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Dr Vivek Murthy: Rebuilding social connection in the pandemic

by Chris Langdon

Filed under Coronavirus

You do not have to have personal ambition to be a leader. You do not have to be the loudest person in the room. You can believe in consensus more than you believe in conflict. You can be human. You can feel & show emotion. You can be kind, empathetic & strong.

That was the tweet from Dr Vivek Murthy five days before he was nominated as US Surgeon General on December 7 by President Elect Biden.

Dr Murthy, who was citing New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, is fast becoming one of the most influential medical leaders in tackling the US Corona crisis. He is already a Co-Chair of President-elect Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board.

Dr Murthy is an original thinker who revolutionised understanding of public health while serving as US Surgeon General in the Obama Administration. In the three years since leaving office in 2017 he summed up his radical thinking on health in his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

Dr Murthy shared his connected thinking at the virtual conference of the US Mind and Life Institute on November 7th, the day before his appointment to the COVID-19 Advisory Board. The Institute is one of the foremost global centres on understanding the link between wellbeing, science and contemplative practices, such as mindfulness and meditation.

Dr Murthy outlined the compelling need for greater understanding of the mental health crisis that has become so extensive during the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as 40.9% of 5,400 respondents reported “at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition”. They were taking part in a survey for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was held in the last week of June 2020, at the start of the second US wave.

This is not just an issue in the USA. A new British book, The Lonely Century, begins: “Even before a global pandemic introduced us to social distancing, loneliness was already becoming the defining condition of the twenty-first century.”

Restoring social connection is a key task for a new generation of leaders like Dr Murthy

Here are his thoughtful opening remarks on the opportunity in the pandemic to think about how we rebuild the foundations of connection:

Dr Vivek Murthy
I want to step back for a minute and talk about a hidden ‘toll’ of this pandemic that isn’t usually covered in the papers. We all know about the direct toll of people who tragically lost their lives, and many who are struggling with disability now as a result of COVID. We also hear about the economic impact.

But what we don’t hear as much about is the impact on our social health. I use that term deliberately. Our relationships are very much connected to our health and to our overall wellbeing.

The toll that we’ve been experiencing and many people around the world have been struggling with, is the impact that COVID is having on our ability to connect with one another.

That is in part because of the physical separation that we’re enduring, but also the impact that it may be having on families, as well as on communities more broadly.

As we think about how to address COVID as a country - as a world - the traditional public health and medical infrastructure you hear about is very important. We do need to have strong guidance and clear guidance. We need to have adequate testing. We need to contact tracing capacity. We need to ensure that our clinical care is strong and that we also have vaccines so you can deploy.

Isolation and separation from others

What we also need is to recognise that there’s another powerful asset here that has the ability to really strengthen us now and also in the future. And that asset is our relationships with one another. And I just want to share a little bit about some of the data around this and why it turns out to be so powerful.

One of the things that we have learned about the impact of relationships on our health and wellbeing is that whether or not you are experiencing loneliness, for example, is very much related to both physical and mental health outcomes. So people who struggle with loneliness, for example, are at increased risk of heart disease, premature death, dementia, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and a longer list of physical and mental health challenges.

We also know it’s not just health. People struggle with this sense of isolation and disconnection from others, and it also impacts their performance in work and at school.

Some very interesting research done at the University of Pennsylvania at the Wharton School of Business and at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business has helped us to understand more about the fact that disconnection and isolation in the workplace reduces creativity, engagement and output, as well as a sense of loyalty or affiliation in the workplace, which in turn can have an impact on retention.

Relationships matter

And it’s also worth recognising, especially in this moment, given the year that we’ve been through with COVID and a Presidential election, that our sense of connection or disconnection also has a profound impact on our ability to dialogue with one another.

In all of my travels as Surgeon General and having had the privilege of speaking to people in many parts of our country, I never came across somebody who felt that this state of dialogue in America, especially political dialogue is healthy.

Whether they were Republicans or Democrats or independents, they felt that we could do better when it came to actually coming together and talking to each other and working through issues.

