Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven A few years back, I was on a book tour
for my book “Mind Over Medicine,” and I was talking
to big audiences like you all, and as a physician, I had done research on the conventional
things that affect our health, but also some unconventional things, and the question I would get asked
over and over again is what is the greatest
risk factor for your health? And I would say loneliness. And there would be dead silence
in the room just like there is here. And it took me a while to figure out that this was a really uncomfortable
answer for a lot of people. People wanted me to say diet or exercise,
or maybe yoga or meditation, or something that they felt like they
could do and be proactive about, and people felt helpless
in the face of their loneliness. And this helped me to realize that we need to start
to pay attention to this. So I want to start by telling you a story, and then I’m going to give you
some data to speak to your mind in case you don’t believe me and you’re feeling a little skeptical
that loneliness could be this important, that it could actually be
the number one public health issue that we’re facing right now. And then I want to speak to your heart because that’s really
what this is all about. So, let’s go back to 1961,
to Roseto, Pennsylvania. And Roseto, Pennsylvania, in 1961
was a very special place, it was filled with Italian immigrants
who had come from the old world in Italy and had settled in this small town. And Dr. Stewart Wolf was the cardiologist
from the University of Oklahoma, and he showed up in Roseto one day because he had
a vacation home in the Poconos, and he was having a drink at the local bar
with one of the doctors there, and the doctor there said,
“You know, it’s so strange, the people of Roseto, they never
seem to get heart attacks.” Well, he’s a cardiologist
so this caught his attention. So he went and he checked out
the death records, and sure enough, these people
were not dying of heart disease. The people of Roseto had half the rate
of heart attacks of the national average; there were no heart attacks
in men under 65; and the death rate from all causes
was 30-35 percent lower than average. So this was unusual. So Dr. Wolf called in
a whole team of researchers, and they started researching these people
to figure out what’s going on here. John Bruhn was one of these researchers
and he said, “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction,
and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers.
They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying
of old age. That’s it.” Well, they thought it must be
something in their diet, maybe it’s the olive oil. But they found out
that the people in Roseto were eating meatballs fried in lard. (Laughter) They were eating pizza and pasta
with egg and sausage. A whopping 41 percent
of their calories came from fat. Many of them were morbidly obese,
they didn’t exercise and they smoked. (Laughter) So you can imagine this cardiologist
was going, “Wait a minute, what’s this?” So they thought, well maybe
it’s something in their DNA. They went back and they
checked their ancestors who came from Roseto
[Valfortore] in Italy, and they found those
that had settled elsewhere in the U.S., but no, it wasn’t that, they had the same rate of heart disease
as everybody else in the U.S. And it wasn’t their healthcare,
and it wasn’t their water. They ruled out everything that they could,
and they finally concluded that the people of Roseto
had half the rate of heart disease and significantly lower rates
of all other causes of death because the people in Roseto
were never lonely. Let that sit for a minute. This doesn’t have such a happy ending because like many people in our culture, you know, the children of Roseto grew up
and they wanted the American dream, they wanted to be modernized
like everybody else. They didn’t like living
in this small community village where everybody lived
in multigenerational homes, grandma and the kids all lived together. They’d all go to work, they’d come home, they’d have celebrations,
they’d go to church together – the Roseto in 1961 was evidence
of the power of the tribe. But by 1971, everybody
had moved to the suburbs, they’d gone into their own little boxes. They had started
separating from one another, they weren’t living
in multigenerational homes any more, and in 1971, the first heart attack death
in somebody less than 45 happened. High blood pressure tripled,
strokes increased, and by the end of the 1970s,
Roseto had the same risk of heart disease as everybody else in the country. So Roseto, we learned from them
that human beings nourish each other, and the health of the body reflects this. Now, researchers have studied
a lot of Blue Zones, and Roseto was one of those Blue Zones. Blue Zones are places on the globe where there’s an unusual number of people
who live to be greater than 100. And these are places like Okinawa, Japan,
Sardinia in Italy, Loma Linda, California, Ikaria in Greece, and every single one of these Blue Zones,
they lived like the people of Roseto did. They live in community,
they live in tribe, they know they belong, they grow up from the time they’re little
