One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been how to stay connected; we have realized that it is as important as food and water. The human creativity that has emerged in real life, online, and in the arts is impressive and inspiring. And despite this, its opposite—loneliness—is at an all-time high. Loneliness is not an easy or popular topic; the shame and fear of talking about or being lonely creates a self-perpetuating, destructive cycle. This is evidenced in increased suicide and addiction rates, as well as illnesses.
“During my years caring for patients, the most common condition I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness,” writes Vivek Murthy in his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Dr. Murthy’s book was published in March 2020 as the pandemic, almost overnight, made human contact synonymous with danger and potentially a mortal threat. Social distancing became a public health imperative that still guides our everyday life and decisions nearly a year later. We have had to radically put space between ourselves and others. Our sociometric conscientiousness—sociometry is defined as the decisions, both conscious and unconscious, that we make regarding interpersonal affiliation—was forced to consider new questions: Who do we choose to see? How many people will we be around? What places will we go? What might be our exposure to COVID as we make these daily and numerous choices?
For me, this degree of vigilance has sometimes created exhaustion and brought its own kind of loneliness. My social atom—the diagram of all those I am emotionally connected to—looks very different pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. Draw your own before and after (you can find directions here); it’s quite revealing. Here’s what you would see in mine: more distance between me and all my in-town friends; all my clients now on Zoom; no more trips to restaurants or cafes, nor casual runs to the grocery, farmer’s market, or drugstore. Nothing is unplanned, unmasked, or without risk determination. I miss the casual spontaneity of life.
During this last year, an ever growing number of people in all fields—science, education, the arts, communications, medicine—have creatively and generously given much attention to helping us build resources and stay connected through media and many online platforms. The American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama, of which I am a member, has led ongoing support groups, Friday-night social gatherings, social justice initiatives, and pro bono workshops to keep our community growing and together. (This week, we are hosting our first online conference, “100 Years of Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy: Honoring our Past & Visioning the Future,” April 7–11.) Our members have “seen and been” with each other more this year than ever before, building deep bonds as we cried and laughed online together. I spend four to seven hours each weekday on Zoom and I attend four ongoing groups online every week in order to stay engaged—including an improv class with WBI alum Jude Treder-Wolff, who has been a speaker on the Positivity Hour webinar series hosted by WBI and the JCC Manhattan. (You can view that webinar here.) I am closer than ever to the people that have been in these groups, including many within my own temple and local community. I am working daily to stay connected, and yet sometimes my “Groundhog Day” numbness wins!
The Wisdom of America’s Doctor
Dr. Murthy is an American physician and former vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. He served as the 19th Surgeon General under President Obama from 2014 to 2017. (President Biden has again appointed him to this position; this time, his role will be expanded to manage the US government response to the pandemic.) Dr. Murthy understands loneliness at the core level, coming from an immigrant family and as the grandson of a poor farmer from India. He was raised in Miami where he experienced being the only Indian family in his community.
Dr. Murthy’s informative and inspirational book helped me name that Groundhog Day feeling—it is loneliness. Not a general loneliness, but a longing to see and touch a specific person or group of friends. This book was written after Dr. Murthy’s “Listening Tour” around the United States, where he met and listened to people from all walks of life. His goal was to survey the medical and emotional concerns of the people. He tells the story of the disconnection and isolation in our society pre-COVID, and the adverse health impacts of loneliness. The book unfolds through stories and personal narratives about how communities overcame these challenges.
Murthy’s take on things, while always humane and practical, also addresses the spiritual-psychological dimension—the dynamic tension of the opposition between togetherness and loneliness. Jung’s principle of opposites states that every wish immediately suggests its opposite. According to Jung, it is learning to hold the tension of the opposites that makes us stretch and grow bigger. There is more space for seemingly opposite ideas, feelings, and behaviors.
Addressing Loneliness and Togetherness
In Dr. Murthy’s words: “Right now we have millions of people in our country who are suffering in isolation, thinking that they are the only ones who are dealing with drug addiction (or any other condition), who don’t realize that on their own block there are other people and families. They think they are alone and they think they’re going to be judged and they don’t want to talk about it. But when people do come forward and share their stories, it’s incredibly liberating, and it gives other people permission to tell their stories too.”
One of his key ideas is that of the three circles of connection: the inner circle of close friends and confidantes; the middle circle of occasional companions; and the outer circle of colleagues and acquaintances. I recognize this as three layers of our social atom. Parallel to these three circles of connection are three distinct types of loneliness: intimate—longing for a close confidante or intimate partner; relational—longing for quality friendships and social support; and collective loneliness—hungering for a community of people who share interests and a sense of purpose with you. Over this year, I have heard the voices of all three of these kinds of loneliness and more. Loneliness for celebrations, rituals of holidays, a more normal relationship to time, easier choices, a once simpler life …
We know from the research in and practice of positive psychology that relationships are primary, and one of the strongest predictors of happiness and a life of wholebeing. The now famous words of Dr. Chris Peterson say it all: “Other people matter.” Similarly, our psychodrama literature and practice states that having a wide role repertoire, and enough people in our social atom, ignites the spontaneity and creativity for a full life. We also know that the most beneficial of relationships are those that are mutually and reciprocally chosen. It is there that we mirror each other’s values, creating a positive feedback loop—teaching us to love ourselves as we love our friends.
So, how do we want to show up in the midst of this? In the last six years, I have been exploring the applied science of positive psychology in combination with psychodrama and sociometry. I am continually delighted at how they fit—hand in glove. Here are some ideas Dr. Murthy has inspired in me.
- Truly listen when with others, without distractions or multi-tasking. If you’re not face to face, visualize the person you are speaking to.
- When prioritizing actions and structuring your days, re-center your life more on people than on tasks.
- Do a social atom from before COVID-19 and now. Look at what has changed and how it is impacting you.
- Do a role diagram—a list of all your roles before COVID-19 and now. What roles are gone or changed? Where and with whom do you execute these roles?
- Draw the three circles of connection and put the people from your social atom in the appropriate circle. Draw the circles pre-pandemic and now.
- Identify your loneliness in any of the three circles. It may be from the intimate, relational, or collective circle. What can you do to change this?
When we are on the other side of COVID-19, we will know we got through this together … moment to moment, day by day, with lonely moments but mostly friend by friend. In the words of theologian Henri Nouwen, “A friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Nancy will speak on connection and loneliness at the JCC’s Online Positive Psychology Hour, Thursday, April 15, from 12:00–1:00 pm. Register here.
Nancy Kirsner, PhD, TEP, OTR, has been in private practice, teaching, and consulting for 45 years. A graduate of WBI’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, she loves translating positive psychology principles and research into applied practice, utilizing experiential learning. Nancy is co-author, with Phoebe Atkinson, of a chapter of the book Action Explorations: Using Psychodramatic Methods in Non-Therapeutic Settings. She is past president of the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP), and has been the editor of the ASGPP’s Psychodrama Network News since 2018.