If you were emperor or empress for a day, and you were blessed with superhuman -- but benevolent -- powers, what would you do to eradicate loneliness?
In this, the final episode of "Is Anybody Out There?", listeners from around the United States and Europe shared their answers -- really big, bold ideas for instantly ridding the world of loneliness. These were a mix of magical, wistful, and even doable strategies, but all equally thought provoking and heartwarming in their ingenuity and scope. Most of all, it's clear that people are ready to talk about loneliness, openly and honestly, and to view it as a societal ill that needs to be addressed rather than an existential issue.
Which is why, hosts Judy and Jeremy argue, that instead of thinking of loneliness simply as an evolutionary, unavoidable experience, we must face the possibility that it's partly a modern phenomenon, born of an ever-increasing individualistic society and economic and social conditions. Now is time for policy makers, institutions and society at large to do something about it.
Johann Hari 00:00
Hi, I'm Johann Hari. And if I was emperor for the day, I would deal with loneliness in a very specific way, which is that when I was writing my book about depression and anxiety, "Lost Connections," on why it's gone up so much, I learned that loneliness is one of the nine biggest causes of depression. And loneliness has been massively rising. And one of the heroes of the book is a person who pioneered a solution to loneliness that's now spreading all over Europe and should be spreading in the United States as well, that is a really deep solution to loneliness. So it started that the the guy who came up with it today is a doctor named Sam Ebrington. And he's a doctor in East London, where I lived for a long time there. Sadly, he was never my doctor. And Sam was really uncomfortable, because he could see that he had loads of patients coming to him with depression and anxiety. And like me, he thinks chemical antidepressants can play a positive role for some people. He could see two things. Firstly, that for most people, they kind of took the edge off, but it didn't actually solve the underlying problem. So they remain depressed. And secondly, they're often depressed and anxious for really understandable reasons like loneliness. So Sam, decided to try something different. One day a woman came to see him named Lisa Cunningham, who had been shut away their home with terrible depression and anxiety for seven years. And Sam said to Lisa, "Don't worry, I'll carry on giving you these drugs. But I'm also going to prescribe something else." And he asked her if she would come into the doctor's offices twice a week to meet with a group of other depressed and anxious people. Not to talk about how bad they felt. He said, you could do that if you want. But that's not the point of it. He said, I want you guys to find something that you find meaningful that you could do together. The first time the group met, Lisa literally started vomiting with anxiety. It was just so overwhelming to her. But the group started talking. They were like, what could we do? These are inner city, East London people like me. They didn't know anything about gardening, but they were like, okay, there was an area behind the doctor's offices that was just scrub land. They were like, we could turn that into a garden. So twice a week, they met up, they watched clips on YouTube, they got books out the library about gardening, they started to get their fingers in the soil, they started to learn the rhythms of the seasons. There's a lot of evidence, that exposure to the natural world is a really powerful antidepressant. But they started to do something even more important. They started to form a group, they started to care about each other. If one of them didn't show up, the others would go looking for them and say, "Hey, do you need any help?" The way Lisa put it to me, "As the garden began to bloom, we began to bloom." There was a study in Norway about a very similar program that found it was more than twice as effective as chemical antidepressants. I think for kind of obvious reason, right? It was dealing with some of the reasons why people were depressed and anxious in the first place. This approach is called social prescribing. It's much cheaper than what we do now. It's more effective. Of course, it should be offered alongside the option of drugs for people who want them. If I was emperor for the day, I'd make sure every doctor's office in the entire United States had a social prescribing wing. I was giving people the most deep and meaningful connection they need, which is to reconnect with the things that as human beings we all crave.
Welcome back to the final episode of "Is anybody Out There?" a podcast series about loneliness. I'm Judy D'Mello.
And I'm Jeremy Warshaw. The story we heard in the beginning was sent in by Johann Hari, the best selling author of "Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression -- and the Unexpected Solutions." Well, I reached out to him, and he was gracious enough to ask us how he could help us spread the connection message.
We decided we would ask him the question we've been asking everyone: If you were emperor for the day, and blessed with magical -- but benevolent -- powers, what would you do to curb or eradicate loneliness?
We liked this question because after many months of researching this subject, interviewing both experts and regular people who are suffering from it, we came to the conclusion that this wretched condition is not taken seriously enough by the political and medical authorities. In fact, it still carries the association of shame and stigma, as much as ever.
