and a half years. I also have a lot of family members who have very stressful, difficult lives. And I am consumed by my life in its entirety and find myself at the end of two years of this sort of press run where people think that I’m this sort of like people write ridiculous articles about me as the feminist hero that we need, whereas I’m really just ignorant and learning and trying to figure things out. Or they talk about my successes and my achievements and how I’m managing to balance all these things at the same time. And we have this expression that I’m sure you must have used during your time in the White House, “Boss Bitch”. A frequent, frequent political lingo.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:37:34] Regular part of our parlance.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:34] So we would use the term, we use the term, especially amongst women nowadays of “Boss Bitch” like the more you can achieve, you’ve got to think like a man. You’ve got to work like a man. You’ve got to be independent, run 20 things at once. Be your own boss, be your own CEO. All of which I support completely, because this independence can guarantee a certain level of freedom. But at the same time, the pursuit of that is now so almost obsessive amongst my generation that I forgot to book time for myself and for my friends. And it’s not that I thought money was more important or success or rewards were more important. It’s just that those things slipped in as a priority.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:38:14] Exactly.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:38:15] And they just creep into your life. And before, you know, before you’ve even looked when you’re saying yes to everything, you don’t notice how your schedules filling up so that you go six weeks without a day off and your health obviously as-, your health struggles, but also your social life just disintegrates. And so thankfully, these 12, my 12 Jesus friends, have been able to put up with me, but I’ve never felt like more consumed by my existence. And so I spend a lot of time telling people that “Boss Bitch” is fine as long as you don’t take it all the way to “Dead Bitch”, which is what I’m worried it will become if I don’t stop.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:38:53] Well, I think that’s, that’s very insightful of you, because I do think in the modern world that we have to be very intentional about how we build connections into our life and how we nourish those connections over time.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:39:04] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:39:04] Just building it to begin with isn’t enough. We’ve got to nurture our connections over time and that can be time consuming. It can be messy. You know, if you’re close to somebody as you are with your 12 friends, I’m sure it’s not always, you know, a sort of, it’s not always simple.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:39:21] No.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:39:22] It’s, it can be complicated and you can have disagreements. And because with the people you’re closest to, you can be yourself and you can be open. I mean, there’s going to be some level of conflict, but that’s part of what living a rich life of relationships entails. And one of my concerns is I look at the world, the world that my children are starting to grow up in and they’re small. You know, my son is, Thetas is three and a half. My daughter, Shauntee, is two. They you know, they still have many years, hopefully, god willing, you know-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:39:52] How the fuck did you write a book with two such small babies?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:39:55] It was challenging. It was challen-. I will tell you that I don’t think they were a fan of the book writing process because it took me away, you know.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:40:01] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:40:01] Because it took me away from them a lot. When I started writing it, my son was just learning to speak. And the week I finished writing the book, he had learned enough to say to me, “Papa, are you done with your book yet”? And I was so happy that week to finally tell him, “Yes. Yes, Thetas, I am”.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:40:17] That’s so great.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:40:19] But, you know, I think about them a lot because more than anyone, they were my biggest motivation for writing this book, because I look at the world they’re growing up in, the world that we’re all living in. And I see a world full of promise, full of extraordinary people whose roots and whose evolutionary roots are are in togetherness. You know, whose fundamental nature, I believe, is to give and to receive love. I think that is how we are programed. But I see them living in a world that is pushing us away from that. To be someone that we’re not, to live in fear instead of to live in love. Live in anxiety and worry that we’re not enough and that we’re somehow broken in some way. And I don’t want my children to grow up chronically feeling like they’re not enough. I don’t want them to feel that they have to go through life alone, because if they fall, nobody will be there to help lift them up and that they can reach out to other people and do the same because everyone is just looking out for themselves. I want them to instead grow up in a world that’s truly people centered where we prioritize relationships. Not only with the people we love, but with the strangers we encounter and where we give people benefit of the doubt. Or we recognize that one of the greatest gifts that we have as human beings is the opportunity to be in a relationship with each other. And when we seize that opportunity, when we invest in those relationships, when we give of ourselves, especially in vulnerable moments, that the rewards that we reap, the joy that we find is extraordinary. And that’s what makes life meaningful. And so to build a world that’s truly centered around people is more than about a single program. It’s more than about passing a law. About shifting consciousness and culture that we can actively choose a new way of being. There are few people, I think, who are better poised to do that. And the rising generation of young people in our country who have the character and the will and the strength to voice a desire to live differently. You know, who have on many issues, whether it’s climate change or other issues, have made it clear that they are not content to remain with the status quo, that they’re not content to accept the world as it is, but that they want to help remake the world into what it can be and what it should be for all of us. And that’s why I think this journey and this mission really to build a more connected world is one that I feel so committed to, because I know it’s what we need to be healthy, to be strong, to be happy. To do it will take all of us thinking about the choices we make in our own life, where we spend our time, who we spend that time with and what we ultimately prioritize.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:12] I like your suggestion of using social media as a means to encourage physical gathering. And I think that that’s something that I will take away from this in particular is making sure that the way that I use because I’m definitely guilty of of not registering that six months or a year has gone by since I’ve seen someone that I care about because I’ve seen so much of their face and social media, which, of course, is just as you said earlier, the highlight reel. And I’ve liked that picture or I saw that pictures of holiday, whereas I’m still old enough to be of the generation where you used to meet up with friends, see the holiday photographs in print.