The Cost of Connection: Why Businesses Should Care about Loneliness

By Erin McLaughlin

I sat in the chemistry lecture hall, soaking up the energetic atmosphere that comes with hundreds of people gathered to learn more about positive psychology. It was the annual Summit for those associated with the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program, and though the topic was science of a different sort, chemistry was indeed in the air. There was so much talk of love in the room, so many standing ovations that they practically ceased to mean anything at all, that it sometimes distracted from the importance of the information itself. Dr. Vivek Murthy, former US Surgeon General, sat discussing his upcoming book on what he calls “the loneliness epidemic.” And as he spoke, I tilted my head ever so slightly toward a friend and former classmate, and without much thought, said it: “I think I’m lonely.” 

“Me, too,” he said. 

Murthy served as Surgeon General from 2014-2017. After embarking on an initial listening tour throughout the United States, he decided to focus his platform on what he heard. And what he heard most resoundingly, from people across all demographics, was that people are lonely--and their loneliness is affecting their health. It didn’t take him long to determine that the number of people affected, in all walks of life, qualifies loneliness as an epidemic--a public health crisis that needs to be addressed meaningfully. 

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this, I’m sure, that despite the fact that we live in the most technologically connected age that ever was, loneliness in almost all domains of life is practically palpable. I could say measurable rates of loneliness are increasing, and you might argue that we are measuring things we didn’t before--so I will leave it here: loneliness is certainly nothing new. It’s surely part of the human condition--anyone who reads knows this, and C.S. Lewis said that perhaps this is why we read--”to know we’re not alone.” But while technology allows us to connect more easily, there is something superficial, artificial, that cannot replace our need for human interaction. And what do humans spend the majority of their time doing? Working. So interactions at work matter--and employers should be paying attention to this concept.  

The magnitude and impact of loneliness has yet to be fully realized or acted upon by most employers. Murthy explained that several factors play into this epidemic: geographic mobility, the increased use of technology, and the nature of work itself. More and more people move away from close family and friends to pursue careers; fewer meaningful connections are made at work, where often an email replaces a conversation; and work itself cuts into precious time once reserved for connecting with family and friends. We are perhaps all at a point where we should be saying: “I know it’s easier to send a text, but is it better?” 

Murthy cited some numbers that surprised me, but the one that stuck with me is that loneliness or weak social connections are associated with a reduced lifespan that is about the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As someone who lost her smoker-dad to lung cancer when I was 21 (and he was 57), that one hit me hard. Loneliness also puts people at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, dementia, anxiety, and depression. 

What does this mean for employers, and how can you help? 

If your employees are lonely, it will decrease their performance, limit their ability to be creative, and generally impair other domains of their executive function, such as being able to reason or make good decisions. Murthy explained that a good start for businesses is to actually assess the state of connections in the workplace--do employees feel genuinely valued? Is there a culture that supports helping each other? Is there an opportunity to be seen as a whole person--as more than just the role one is performing? 

The best workplace cultures are supported by strategic planning that promotes meaningful connections. This means fostering a corporate culture where it is expected and encouraged that colleagues will freely give and receive help, where people are meant to be wholly understood and are given the opportunity to connect with others as much as possible, and where time outside of work has measures of protection so that employees at every level have time off with family and friends to cultivate connections that are intimate and invaluable. 

Each of us, regardless of our role at work, has a fundamental human need for connection. If we aren’t proactive in making time for meaningful connections that are positive, my fear is that we will settle for connections that are potentially toxic to our well-being. Because it simply feels better to connect in the wrong way, rather than not to connect at all, many of us engage in unhealthy relationships that we reason at least give us something, rather than nothing. This can manifest in all kinds of behaviors, including partaking in tribalism that can be easily seen in the overt polarization that’s happening globally, or engaging in unhealthy personal relationships that are comfortable but are not in any way making us better. 

We all have the potential to be better versions of ourselves. The most progessive workplaces will want to see that happen. Not just because there’s an ROI for employees who are more positive and engaged, but because it actually makes the world a better place to be for all of us. 

Viewpoint Diversity: What it is and why it matters

By Erin McLaughlin

In today’s climate of intense polarization, people on all points of the political spectrum have strongly advocated for their personal beliefs and many aren’t afraid to be confrontational with friends, family, or strangers on “the other side.” You’ve probably seen these arguments play out over social media – or maybe even at the dinner table. In this age of identity politics, viewpoint diversity has become essential to foster personal intellectual growth, and it’s clear that the earlier this process begins, the better. The key is to promote individual thinking over group-think, celebrating unique points of view and recognizing that other people’s points of view matter, too.