knowing that they’re part of this tribe. And this has a physical health
protection on the body. So how does this happen? Let’s talk a little bit
about the physiology of loneliness. We are tribal beings. We are supposed to be together. We come from love,
and when we die we go back to love. And the whole point of being human
is that we’re here to love each other, we’re here to be together. And our nervous systems
are wired that way. So when we feel socially isolated,
then the nervous system goes into threat, and the limbic brain,
the survival part of he brain, the really primordial brain
starts to freak out, it goes into this sympathetic
nervous system, or what Walter Cannon at Harvard
called “the stress response,” you may know it
as the fight-or-flight response. And when the nervous system
is in fight-or-flight response, the body fills with cortisol
and epinephrine. These hormones put us
at risk of heart disease and every other kind of illness. And we know that the body
is beautifully equipped with natural self-healing mechanisms. We make cancer cells every day, we fight our own heart disease every day, we have natural longevity enhancements
built into our bodies. But here’s the kicker: Those natural self-healing mechanisms
only work when the nervous system is in what Herbert Benson at Harvard
called “the relaxation response.” This is the parasympathetic
nervous system. When we know that we belong, when we can feel ourselves
in love, in community, in tribe, then the nervous system relaxes. But you think about the single mom who’s by herself
trying to raise three kids, and get to her job, and the kids are sick,
and she doesn’t have any help, and what about her social life,
and what about her self-care? Her nervous system
is in stress response all the time, and this puts her at risk of disease
and decreases her longevity. And we Americans, you know, we’re only supposed to be
in stress response when we’re getting chased by a tiger. But evidence shows that we’re in stress response
more than 50 times per day, and lonely people are in stress response
even more than that. So this is the part
where I’m going to talk to your mind, in case you don’t believe
loneliness and health are related. Air pollution increases
your mortality by six percent, obesity by 23 percent, alcohol abuse by 37 percent, loneliness by 45 percent. Loneliness is as dangerous for your health
as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. There was a study in Alameda County that showed that people
with the fewest social ties were three times more likely
to have died over a nine year period. There was another study in UCSF
of 3,000 women with breast cancer that showed that people who go
through their cancer journey alone are four times more likely
to die from their disease than those who have ten or more friends. Lonely people have higher rates
of heart disease, cancer, dementia, high blood pressure, diabetes, infection, anxiety, depression, insomnia, suicide, and alcoholism – addictions. There was one great study done by Harvard
where they followed 700 men over 75 years to look at wellness
and well-being in general, and Robert Waldinger,
one of the researchers, said, “…Over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown
that the people who fared the best were the people
who leaned in to relationships with family, with friends,
with community.” But one in five Americans is lonely. This is 60 million people; this is a massive public health epidemic. But when was the last time your doctor
prescribed healing your loneliness as part of your wellness plan
or as part of a healing journey? So what do we do about this? What is the cure for loneliness? Is it to get as many people
in our social circles as possible? And if so, what about
the introverts among us? I’m super introverted. Right? Is it about quantity? Well, no, we know that. We know that you can feel lonelier in a crowd of others
than when you’re alone. So is it about having a significant
something, a spouse, a child? But we know that nothing feels lonelier than feeling separate
from the people that you love the most. So many of us have had those feelings
of deep connection in nature. Is it about that? And many of us have had
intense spiritual experiences, mystical experiences,
experiences in prayer or meditation. Is it about connection with the divine? Charles Eisenstein says that it comes, it stems from what he calls
the story of separation. This, I think, is that primal wound, that wound that says,
I’m separate from you. I’m separate from you, I’m separate from the trees and the stars
and the oceans and the mountains. I’m separate from the people in Syria, from all of the people that are doing
horrible things to our country right now. Those are “other”;
those are not connected to me. But it’s also, I’m separate from that force of love
that flows through us, that animates us,
that’s our very life force, that force of love
that you might call the divine. Lisette Schuitemaker
from Findhorn calls it “othering.” When I make you “other” – and she also
talks about enemy-making – right? When I separate myself and I say, “Oh, well, I’m separate
from the terrorists. They’re not part of me. We’re not part of the same human family.