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:43:47] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:48] And it was something really special about that. And then you’d hear the story behind the picture and hear about the ups and the downs and the fights and the triumphs of the holiday. Whereas you don’t get any of that with social media. It’s just lots of their favorite pictures in a swimsuit. Or by a perfect sunset or of a great avocado bloody toast. And so I’m certainly someone who’s now through my busy-ness realized that I’ve sort of busy-ed to myself into a hole. And I’m now looking at how I consume social media. I think it’s fantastic and it’s a vital, vital part of how we learn about what’s happening in the world. It’s a vital part of activism. It’s vital for people with disabilities, physical disabilities, who can’t necessarily always meet up with others in person. But I definitely think it’s important that more of us address how it is also de-stabilizing our habit of gathering.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:44:39] You mentioned activism, just a word on that. You know, I spent a number of years building an advocacy organization with my wife. That’s actually how we met. And one of the things I learned, which is something that most advocates get to know very quickly, is if people come to the table for a cause, but they stay at the table because of the community, because of the people that they meet there. People’s commitment to a cause.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:02] Future hot wife. Sorry. I know why you stay in that, because of you, Vivek. Sorry.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:45:21] Hey. Guilty. Kept me in.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:21] Before we go further, I’m just gonna take us to a quick break. And we’re back.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:45:37] But the truth is that nobody’s like commitment to a mission can sustain just to working on an a cause alone by themselves, like we need that community. So if we really want to build sustain movements for change in our world, whether it’s around issues like climate or other issues, we need to think about how we foster strong social connections. The other thing is that when we think about building connection, like I know that we live busy lives and the people feel really stretched in a lot of different directions. And in order to build connection in your life, you don’t have to necessarily clear your whole schedule and say, “Ok, I’m going to devote six hours a day to just going and knocking on the doors of my friends to visit them and say ‘hi’”. Although, hey, that might be deeply rewarding to you. Instead, I actually think a little bit can go a long way in terms of time spent. So for example, if we were to spend just five minutes a day, minimum of 5 minutes a day connecting with somebody that we love that could be calling them, that could be video conferencing with them, that could be writing them an email or a text saying, “Hey, I’m just thinking of, you know, and I was remembering this thing that you told me and it brought a smile to my face”. Just 5 minutes, then consistently over time, it makes a big difference. And second, if we think about the quality of the time that we’re already spending with people and how we can increase that, one of the simple ways we can do that is actually by reducing the distraction in the time we’re already spending with people. So if I’m catching up with a friend over dinner, we might think that just having our phones out but face down is ok because, you know, I’m not going to be distracted.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:07] I consider that a huge commitment.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:47:10] It’s tough and it feels strange if you’re used to having your phone on you to put it away. But there are actually studies. In fact, some studies out of the UK showing that even the mere presence of a phone, even if it’s faced down, has a negative effect on the quality of the conversation as perceived by both parties. We, many of us also and I’ve been guilty of this, too, I’m sad to say, although I’ve now tried to no longer do this. But many of us have been guilty of talking to a friend on the phone and also scrolling through like our phone and looking at our inbox or social media at the same time.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:43] Oh, I feel, I feel attacked.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:47:45] Well, this is normal. And the reason that you do it isn’t because you’re a bad person. It’s because the way many of the devices and also many of the platforms are designed is to pull you in. It’s to suck your attention.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:57] Well, I mean, they used actual neuroscientists to help engage you in the most addictive way possible to create these apps.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:48:04] Yes. This is not fly-by-night design. This is very intentional.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:06] It’s not our fault.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:48:07] Psychologically driven, design elements and all of these apps.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:10] Yeah, it’s terrifying.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:48:10] So they’re pulling you in. Right? But if you notice those kind of conversations, you can sometimes have a 30 minute conversation with a friend and barely remember what you talked about because you’re scrolling through a whole bunch of things. Or you hear the words, but you’re not actually processing them.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:25] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:48:26] And the full depth of their meaning. Instead of talking to their friend for 30 minutes in a distracted way. If you just focus on talking to them for 10 minutes, I guarantee you will find that to be much more meaningful and rewarding and insightful than the 30 minutes of distraction. So there are time efficient ways that we can actually improve the quality of our connection and create a feeling of sustained connection over time.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:50] I also, by the way. Sorry. Just recommend turning your phone off when you are hanging out with a friend. If like me, you slack people off. That’s English slang for gossiping. Sometimes I’ve been known to have a gossip and turning off my phone, leave it. It’s like terror, but I’m sure you’ve had at least once, knowing your career past. At some point, you’ve said something you weren’t supposed to say about someone, and it’s just a great relief to have your phone off. So you never get that terrible moment, which is definitely happened to me. Where for some reason, your bastard phone has dialed that person that you’re speaking about.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:49:29] Fair enough. That, that is a danger. We live in a world where it’s hard to be vulnerable. I think it’s especially in an age where-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:34] Why is that?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:49:35] Well, I think it’s because-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:37] Has it always been a world in which we were afraid to be vulnerable?