Viewpoint Diversity is about understanding that all people have unique experiences and see things differently. It’s not about empathy. It’s not about tolerance. And it’s certainly not about consensus.

Put simply, viewpoint diversity is about understanding and engaging in something I call “positive intellectual inquiry” to develop a better sense of self-awareness and awareness of others. There are three main objectives of practicing positive intellectual inquiry:

1. To increase awareness of self and of others.
Being more self-aware is an essential part of positive psychology. In addition to knowing our strengths, we should also be aware of our biases. We can keep in mind that we always have more to learn, and it’s important to stay curious. This helps us better understand ourselves and other people.

2. To cultivate intellectual humility. 
Fostering viewpoint diversity helps to promote a culture of intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is a nonpartisan virtue. It is a check against self-righteousness and a balance that enables us to allow for ambiguity.

None of us have a worldview that is complete and we can all learn from other people. It behooves us to open up instead of shutting down and to expand our minds instead of contracting them. We can build on our self-awareness and be more aware of others simply by admitting that we don’t know everything. We might, in fact, be wrong.

3. To develop actively open-minded thinking skills. 
It isn’t comfortable or easy, but we can and should actively seek out “other-side” arguments. We can challenge ourselves before we challenge others and we can seek to understand. We can ask ourselves if there is something we can agree on to move the discussion forward on a path toward understanding. Embracing open-minded thinking skills helps everyone grow and it’s something that can be integrated into all of our lives right now.

Viewpoint diversity benefits everyone. It gives us room to wonder. It’s what makes life so much less boring — that we can gaze at the same scene and see something totally different. It’s an amazing thing to experience.

We need to resist conflating identity with ideology and to recognize that other people may see and experience the same thing completely differently. As David McCullough, Jr. said to his students, “Climb the mountain to see the world, not so the world can see you.” That’s a good perspective to have. Remember that your view, magnificent and well-earned as it may be, is just one way of seeing.

That’s appreciation of viewpoint diversity and it can positively change our lives and the world around us.

Just remember—if you believe that other people matter, then their views must matter too.

One Way to Think about a Life Well-Lived

By Erin McLaughlin

What makes a life well-lived? If I could answer that question in a blog post, I’d be pretty impressive. Alas, I am not that impressive—yet I have been impressed by the literature and philosophies that try to get to the root of this question, and by the science that can help inform us more about some things we already know. For instance, we already know well-being matters and that certain elements are associated with the concept of well-being. Leaving health and vitality aside for a moment, when we consider psychological well-being, we can look at the concept of PERMA.

Dr. Martin Seligman defined a model of well-being comprised of five elements that form the acronym PERMA—positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. While none of these elements fully defines well-being, each of them contributes to it. Having a better understanding of this theoretical model might help us maximize our own well-being, and science has shown some effective ways we can practically increase our PERMA in life:

Positive emotion—we know it’s a good thing to feel positive emotions like joy, happiness, wonder, and awe, but it’s also true that we each have a baseline in terms of how positive we can be. Still, there are ways we can focus our attention to make ourselves more positive people. One way to increase positive emotion is by writing down three things that went well at the end of each day. Read more.

Engagement is the feeling you have when you lose track of time because you are so absorbed in a task you enjoy. You’re expending effort, but it’s an effort aligned with your strengths. The way to increase engagement is to learn your strengths and apply them to your work. There are many tests you can take to learn about strengths, including the VIA Character Survey.

Relationships make an enormous impact on our well-being, so efforts to improve our communication with other people in our lives matter quite a bit. One of the best ways to improve relationships is by capitalizing on the good things—something that many people tend to overlook. This video on Active Constructive Response can show you how to celebrate good news in a way that builds better relationships.

Meaning is the need to make sense of life outside of ourselves. Seligman calls the self “an impoverished site for meaning.” It is essential to our well-being that we have some sort of purpose in life. Nietzsche said if we "have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how." It is important to often recall the greater impact of our work. Read more.

Achievement is something our culture tends to celebrate—but a sense of accomplishment can come in many forms, and it helps to try to work on a sense of mastery and competence. We need to build intrinsic motivation and one of the best ways to do that is by setting goals. Learn more about SMART goals.

Obviously, PERMA isn’t the only way to think about a life well-lived, but it is one way that can serve as an effective model to assess your own well-being. And the truth is that we can all be a little bit better today than we were yesterday. Why wait for tomorrow?