With the impending confirmation of Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General, we, as a nation, have an extraordinary opportunity not only to prevent the spread of the coronavirus but also address the soaring rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide across most age groups but particularly among teenagers and young adults under the age of 25. Our crisis of connection in which we are increasingly disconnected from ourselves and each other demands that we treat both public health crises simultaneously. It also requires that we change our culture to better match our human nature.
Dr. Murthy is part of a growing number of scientists and practitioners whose research underscores our extraordinary social and emotional capacities and needs and the dire consequences of living in a culture that doesn’t value them. Even Charles Darwin, in his "Descent of Man," attributed our social and moral nature to the reason we have thrived as a species. Yet we live in a modern culture that privileges the individual over the collective, autonomy over relationships, self over the other, and thinking over feeling. We share “selfies” rather than “wefies." Those who express their emotions, especially vulnerable ones, are often mocked; and some of us refuse to wear a mask to assert our independence. We perpetuate dehumanizing stereotypes of each other that diminish our capacity to care; and we define success as being self-sufficient and achievement oriented rather than relationship oriented. Research suggests that we have elevated individual success and demoted concern for others in our childrearing practices to a degree that may be unprecedented in our history.
The consequences of this clash between our caring nature and our self-obsessed culture is a crisis of connection. The data from the CDC show that over the past 10 years, levels of depression and anxiety have been increasing, especially among young people and Black and Latino people of all ages. According to a study published by Cigna, 3 in 5 Americans (61 percent) reported feeling lonely in 2019, compared to 54 percent in 2018. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the CDC showed that more than 1 in 3 teenagers reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009. Research from the National Center for Health Statistics indicates that suicide rates among youth ages 10 to 24 increased by 57 percent between 2007 and 2018. Suicide rates in the U.S. are now the highest they have ever been since 1941. The coronavirus has only dramatically exacerbated these rates.
So how can we address both of our public health crises, one caused by a coronavirus and the other caused by our culture?
First, we need to wear a mask and stay six feet apart, even as a growing number of people get vaccinated. Just as urgently, we need to change our culture so that we value the we over the me. That means recognizing, for example, that our social, mental, and physical health are intimately intertwined. Research has repeatedly shown that isolated individuals are at greater risk not only for depression and anxiety but also for disease and death at rates that are equivalent to smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. Social neuroscientist, John Caccioppo, states that chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by about 20 percent. Even our wounds heal more quickly when we are socially connected than when we are isolated. Decades of research make it abundantly clear that our immune system is closely tied to our emotional and social systems.
Secondly, we need to change the culture in terms of how we think about friendships and supportive relationships more generally. Rather than being tied simply to extra-curricular activities, friendships should be perceived as core to our ability to survive and thrive psychologically, physically, and spiritually.
In addition to asking about physical symptoms, primary health care providers should ask patients about their friendships and offer resources for those who feel isolated or lonely. Our schools should foster better relationships between and among students and teachers — only about 50 percent of students feel like their teacher would care if they were absent. Providing opportunities for teachers and students, for example, to interview each other about their life experiences is an easy way to foster such connections. Our workplaces should provide similar opportunities. And conversations between parents and their children should focus on how to find and keep high quality friendships and resolve conflicts rather than simply fight, flight, or isolate.
Thirdly, we need to change our institutions to reflect the latest science that underscores our social and emotional needs and capacities and that offers strategies for addressing and using them. Universities can take a lead in this effort.
At NYU’s Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity, we created the Listening Project that entails training students and teachers from around the world in what we call “transformative interviewing.” Participants learn to replace judgement with curiosity and to see others outside of rigid and dehumanizing stereotypes. Our research reveals that our project enhances social connection, listening skills, curiosity, and a sense of a common humanity among students and teachers.
At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence we work with schools across the globe to infuse the principles of emotional intelligence and healthy social connection. In response to the Pandemic, we built a course, Managing Emotions During Uncertain and Stressful Times, that is now available for free for all educators across the globe. A central component of the 10-hour, asynchronous course is to support educators in building stronger connections, especially during times of emotional upheaval.
At Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, we work to make concern for others and the common good priorities in schools and homes, and give parents and educators engaging strategies and activities that cultivate gratitude, empathy and the capacity to appreciate those who are different from them. We also work with high impact institutions such as college admissions to change the messages that young people receive about the importance of care and concern for others.
The viability of making such a dramatic cultural shift is underscored by the fact that the crisis of connection is evident across the partisan divide. If confirmed, our hope is that Dr. Murthy will not only help fight the coronavirus but also change the culture so that it better nourishes our nature and creates a more connected, just and humane society for all. But we need to help him do it.
Niobe Way is Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU, the founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity (pach.org), and co-editor of The Crisis of Connection: Its Roots, Consequences, and Solutions.
Rick Weissbourd is a Senior Lecturer, the Faculty Director of the Making Caring Common project and the co-director of the Human Development and Psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.