VIVEK MURTHY [00:49:41] I think we’ve been afraid to be vulnerable for a very long time. But I think it’s particularly hard now, actually, because of technology, because having a vulnerable moment means that you’re taking a risk. Right? And if you take a risk, when I took a risk of maybe being vulnerable in middle school. And I maybe said something that I thought was OK, but that people thought was dumb, 10 people knew about it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:03] Right.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:50:03] Right. These days you do that and thousands of people-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:06] It goes viral.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:50:06] Yeah, are viewing it on the web, online and all of sudden your embarrassment is profound. So that increases the risk of being vulnerable for many people and it makes them close up a little bit. But that’s really problematic because it is in our vulnerable moments that we connect with other people. That’s when we expose our, our jagged edges and our imperfections. And it’s those imperfections, you know, that connect us to other people. If we can’t show those, then we’re all walking around with masks on, seeming like we’re perfect, trying to be better than what we think we are.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:39] And never learning.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:50:40] And never learning, never connecting and never really feeling fulfilled in the way that we deserve.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:46] Fascinating. That is so true. I’ve always thought of it as, because obviously our, my generation in particulars are our language, our vocabulary around mental health and and feelings and learning how to communicate them has vastly improved because we’ve grown up on the Internet and our television is much more communicative about that sort of stuff. I always presumed that we are more open just because we’re better versed. But actually that does make great sense that the fear of then being publicly and permanently embarrassed or rejected and, and used as some sort of example of something socially, politically that someone can see-.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:51:27] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:51:27] All the way on the other side of the world that never even occurred to me until now. So you’re right. Ah, the fucking Internet.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:51:34] It’s not all bad, though, you know.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:51:35] I know.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:51:35] To your point about what do you do if you’re feeling marginalized because of your sexual orientation, for example. Well, you know, years ago, if you were in a small town and there was nobody else who was like you, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do. Right? In terms of finding somebody to engage with. But thanks to the fact that we have more online communities and opportunities to find people, we, we don’t have to always struggle alone the way we did before. That’s true with illness as well. For many people who struggle with illness, especially illness, that may prevent them from getting out into the neighborhood and, and traveling to meet new people or go to support groups, being confined to their house does not have to be a sentence to isolation because they can now connect with patient communities online and with others. It’s not always easy to do that, but we have more options now to find community than we did before. And this is why, as we think about technology, it’s really important that we not paint it with a single brush.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:52:32] No, no. Of course, of course. No, it’s incredible. Like I said, the movement, the advocacy, the, and the way we are able to learn is so incredible. And connect.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:52:41] Yeah, but I think my challenge to tech entrepreneurs is for them to think more intently about what the yardstick is by which we measure the success of technology. If we say that we want to build technology that strengthens relationships as opposed to just increases the volume of interaction, you know, on a platform. And I think that might lead us to design a different kind of technology than we have right now. It may lead us to actually measure the quality of interactions, measure whether people feel more or less lonely, more or less empathy when they engage with our tool. And I think we may have something that looks a bit different from what we have now. It all, it all depends on what our intent is.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:19] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:53:20] What’s a value system that underlies that technology and what are we measuring to make sure that we hold ourselves to account for what we’re seeking to create.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:27] So really, anyone listening to this, the goal here is just to reach out and get out and encourage people, I suppose, to try to come together, even if it’s in this, to the tiniest groups, just a one-on-one or two friends over even just in your house, eating a pizza can be such an incredible nourishing night out. Better than any stupid fucking award ceremony I’ve ever been to, I can tell you that. I’ve done both. The irony does strike me that we’re having this conversation in the middle of the fucking coronavirus hysteria. Like the ultimate loneliness virus that’s telling everyone to stay home, don’t go to work, don’t go to concerts, don’t touch anyone, don’t get on a plane. The irony that this so-called epidemic is breaking out as we’re telling people that we need more human face-to-face connection does not escape me. But hopefully will be, the hysteria-.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:54:26] Hopefully the hysteria will settled. But this is actually the coronavirus or Covid-19 challenge we’re facing, to me, a stark reminder of why it is so important for us to invest in relationships, because it’s-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:54:36] And wash our hands.