But it turns out that one of the foundations for healthy dialogue is actually healthy and strong relationships. Which is why when we have a disagreement with a relative, it is a little bit easier to talk through than when we are, for example, having a more heated exchange with a stranger – a faceless stranger on Twitter or on Facebook.

So relationships really do matter. As we think about building resilience during this pandemic and beyond, and if we recognise that relationships are really a powerful source of resilience, what that tells us is that we have got to tackle the pandemic and really build resilience on three levels. The individual level, a family level and a community level.

And at an individual level there are things we can do, despite the physical distancing of this pandemic, to strengthen our relationships with one another by putting aside 15 minutes a day to reach out to people we care about. By focusing on the quality of time we have with one another, which we can improve by eliminating distraction when we’re speaking with others.

And by looking for ways to serve one another. Recognising that it is in moments of service that we forge some of our strongest connections. Not only to others, but also it’s time when we strengthen our connection to ourselves, as we reaffirm that we have meaning and value to bring to the world.

Kindness and compassion

The second level, additional to individual levels is the family level.

And I see this as a parent who is struggling to figure out how to take care of my kids during this pandemic. How to home-school them, recognising that my four-year-old is really not built to do virtual learning at this point, and it’s been a difficult adjustment. At times like this, when families are under stress, one of the things I think that is so powerful is to come back to our fundamentals and recognise that the most important determinant for whether our children will do well and be well adjusted in life in the long term beyond the basics of food and shelter, is whether or not they receive love from the people in their lives.

And in an age where many are pushed to think about so many of the things for their kids. Are they in the best possible school? Are they in the right activities? Do they have the right extra-curricular activities? Are they learning the right musical instrument?

I find this pandemic is pushing us to recognise once again that our ability to help our children know that they are loved, that they are accepted, that they have intrinsic worth. It is not tied to how much money they may make one day, or how famous they may be, or how powerful they may be but it is tied to their own ability, intrinsic ability to be kind and compassionate.

That is one of those powerful things we can do to help our children build a strong foundation and become more resilient. We have an opportunity to focus back on that foundation during this pandemic.

Rebuilding the foundation of connection

I’ll end with the third area. We’ve been talking about individual resilience, and family resilience. So let’s talk now about community resilience just for a moment.

It is true that if we really want not only to be better as families, but also to have neighbourhoods that are stronger, cities and states and countries in a world that are more cohesive, we need to be able to connect and support one another and come together to address the big challenges that arise.

What we need is for people to experience greater connection with one another in their workplaces, their schools and their neighbourhoods. And what that means is we have to think about how to strengthen connection in our schools and in workplaces and in our neighbourhoods.

We don’t typically think of that as the job of a school or a workplace. But recognising the powerful impact that social connection has on learning, on productivity, on dialogue, I think it has actually become an imperative for us to think about how to build curricula in school that actually reflect on the core tenets of social emotional learning that our children need to live a healthy life.

It’s also important for employers, for businesses and for non-profit organisations to ask the question: How can I build a culture of connection in the workplace And we can talk about some ways to actually do that.

Then finally neighbourhoods too. To recognise that there are social institutions that are so important to the social fabric of our institutions. Many of those have declined in terms of participation and power over the last several decades. Whether it is membership in organisations like the Rotary or the Lions Club, or whether it is participation in other social organisations or sports leagues. Or whether it is even having people over for group events like dinners and such. All of those methods of bringing community together have actually diminished as Robert Putnam at Harvard and others have described over the years.

And so, this is our chance to think about how we rebuild that foundation of connection where people live, where they learn, where they work and where they play.

If we can do these things together, recognising that relationships are one of our most powerful sources of resilience and strength and healing, we will enable ourselves to be stronger not only now and in the months and years ahead as we deal with COVID but long after this pandemic is over.

I think we will actually allow ourselves and enable ourselves to be even stronger than before this pandemic arrived.

This article was first posted on November 19 2020 and updated on December 7 2020.

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