MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, ideas about loneliness. If you've been feeling lonely during this time of social distancing, you're actually in good company. But how does a lack of social connection affect us, affect our health?
SUSAN PINKER: It's a huge problem because real social contact is a biological need like eating, drinking or sleeping. And our bodies react to the loss of that interaction the way we react to hunger. It's physically painful. It's damaging. It's even dangerous long term.
ZOMORODI: This is Susan Pinker. She's a developmental psychologist who studies loneliness.
PINKER: We are a social species. We need to have social contact. We need to see the whites in each other's eyes to know that we trust people. We need to have a slap on the back or a handshake or a hug. So when we're isolated from people, we're missing all of those signals. And they're very, very basic to our evolution as a social species.
ZOMORODI: Susan Pinker explains more from the TED stage.
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PINKER: Social isolation is the public health risk of our time. Now a third of the population says they have two or fewer people to lean on. Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters. And like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future. Shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high. And it kills pain. It's like a naturally produced morphine.
So clean air, which is great - it doesn't predict how long you will live. How much exercise you get is next - still only a moderate predictor. And getting towards the top predictors are two features of your social life. First, your close relationships. These are the people that you can call on for a loan if you need money suddenly or who will sit with you if you're having an existential crisis, if you're in despair. And then something that surprised me - something that's called social integration. And these mean both your weak and your strong bonds. So not just the people you're really close to who mean a lot to you. But, like, do you talk to the guy who every day makes you your coffee? Do you talk to the postman? Do you talk to the woman who walks by your house every day with her dog? Those interactions are one of the strongest predictors of how long you live. Yet now almost a quarter of the population says they have no one to talk to.
ZOMORODI: Susan, you gave your talk way before the pandemic, before quarantines and social distancing. And loneliness was already a serious problem. Why?
PINKER: Well, there's so many good reasons for that. And we'll start with a basic one. You know, we have more people who live alone now than we've ever had in history.
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PINKER: We're often working alone. A lot of people who are lonely work either alone or in a gig economy. If you're in poor health or if you're actually poor, you tend to be lonelier. A lot of us used to go to church or synagogue, and that was a place you went to with your family. You saw friends there. You saw part of your community there. And the fastest-growing religion in the United States now is secularism. And now just we do fewer things with our family. We have fewer family meals. A lot of the time, there's just no one home. And digital contact is not helping. Actually, it's making us more lonely, and we're getting more and more evidence that shows that it's really not a good replacement for face-to-face contact.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, I mean, I was going to ask because digital contact is all we have right now, and we can't even try to remedy loneliness with actual in-person interaction. So does digital contact help at all? Does it count even a little bit?
PINKER: There's a huge difference between interacting in person and interacting online. You don't get the same kind of flood of neurochemicals. It doesn't feel as good. The body language where you echo each other's movements is missing. And even ways of connecting online are different one from the other.
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PINKER: So for example, when you have a video chat, it's better to be on a platform where you're not going to have any kind of delay in the audio, or you're not going to have the image freezing, which we all know is frustrating, but it's extremely important for the kind of give and take of a real conversation. Social media like Facebook or Instagram or that sort of thing are just not as good because they're much more static. And we do have evidence now that the more people are on social networks, the more depressed they feel, the worse they feel. So if you want to feel better, there are ways to do it using technology that will hit the spot, and there are ways that will make you feel more isolated.
ZOMORODI: And what about introverts? Because I'm actually hearing some people say that they're getting used to social isolation kind of like, well, I never needed much socializing anyway. Is loneliness any different for those people?
PINKER: Well, we started off our discussion talking about how social contact is a biological need. So when you say you're an introvert and you don't need social contact, that's like saying, you know, you have a small appetite, so you don't need to eat ever. If you are a true introvert, what's important is choosing the kind of social contact that is good for you. And a lot of that is about control, so you're not stuck, you know, glued to your seat at a dinner party for seven hours where you can't get up. That's torture.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, that is torture.
PINKER: Introverts do so much better when they can choose when to arrive and when to leave. That's much more comfortable for introverts.
ZOMORODI: You know, in your talk, you spoke about how weak bonds are really important, and that's actually one of the things that I've really been missing during this time, like, those people who just kind of pepper my life like that redheaded guy with the beard who I see every day - or, well, I used to see him every day. I have no idea what his name is, but he and I were clearly on the same schedule. Or like, the woman at the coffee shop who made me coffee every day. It feels strange that all those weak links are suddenly gone.
PINKER: Absolutely, Manoush. And, you know, I had this demonstrated to me in a very clear way because it was a beautiful day on Sunday. And I spent part of the day raking leaves in the garden and the rest of the afternoon sitting and reading The New York Times on my front stoop. And everybody who walked by greeted me from the sidewalk, and we had a little conversation because everybody is missing this. I felt that little jolt of oxytocin, you know, when I was talking to the little boy in a stroller coming up our little hill of our street, and we were talking about the groundhog he chased away last fall from my garden. Or, you know, you have a little conversation with the couple that's just walking up the sidewalk.
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PINKER: I don't even know some of these people, but connecting with them, even briefly, gave me a little sense of pleasure and also reassurance. And you can get those little jolts of social interaction in other ways because let's face it. If you have people who are really important to you, you'll probably connect with them, you know, via video chat or telephone.
PINKER: And that's super important to do that. And there are now all sorts of other ways to do it, you know - apps where you can play games together online. Or you can have a Zoom dinner party. There's so many ways that technology can help us now. It's not perfect. It's not, you know, like having a three-course meal with your best friends, but it's really a great replacement for the situation that we're in.
ZOMORODI: Do you worry that we will see a big health crisis? I mean, you've said that, you know, loneliness was definitely a problem in the United States even before the coronavirus put many lives on hold or interrupted many lives. Are you worried about a coming health crisis regarding loneliness because of this epidemic?
PINKER: Well, it's interesting. There was about one quarter to a third of Americans who said that they were chronically lonely before this hit us. And, obviously, it's not going to improve now that we're all forced to be isolated. But I think that what's interesting about it is that people are talking about it now. We're all feeling the effects. So it's my hope that people will be much more conscious of this as we move into the future - that they'll realize, yeah, I really need this. This is really important to me. You know, just the way, you know, we - in the past, we've become more conscious of eating healthy food, you know, local food, organic food. It's so important to have exercise at least a few times a week. And now I think it's putting the spotlight on loneliness and social isolation as something that we need to remedy in our lives, whether or not we have a pandemic. In terms of predicting more health problems, really, loneliness takes its toll over the long term. But for somebody who's, you know, lived an adult life, a period of six weeks to two months is nothing.
ZOMORODI: What if it goes on longer, though, Susan?
PINKER: I mean, we'll have to find workarounds to it. This period may last longer than any of us had ever imagined, but it won't last forever. You know, you will always remember this time. It will be, like, highlighted as a unique time. Make the most of it. That's what I would say.
ZOMORODI: That's Susan Pinker. She's a developmental psychologist and the author of "The Village Effect." You can see her full talk at ted.com.
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