Look, if underfunded charities are pretty much the only bodies dedicated to alleviating the pain of loneliness and Congress doesn't recognize it as a serious health issue with hugely negative consequences -- financial, psychological and medical -- then it definitely needs some superhuman powers to pull off this moonshot for the 21st century.
Alright, time to share these call-ins. The first few would probably need an army of emperors to pull off, given their sheer scope. But just wonderful.
It's Amy Giddon here, founder and CEO of daily Haloha. I had a lot of fun thinking about this question. So, if I was the empress of our world, I would invent a worldwide GPS system that stands for Gathering People Spots. And they will be designated spots all over the world. And you can find one with your GPS wherever you are. And those are designated patches of land, patches of real estate where people could come together when they need to be in connection in community and feeling that sense of connectedness. So those are my thoughts for today. And I can't wait to hear your podcast. Have a great day. Haloha.
This is Jake from Chicago. And if I were emperor for the day to eradicate loneliness, the first thing that I would do would be to raise the overall population's confidence. Raise everybody's self confidence just a little bit. Because I think that a lot of times when we're faced with situations in which we could potentially make human connections, make friends, we don't do so because we're self conscious, or we don't want people to hate us or not like us. So if I raise everybody's confidence, just a little bit, not enough whether you know, super egotistical, but just enough to get them to put themselves out there, I think that would go a long way.
Hi, my name is Bob, and I live in East Hampton. If I had just one superpower to eliminate loneliness, it would be to accelerate time without actually aging. Specifically, I would take all of us to a future where ego dissolution is commonplace, and where we are free of the so called negative life experiences. We are already so close to unlocking that power, with the use of psychoactive substances better known as entheogens. There is also Professor Roland Griffiths, who along with Johns Hopkins is currently studying the powerful and lasting effects of guided psilocybin and MDMA treatments for anxiety and depression. And I'm beyond excited about the progress and growing discussion of this type of experience to rid permanently our sense of loneliness. And with just one hand gesture, I would take us into that future.
Then there were others who decreed that various techniques be implemented in schools, the workplace and at home, which would result in social connections sort of rippling outwards throughout the community.
My name is Mark, and I live in the southwest corner of Connecticut. If I was emperor for the day to solve loneliness, initiative number one would be to foster deeper bonds across generations, looking to build in from an early age more consistent and meaningful interactions between younger and elderly community members by design. Number two would be creating community norms around volunteering, so that it becomes second nature for everyone to give back and be involved with lifting up and improving the society around them. And the third would be allotting meaningful funding to the discovery of different interventions, utilizing non invasive science rather than our pharmaceutical-based science today. So for example, looking at how translational neuroscience applications may be able to rewire our neural frequency patterns. I'm throwing that in there, I think just because that'd be that cool tech savvy emperor. And of course, it goes without saying that all these would be done through an equitable lens so that it impacted the whole of society.
Hi, I'm Adam and I live in Newton, Massachusetts. In Japan, I've heard many companies start the day with calisthenics. It's good for employers because the result is a workforce that is more awake and alert to start their day. So if I were emperor for a day, I'd have employers here act like big brother too but instead of calisthenics, I'd monitor employees connectedness. Relationships are the most important determinant of health and happiness later in life. But the problem is you need to foster relationships throughout your working careers. If you wait until old age, when you have more time on your hands to look for friends, it'll be too late. So if I were emperor, I'd make it a rule that employers had to hold their employees accountable on that score. Make sure that they're meeting a friend for lunch, for example, or at least until the pandemic is done, maybe speaking on the phone for at least an hour a week. And I'd make that a metric that they're graded on. And to be honest, I'd impose a calisthenics rule too.
I hereby decree that a social anxiety course be mandatory in high school. This would include the study of forces that teens and adults are faced with, leading to various states of psychological disequilibrium, including loneliness, i.e. social exclusion, bullying, family issues, relationship problems, etc,. Of course, it would also include remedies that would be a main focus. I also decree that the government create a therapeutic division providing solutions for free to people seeking a non lonely state of mind. This is Emperor Arthur of Utopia, also known as Amagansett, New York.