I need to separate myself from them.” This creates a deep,
existential loneliness inside of us. Brené Brown says the number one barrier
to belonging is fitting in. You know, if I’m feeling like I have to
pretend to be something that I’m not in order to belong with you all,
I’m going to feel lonely, even if I’ve got 1,800 people
here in the room with me. But there’s another way to do this. So what is the loneliness prescription? And I want to start
by saying, we don’t know. We don’t know. But here’s some ideas that maybe
we can play with and see if it resonates. And I want to give you a hint
because really, it’s a paradox. Healing loneliness is an inside job
but you can’t do it alone. We need each other, and sometimes we need therapists,
and spiritual counselors, and clergy. It starts with befriending yourself. As long as you’re at war with yourself,
with those inner voices that are telling you
that you don’t belong, that you’re not lovable, that you’re not enough, that you don’t deserve
to be part of a community, you’re going to have a hard time
magnetizing towards you the people that are right here to love you. We have to heal shame and perfectionism, not just in ourselves,
but in how we relate to others. Because if I’m in shame,
and I’m hiding myself from you, or if I think I have to be perfect, and I’m not allowed to reveal
my vulnerabilities to you, I’m going to separate myself, and again, even if
I’m surrounded by people, my nervous system’s
going to go into threat, it’s going to put me at risk of disease. And as long as I expect you to be perfect, and I’m going to judge you
or criticize you if you do something that I don’t like, then I’m not going to be able
to show up for you and know that you’re
part of my human family. We’ve got to own our stuff! That means we’ve got to
get out of our victim stories, right? I’ve got to quit saying,
“It’s your fault, you did me wrong.” “You criticized me in some way.” “I’m separate from you.” But instead, if I’m able to say, “Wow, I’m participating
in the creation of my life.” I know that I have childhood wounding,
and patterns, and limiting beliefs, we all do, we all
got programmed by our parents, no matter how well intentioned,
and I’m a parent myself, so I know that no matter how much we try, it’s impossible for us not to end up
as adults with some of those patterns. And we need to own those patterns,
we need to start to see them, and it helps if we engage
in spiritual practice, if we meditate, if we pray,
if we spend time alone, listening, then we start to get
insights and epiphanies, we start to be able to see the patterns
that we recreate in our lives. We’re all so afraid
of abandonment and rejection, of being judged and criticized, but a lot of that comes from childhood
and we actually can change that. We’ve been so traumatized, all of us – every human in this room,
every human on this planet, has had their own trauma. And trauma puts us
into the story of separation and makes us forget
that we belong to each other, that we’re here to love each other. And when we’re able to take time
to engage in spiritual practice, it helps us remember the love that is available to us
at all times, even when we’re alone. We have to be vulnerable. I have to be willing to show you the parts of myself my friend
Amy Ahlers calls “my big, ugly tail.” You know, we all have it. And we’re always trying
to hide it, we’re trying to stuff it back, to make sure you don’t see
my big, ugly tail. But if I’m brave enough to take risks,
and to show you my big, ugly tail, and to see if you’ll love me anyway, then we start to build trust, and then I can maybe reveal
something a little more vulnerable, and I can see whether that’s safe. This helps us develop resilience because sometimes I’m going to show
somebody my big, ugly tail, and they’re going to judge me, and they’re going to be mean to me,
and they might reject me, and then I might be tempted
to close my heart, to withdraw, to go back into the story of separation. But when we develop resilience,
we actually get brave, and we start being willing to give other people
permission to break our hearts, permission to betray our trust because everybody’s
doing the best we can. But then the more I reveal,
and the more you trust me, and the more I trust you,
the more intimate we become, the more we develop resilience, so that we can handle
the occasional person who isn’t conscious enough
to meet us in that heart space. We also have to bench press
our receiving muscles. Many of us are walking around
surrounded by people who love us, and we can’t even tell, because we’ve put up this wall,
we’ve got this armor. And when we take the armor down, we start to be able to open our heart
and reconnect to that force of love that’s flowing through me right now
and pouring onto you, and flowing through you
and pouring onto me. This allows us to hold space for others. Instead of judging and criticizing,
holding space means we can be present, we can withhold judgment, we can trust that we’re doing
the best we can, all of us. It’s hard to be human. We can listen generously without fixing. We can be with what’s
true for one another. And this lets us be willing to bear
someone else’s burden when we have enough to give, when we’re so full of love
that we have enough to give. Then we can start to be
generous with our love, we can start to be somebody else’s tribe instead of just thinking about
what do I want, what do I need? We have to remember
that we’re all connected in interbeing, that we belong with one another. Charles Eisenstein says, “The science is beginning to confirm
what we have intuitively know all along: we are greater
than what we have been told. We are not just a skin-encapsulated ego,
a soul encased in flesh. We are each other and we are the world.” So now, I want to invite you to reach out
and call in those friends of your soul. We are dehydrated fish
swimming in a massive lake. There is love all around. It’s right here. Loneliness is the siren of the soul
calling us back home to one another. But we’re in the space between stories. So this is our chance. I want all of you to stand up, right now, and hold hands
with the person next to you. Take a risk. Get close. Be brave. (Laughs) Look! You’ve got tribe! Your community is right here! Right here! This is how far away love is, it’s this far. It’s right here. So I want to invite you all
to hold hands as long as you want. (Laughter) And come back here any time you want, and create your own soul tribes
and find what you need. This is medicine, people. Thank you. (Applause)