When Sara and I decided to develop a blog on the topic of friendship, we were only vaguely aware of the scientifically proven link between friendships and physical health. As we dove into books covering this subject, one unexpectedly wonderful read we discovered was Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, written by Vivek Murthy, MD.
In this well-written and engaging book, Dr. Murthy vividly makes the case for loneliness as a public health crisis linked to many other serious and chronic issues that we face in the United States. Yet, he remains hopeful, because he believes that awareness of the issue will lead us on a path toward reconnection and healing.
We came across the book almost by accident, when a friend gave it to me as a gift, thinking it would be relevant to our work on the blog. I liked it so much that I sent it to Sara, and I also reached out to Dr. Murthy via LinkedIn. He shared with me that writing this book was a “labor of love” for him, and that the idea for writing it originated when he first assumed the position of U.S. Surgeon General under President Obama in 2014.
Dr. Murthy was ready to tackle headline-making issues like obesity, tobacco use and illness prevention. He began his tenure with a listening tour, telling his team, “Let’s go talk to people and see what they need.”
In his travels, Dr. Murthy heard many concerns that he expected to hear about the opioid epidemic, growing e-cigarette use among youth, among other issues. Yet, he discovered another, unexpected truth: loneliness was often at the root of many of the physical, emotional, and mental health issues causing much of the suffering he was learning about and witnessing. He goes on to explore many examples in which people eventually find ways to forge connection, which better equips them to handle the challenges in their lives.
Quite simply, human relationship is as essential to our well-being as food and water.”Dr. Vivek Murthy
Dr. Murthy’s book explains how human connection is fundamental in helping to prevent certain health risks, as well as helping people triumph over illness, loss, or other kinds of tragedy. His tales of finding connection cross generations and geographies. His story of a young college student struggling to make meaningful friendships at her East Coast Ivy League college was a story I could relate to, as I struggled with that myself as a young student. I can only guess that the loneliness students experience in the Instagram age is far more intense than it was years ago. Another compelling example for me was the daughter in Australia exploring ways to connect her aging father with others following the death of her mother. I was impressed by how she recognized that older men were hesitant to reach to others, perceiving it to be a burden. So, she employed clever tactics for her father to create new relationships in the community by being of service to others.
Overall, I found this book to be a pleasure to read as it was full of hope and inspiration at a time when both seem to be in short supply. The Covid-19 pandemic and political antagonism in Washington DC have combined to dominate headlines and drive us all into our isolated corners. Together reminds us what it means to be connected, the value of friendships, both casual and deep, and the dangers of isolation.
Perhaps what I liked most about this book is the vulnerability and humanity shown by the author himself. Despite his many accomplishments, Dr. Murthy humbly weaves in his own challenges of finding connection, explaining how shame often accompanies loneliness, making us feel unworthy of friendship and love.
As a grade schooler, he experienced isolation that manifest as stomach aches and it took until his high school years to find meaningful friendships. This brought back memories for me. As a 6th grade transplant to Kentucky from suburban Washington, DC, I spent that year vacillating between loneliness and anger at my parents for uprooting me from close friends. My Dorothy Hamill haircut, Toughskin jeans and kickball prowess further isolated me from the bevy of 6th grade girls in Kentucky who dressed like they just stepped out of Teen Vogue. Fortunately, by 7th grade both my hair and confidence had grown. As I learned to accept myself, friendships flourished, many that continue today.
Near the end of the book Dr. Murthy shares a story filled with raw emotion, that of nearly losing his young daughter to illness. He describes how he and his wife initially felt completely alone and isolated during the late-night emergency room visit. Once they began to tell friends and family of their situation, they were overwhelmed by love and support. One of the most poignant lines in the book is when he shared: “I was reminded that more often than not, the people who love us will step up if we just have the courage to invite them into our lives.”
While not the life-or-death situation Dr. Murthy experienced with his daughter, my older son faced many struggles as a young child. His tantrums hit a crescendo when enrolled at a daycare near the hospital system I worked for. Somehow an ideal childcare situation became a nightmare when I learned that he kept it together there by isolating and not eating. If not for the encouragement of my younger sister, who recognized that perhaps other things were affecting his behavior, I might still be continually navigating my son’s outbursts.
An evaluation by an Occupational Therapist revealed that he had sensory processing and development challenges affecting his motor skills, speech, and emotional regulation. I was floored, but also relieved to have some clarity and a way forward. Days after receiving this news I was headed to Massachusetts for a long weekend at a wellness center with Sara. Her empathy and support were exactly what I needed as I navigated several difficult but important life choices. I left my demanding job so I could focus on his therapies, relocated our family to the suburbs near a therapeutic preschool, and by kindergarten had my son involved in choir and improv. Two atypical activities for a five-year-old, but ones that helped him build confidence and interpersonal skills. Now 14, this outgoing, curious kid has starred in two musicals and has built many admirable close friendships. He’s still a quirky kid, but that’s part of what makes him unique and loved.
Although the pandemic has doled out many challenges for all of us to face, one upside for many has been hitting the collective pause button on our overscheduled lives. As we consider a return to ‘normal,’ Dr. Murthy’s wise words may guide us to strive harder to connect and to appreciate the value of befriending a neighbor, helping a stranger, or just sharing an unmasked smile with a fully vaccinated loved one.