Hi, my name is Jane and I live in London. If I was an empress for the day, I would ensure that everyone who feels lonely should volunteer for a couple of hours a week to help others. The work must be aimed at making others feel heard and seen. This can include many areas, so it could be local, it could be visiting or calling an elderly person, it could be helping a new mum, it could be befriending someone who's moved to your area. Or it could be more civic duty help, such as helping at a citizens advice center, or helping in a hospital to show people where to go, or a court of law helping witnesses, or a library reading to small children. By volunteering, you will come away feeling like you've done a good thing. And this in turn will improve your self esteem. And by doing this work, you will find yourself less lonely because you're out there doing something concrete to help others.
Our next batch really focused on our very need for human connection, or in one case robotic connection, since our ability to connect seems to be so frayed these days.
Hi, this is Mia Ljungberg Nevado from Stockholm, Sweden. I'm the founder of the LookUp Movement 2020. A movement to inspire people to look up from their smartphones now and then to be more present. If I could be an empress for a day, I wish I could remove all smartphones and go back to flip phones, where we can only text and call. I believe our smartphones are making us more lonely and more disconnected. I miss the spontaneous conversations on planes, trains, subways, buses, parks and cafes. I wish to go back to a time where we can be more connected in real life than in our digital lives. Let's start by looking up and catching the glimpses of magic that we miss when we are too busy looking at our smartphones. Thank you.
Hi, this is Una from Berkeley, California. If I were empress for the day, my superpower would be the ability to gift everyone at least one friend who truly sees and understands them. And I would require that they spend daily time with that friend. All of my subjects would have to set an hour aside each day to spend time nurturing that friendship. And as a side benefit, because I'm extra magnanimous as an empress, I'd also make available weekly therapy sessions for those who needed help with the skills required for intimacy.
It's Bill from Los Angeles. Please note I'm going with empress. I think that women are the ones that get things done and this deserves to be done. So as empress, I believe in a couple of things. I believe that people make life interesting and life is best when it's shared. For instance, a sunset is a sunset. However, when it's shared, a sunset is a memory. So back to the empress job. I will simply declare a decree and that decree is to go forward and share your lives with one person each day for a week. Even the grumpiest grump will be surprised when you show an interest in them. My experience, my best chance at connecting, is to observe someone, notice something and ask them about. It's amazing what you can learn. Simply, be interested and you in turn will be interesting. As empress, I will ask that after a week you look back on what you've learned. About others and yourself, and whether you're happier. I think the people will be and the loneliness will not be so bad. So here's the sharing life and great memories.
Hi, this is Nika Nesgoda and this is my empress for a day end loneliness fantasy. So I was in my car the other day. I was worrying and working through different problems and decisions that I had to face at that moment. And I'm not someone who likes to burden others with my problems, and I tend to internalize things way too much. But I know how much it can help to have a listening ear. I guess that's what therapists are for. But I was thinking how nice it would be if AI -- artificial intelligence -- could create a virtual buddy for everyone, tailored to each person's unique needs. Someone who could listen and allow us to be shamelessly selfish and self centered. A robot that loves the sound of our voices and giving endless encouragement and advice. I'm not sure that this would actually help so much as we all need human touch and interaction as a basic necessity for growth. But it might help to relieve some anxiety about being alone or feeling too needy. So I did a quick search. And there are already digital pets and artificial human companions that exist, and that are presently being used by human interactants, who teach the robots to respond positively and compassionately to their human buddies. We often hear about the negatives of technology taking over our lives, but this is such a wonderful thing. We could potentially end loneliness as well as teach young people who suffer from social anxiety or autism, to learn how to connect with others by using AI as a low risk teaching companion. Low risk in the sense that these robots will always be supportive, they'll be an available friend and never turn their back on you, as people can and must do at certain times. So I don't know...Thank you.
So interesting to listen to, aren't they?
Really great. And we're so grateful to all of you for sharing your thoughts.
Indeed, thank you. So Empress Judy, what would be your decree?
Well, for me, it's something that I've been going on about for ages. And that would be to instantly with the wave of my wand. Pfffftt...
Does a wand go pfffftt?
Mine does. Permanently erase all stigma and shame associated with being lonely. And I would definitely remove all negative stereotypes too. Gone. On pain of death, no one can be called or thought of as a loner or loser or socially awkward. So, to me, removing stigma and these negative stereotypes is key in alleviating loneliness. And while I'm at it, there's one more thing I have to do. Place a moratorium on all those Hollywood romance movies that only perpetuate the stigma by insisting that life isn't complete, until you found a soulmate. Therefore, my decree -- no more stigma, no more name calling, definitely no more soulmate movies. And this, I do believe, would allow us to start talking about loneliness more openly and without judgments. And you, oh great Emperor Jeremy, what would you do?
