In times of pandemic, get over yourself and think of other people — and live healthier and longer (true!)
“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” — Carl Jung
Steve Cole, PhD., is a Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioural Sciences in the UCLA School of Medicine. (And no, that’s not him in the photo.) We are due to talk over Zoom, although he has warned me that his bandwidth in California is probably worse than Tenzin Palmo’s at her nunnery in North India.
As it turns out, our only technical glitch is entirely of my making. Unusually, I had turned off the sound on my laptop with the intention of writing uninterrupted, and forgot to turn it on again for our call. So I logged onto my Zoom room, saw nobody else there so figured Steve was still getting online, so wandered over to another window to do email, expecting to hear Zoom ping when he checked in. At four minutes past the hour, I was getting concerned, so checked my messages — to find an email saying he could see me, but I didn’t seem to be able to hear him.
If there is one thing worse than being unwittingly watched, it is being unwittingly watched by a behavioural scientist.
Steve goes on to be a wonderful interviewee, with a charming way of agreeing emphatically with things I say, which makes me feel as if I’m smart. He is obviously passionate about his subject, speaking in well-formed sentences, which makes my job of writing up our conversation exponentially easier. (I’ve edited only for length in what follows.)
He is looking relaxed in a white t-shirt under a dark blue fleece, with neat salt-and-pepper facial hair that is more than stubble but less than a beard, and becoming more salt and less pepper. He has kind eyes behind light-framed glasses, and seems like the kind of guy you could probably enjoy a beer with. I picture the countless research subjects that must have been through his lab, and imagine that he would always treat them with respect and empathy.
I had come across his work in a Guardian article reporting the UK’s appointment of a Minister for Loneliness. The article briefly described his research into the impacts of chronic loneliness on our health at the epigenetic level. We are born with fixed DNA, but how that DNA is translated into our physiological reality depends on a variety of environmental factors, including our emotional state. It also mentioned his finding that adverse impacts can be alleviated by embracing a sense of purpose.
This idea immediately resonated with me, as I doubted I could have endured the solitude of my ocean voyages if I hadn’t been driven by the sense that I was on some kind of mission. I had already been working on the theory, for my book on The Gifts of Solitude, that feeling connected to a greater purpose could help alleviate hardship of all kinds, so I definitely wanted to learn more.
What does Purpose have to do with Loneliness?
RS: Your work seems to fall into two distinct chunks — one on loneliness, and one on purpose, but there also seems to be considerable overlap between the two. Is that how you would conceptualise it?
SC: Yes, absolutely. Originally, we had thought of them as two different things, but what we’re learning when we look at loneliness is that it’s very hard to tackle loneliness head-on, particularly chronic loneliness, which is the toxic version. Transient loneliness really doesn’t have enough temporal scope to damage our health that much, but people who live loneliness as a lifestyle, as a worldview, as a way of being for years and years and years, that’s when the health toll really gets high. So it turns out a lot of that kind of chronic loneliness comes from a perception that you just can’t trust other human beings, and as you might imagine, it’s very difficult to therapeutically talk people out of not trusting other human beings — by saying, “Hey! Don’t be lonely, you loser!”
RS: It’s a bit like saying, “Be happy!”
SC: Yes, absolutely. Completely unproductive. So a lot of us have been thinking about whether there another kind of more oblique attack on loneliness. And the one oblique attack that really seems to work is to take the attention of a lonely person off themself and their own suffering, and get their attention onto something else and somebody else. Often those external causes are goals that you can’t necessarily achieve alone. So, many times, the most effective attack on loneliness is getting people together around some kind of shared ideal or aspiration, in which case they can learn that there are some other people who see the world the way they do, that value what they value, and that they can trust to partner in some sort of meta-organismic activity, coming together as a community and trying to get stuff done. Getting people together around shared purpose and value turns out to be a great way of tackling loneliness.
RS: That makes perfect sense, because throughout most of human history, that is what people did — come together to do things together that would benefit everybody. So people shouldn’t be worried that a short term lockdown is going to do them damage at the epigenetic level?
SC: I would say that’s correct. I don’t think you’re going to get a big surge of loneliness-induced stress biology.
Avoiding the Social Distancing Hangover
RS: Is part of the danger that there could be a “loneliness hangover”, even when government restrictions are lifted, if people are still in that social distancing mode? If so, is there work we can do now — having conversations and creating projects — to help people transition out of solitude and back into health-supporting projects?
SC: That’s exactly right. What we really want for recovery is a list of things we’re going to do when we get out of jail, so to speak — a list of really interesting people to have coffee with, places I must see, and things I must do. Learning about how people have thought about solitude in the past, and how it’s not just incarceration, turns out to be a productive way of thinking about these things. You were talking about this distinction between solitude and loneliness, and it turns out solitude can sometimes be quite connective. It’s fascinating when you look at people who have been very, very far from the rest of humanity, but think of themselves as a kind of representative of humanity, they often feel very connected to the rest of the human race. There’s that classic story of Neil Armstrong putting his foot on the moon and being farther from humanity than anybody else has ever been, yet he felt he was there as a representative of all humanity.