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:54:37] And to wash our hands. And to not touch your face as often as most of us do.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:54:40] Yep.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:54:42] Because it’s in times of stress like this, that the strength or weakness of our social networks is exposed. And if we are teetering on the edge of loneliness and then we’re in a scenario where we can’t see people either because let’s say they’re quarantined or we have to be quarantined, we can’t travel to see the people that we wanted to see. That can really tip us, you know, into, into a difficult state. Well the end of the day, as challenging as loneliness is. And we’ve talked about all the ways in which it’s difficult and how consequential it is for our health. I actually feel quite encouraged about the possibility of creating a more connected world, because I think that the steps that we can take to create greater connection in our lives and the lives of others can be relatively simple, but quite powerful. Like we know that focusing on the quality of the time we’re already spending, making sure we’re spending 5 minutes a day with people we love. These are powerful. It turns out also service is such a powerful way to escape the downward spiral of loneliness and shift our focus from ourselves to other people while also reaffirming that we have value to bring to the world.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:47] Yeah. Mmhmm.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:55:47] And if we can build an element of service into our life and services not just volunteering in your soup kitchen, it’s also helping people in school or at work. It’s helping strangers you may encounter who are struggling with their luggage or their groceries. These small acts of servism as a might take 10 seconds or 15 seconds can be powerful, including smiling at people who are strangers.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:07] No, I’m English. You’ve gone too far.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:56:10] I’ve come here to push you a little bit, you know, and-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:12] You’re out of your mind, Vivek. You’re drunk.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:56:14] But, you know, I’ll tell you that sometimes it feels uncomfortable to smile at people in elevators or, you know, or strangers. ‘Cause we’re just so not used to doing that. But I’ve tried experimenting a bit with this more. Of just been, taking the, you know, initiative and being more conscious about reaching out to just simply through a smile and or saying “Hello” to people in elevators. And what I found is that 99 times out of 100, they’re receptive and all that, every time I actually feel better about the interaction, even if I go in doubtful.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:44] Don’t do it in London. Don’t do it, they don’t like it there.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:56:47] I may come and just drag you into an experiment with me and we may walk around London smiling at people and seeing how they react.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:51] No, you’ll get smacked in the face. That’s what will happen to us. People, people look at you. I’ve tried smiling. I tried this little experiment of yours. And people just look at you like “The fuck are you smiling at”? So I think maybe London in particular needs help in sort of warming up. Maybe the same could be said of New York as well at times. But I do know what you mean. Thank you so much. This has been so illuminating and wonderful to talk about. It’s also been something that tends to be scary about this. Learning the health implications and the life implications of loneliness is something to take really seriously and to not just take this for granted. The statistic about you being 50 percent more likely to live a longer life, scared the shit out of me, frankly. But I do feel a sense of hope, and I do feel like the fact that these conversations are even being had and these books are being written like yours will contribute to us destigmatizing. I think destigmatizing is the first step of this journey for our generation.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:57:55] Absolutely. If you’re lonely, it does not mean you’re broken. And the good thing is, even despite all the health implications of loneliness, you don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse in order to address loneliness. You just need to be a human being who cares about someone else and has the courage to demonstrate that.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:58:13] Yeah.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:58:14] Through your words and through your actions.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:58:16] And something that little you and little I could have benefited from knowing when we were younger is well. Ava DuVernay says, which is that “You don’t have to spend all of your energy trying to get a seat at the table. You can just build your own table”. And by that I mean go out and find your own tribe. And I’ve done it. And you’ve done it. And look at us. We’re still alive. Having a lovely day.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:58:42] Absolutely.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:58:42] Thank you so much. I really appreciate this.
VIVEK MURTHY [00:58:44] Thank you so much, Jameela. I really enjoyed the conversation.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:58:47] A quick thank you to the people who make this podcast possible. Kimmie Lucas, my producer and Sophia Jennings, who is also one of the producers in the podcast. A big thank you to my boyfriend, James Blake, who I forced to make the theme tune for this and I love it very much. And I’d like to thank myself.
September 21, 2023
Jameela is joined by campaigner and writer Gina Martin, and in this optimistic conversation about creating change for equal rights around the world, they discuss how anyone can show up and support activism (especially offline in real spaces) and what this activism work can look like.