Well, as an all powerful emperor, of course, I can see all things clearly and exactly as they should be. I decree that every single piece of legislation and policy must be crafted through the lens of connection. How does this policy impact and improve the healthy connectedness of the citizenry? That's an emperor word, by the way. As it is obvious that we humans are wired to need companionship. I proclaim that connection is now to be the supreme operating principle for a healthy society. So for instance, architecture now has to incorporate community into the design of public spaces, or an apartment building, for instance. Social media will be changed to eliminate hate speech, additional libraries and public parks will be built. And community will be part of every child's school curriculum. No longer will gross domestic product be the measure of how we are doing, but instead GCP will be our metric. Gross Connection Product.
I think there were about 15 things in there that you are going to do.
Well, this is at Judy, the end of the end of our podcast series. It's been quite the journey, wouldn't you agree?
100%. Getting 10 episodes out was a lot more work than I realized, but a lot of fun when you tackle it with a good friend. And it was great to have a sense of purpose and a distraction during those really bleak days of lockdown.
What was the most important thing you learned that you had no idea about and which really impacted you?
Well, I have to say that maybe for the first time in my life, I realized just how vital true friends are. And this really came into focus when we worked on episode 6 called Friendship. I learned that the quality of our life, including our mental and physical health, is dependent on our social connections. I do think that a year without enjoying the physical closeness to friends, and especially my family and good friends in London, has made me realize it's not simply that we desire the company of others, but we are created to need it. So, how you feeling both about our journey and looking into the future?
I guess my big takeaway from all the loneliness experts, research and insights, and the books we read, and the surveys we forced ourselves to read, was just how little of it is taken seriously by the government and legislative bodies in this country. It's as though it isn't even recognized as a problem with enormous health and financial consequences. If Congress understood just how much it cost the country, not only in terms of misery, but as a percentage of healthcare expenses. I think it's obvious that even Congress would commit to spending money to strengthening ties between people. What I call social infrastructure. Of course, our military might have to give up another multibillion dollar supersonic jet, which is fine by me.
Yeah, but you know, the problem is that while the scientists and the researchers, they are very good at pointing out the impact of loneliness, but they don't really deal in solutions. So you end up with a bunch of resources that are spotty and piecemeal. A charity here, a local initiative there, occasionally some billionaire's vanity project. But on the whole, small efforts that are financially challenged.
Absolutely right. Because as we said, there's no big overarching picture when it comes to loneliness in the US, just a few worthy local efforts. We don't even have a Minister of Loneliness, and why don't we, you know? it's costing Medicare $7 billion a year, according to AARP. And Medicare, of course, only covers the elderly. Congress needs to face the reality of just how much loneliness across all ages, affects and cost this country.
Well, maybe with Dr. Vivek Murthy back in the White House as Surgeon General, we can at least hope that something might happen. Dr. Murthy famously wrote a brilliant book on loneliness called "Together." But just recently, I heard him on an interview, and he said, "More than 20% of the adult population in America admitted to struggling with loneliness. That's more people than have diabetes in our country. That's more adults, that smoke in the United States. And so that's when it dawned on me that there is something much, much bigger happening here than I had previously thought." Okay, this was the first time I had heard any government official in this country even mention the word loneliness. So, it does make me hopeful for a less lonely future.
I hope you're right. Anyway, that's it from us. We can't leave, of course, without saying a huge thank you to all the experts and regular people who so graciously gave their time and wisdom to this podcast.
And most of all, thank you, for listening and being part of this journey. We're going to leave you with one more emperor quote.
My name is Ruby, and I'm calling from Washington, DC. And if I were an empress for the day, I would make a potion and make it accessible to everybody in my kingdom. That would basically be a drink that you could take every morning or whenever you wanted to, that would show you how other people were feeling and what their auras were like. So let's say somebody was really happy and you were also really happy and you wanted to be with another happy person to not feel lonely, then you could seek that out and meet up and be able to experience that. Or, if you were feeling sad and lonely and wanted to kind of find someone who you could relate to, you could find that with your potion. And it would be able to bring people together and bring people relating to one another.
Is Anybody Out There? was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.
This episode was produced and edited by Christian Sawyer. Music by Seaplane Armada.
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