So that distinction between being isolated, which is to do with objectively how many people are around, and being lonely, which has to do with do with whether you feel connected to other people, that turns out to make a huge biological difference.
Another way to think of it is when we do loneliness research, we have to be careful to distinguish between lonely people, who basically are getting less social nutrition than they need, and introverts, who are very happy with the lives that they’re leading, and the number of people around isn’t really the chief determinant. The chief determinant is: do you feel engaged, do you feel alive and awake, and do you feel like there are people there when you need them. That’s actually the key belief point.
Choose Your Attitude
RS: When I was rowing, Viktor Frankl was a great inspiration to me, and the way that he was able to choose his attitude even when he couldn’t choose his circumstances. I wonder if, in your research, or even in your conversations with research subjects, if you have touched on trying to get people to see the same situation, but through a different lens?
SC: Very much so. That continues to be the underlying concept that we apply to dealing with loneliness, both its psychological and health impacts. But the big question we have is actually: how do you instantiate that concept? What is the actual protocol you go through?
In the beginning, when we realised that loneliness was a significant threat to health and wellbeing, the idea was that we were going to talk to people, like psychotherapists do, and try and get them to reframe their beliefs about other people — if they were chronically lonely because they felt they fundamentally couldn’t trust other human beings, or people would take advantage of them, there was an attempt to reality check that, or talk them out of that worldview. But one of the complications is that these worldviews don’t rain randomly down on your head from heaven. They arise by life experience. They arise by taking chances, and being disappointed, and being betrayed and let down. These experiences produce what you might call an accurate perception that it’s true — it’s not the case that you can trust everybody, or that everything will always be okay.
“To an extent that immunologists and psychologists rarely appreciate, we are architects of our own experience. Your subjective experience carries more power than your objective situation. If you feel like you’re alone even when you’re in a room filled with the people closest to you, you’re going to have problems. If you feel like you’re well supported even though there’s nobody else in sight; if you carry relationships in your head; if you come at the world with a sense that people care about you, that you’re valuable, that you’re okay; then your body is going to act as if you’re okay — even if you’re wrong about all that.”
RS: So their beliefs are actually a very rational response to their life experiences?
SC: Yes. So a more productive approach turned out to be saying it’s true, sometimes people will betray you, sometimes you can’t count on other people, but look around you — actually the vast majority of people around you are pretty decent human beings. And certainly, there are at least a few decent human beings out there, that even if you don’t particularly like the world the way it is, at least in these political or economic times, there are actually people who agree with you, and who want to make the world a different place. And you can, with those people, decide that you want to live in a different kind of community than the one you’re living in within the dominant culture. So there’s this capacity to come together around a shared goal or purpose, even if it’s just about how do we want to relate to one another. That turns out to be a show instead of tell strategy for taking on loneliness.
The Importance of Social Fabric
RS: Experiential learning sinks in so much deeper than just coming at it through the head.
SC: That’s right. And it also has a legitimacy. It creates a fabric. When you work together with a person, you not only come to trust them, but if you need a cup of sugar, it’s like “I know we’re in this for political change, but could I borrow some sugar?”. There’s this organic generalisation of what used to be the default mode — we would interact with one another, back in more traditional societal conditions, and there was a kind of organic legitimacy of interaction, just because you had to do that to survive. And now we’ve economically commoditised a lot of stuff.
Now, I don’t have to cooperate with somebody to get fed. I can push a button and the delivery guy appears with chicken. It’s easy to feel like you don’t need anybody, but now we’re thinking about quarantines and lockdowns, we realise there are certain people we really, really need — not just medical professionals, but we need delivery guys, we need the people who are making food, we need supermarkets, we need people who are going to repair the hole in your roof. So it’s a matter of starting to get people to take a second look at what we generally have taken for granted, what the digital, virtual experience of life and social exchange has come to displace, or at least create a distraction from the real human transaction.
Not All Purposes Are Born Equal
RS: This idea of finding a purpose that can help to unite you with your tribe, because we all need that sense of belonging and connection, it seems like not all purposes are born equal, that something that’s more altruistic might be more effective than something that’s more self-centred. Is that a fair comment?
SC: Yes, I think that’s fair. We’ve looked quite hard at purpose, and different kinds of purpose, and it doesn’t look like there is any major distinction other than: “Do you think you’re doing something pro-social and productive, or are you fundamentally taking care of yourself?” The same activity could be construed in those two different ways and potentially have very different impacts on your psychology and on your physiological wellbeing as well.
So, to take an example, many people run small businesses, and you can think of what you’re doing as “I do this to make money. I’m taking revenue from people and giving them food in exchange for something”, or you could just as easily think of your small business as “I love making this stuff and giving this to people. I need the money so I can keep the shelter over my head and keep doing what I do, but I’m really in this because I love making food and I love seeing people happy and fed well.” So how you interpret what you’re doing makes all the difference in the world, not only about your own motivational processes, but it turns out, it’s those motivational processes that structure how your body is behaving, and that structure whether you feel connected with others, or whether you feel isolated and insecure and threatened.
RS: So it’s really that subjective sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing that makes all the difference. In a sense we’re creating our own reality. If our subjective experience is that we’re doing something out of love and connection rather than, to put an extreme case, out of exploitation and selfishness, then it’s going to have a very different physical effect on us.
SC: And when you work with that idea, it becomes very powerful at creating bridges. For example, a lot of people think of various forms of industrial activity as extractive, as fundamentally a violation of nature. But the people that are involved in those activities, who you could easily think of as criminals on some level, they see what they’re doing as helping people stay warm, and travel the world, and all kinds of other things like that. So once you can start appreciating these other flavours of meaning, it creates the opportunity to understand other people better, and once that happens, you can break down otherwise barriers of mutual hostility and suspicion. So this kind of crisis and challenge really does cause people to look deeply and you will find reservoirs of goodwill and reservoirs of idealism and aspiration in places that you might never have thought to see, and you will often be pleasantly surprised by the fibre of the random strangers around you.
“We looked at loneliness, then at sense of purpose in life, and we horse-raced them against one another and asked, if you get a person who is high in both, which one wins? Happily, it looks — at least in that particular analysis, subject to caveats — that you can be socially isolated and disconnected, but if you feel you’re on a mission, that trumps social poverty.”
Bootstrapping Your Way Out Of A Slump
RS: I know your research is more from the medical, epigenetic side of things — you’re not a practising psychiatrist. But if there is somebody who is in a complete slump, and they’re depressed, and they feel they don’t have any friends, and they’re not getting on at all well, are there suggestions you can offer?
SC: One of the things that is really remarkable about human beings is our capacity for empathy and our concern for others. Often, when people are the most depressed, and especially those who are suicidal, they feel an alienation or a humiliation with respect to the rest of humanity. Rarely do people get depressed over anything that doesn’t represent a loss of esteem or wellbeing or relationship, something like that. These kinds of tripwires for personal emotional distress are very hard to break using intellectual processes, very difficult to break using conscious strategies.
But if you see a crying baby, every depressed person will go and try to take care of that baby. They may have the plan to kill themselves ten minutes later, but they will go and pick up that crying baby. That is what we know about human beings — that we have this tremendous affinity for others, and the desire to spare them pain and suffering, especially undeserved, needless pain and suffering.
So one of the most powerful strategies for rehabilitating truly messed-up people is to get them out of the mode of being suffused in their own personal suffering, and get them attending to the wellbeing of others and the progress of some important goal. Which just sounds like an insane recipe, right? You take these incredibly suffering, tragic lives, and you ask them to pick themselves up, and go help somebody else, but in fact this is a fabulous recipe. It is like kindling to get people back into the bonfire of healthy, self-sustaining livelihood. This desire to help others is a strong and highly underrated characteristic of human beings. Helping other people is one of the most powerful and most healthy things for human beings.
As institutions increasingly displace individual helping behaviour, it actually strips us of one of the most rewarding activities we can have as individuals. Even accounting corporations have realised that it’s much, much more powerful if you have your accountants learn about the good that the business does. So if you’re running numbers, ultimately you’re helping get food to people, or you’re helping to build wonderful buildings, or keep people sheltered. So even if it’s just borrowing meaning from the partners you work with, it’s terribly helpful. So I think there’s going to be this newfound appreciation of the power of meaning under trying circumstances and how that is a powerful sustaining ingredient.
RS: Barry Schwartz writes about that in Why We Work, with a lovely true story about a hospital janitor who doesn’t see his job as mopping floors, he sees it as creating a clean and pleasant place where people can get better.
SC: That is absolutely right. And that janitor is going to do a fantastic job, compared with the guy next door who was just looking for a $15 an hour job, and you’re going to see very different levels of work performance, which is going to add up to different life trajectories.
“Two people may share the same environment but not the same experience. The experience is what you make of the environment… And you can shape all this by how you frame things. You can shape both your environment and yourself by how you act. It’s really an opportunity.”
RS: So even in a time of social distancing, people can still do something altruistic. I’ve seen there are dozens of mutual aid organisations springing up in the US, for example. There is a lot that can be done without physical contact.
SC: And what we’re learning is that the majority of it can be done without physical contact. It really is the sentiment, the symbolism, and the significance that feeds the part of our brain that craves safety and recognition.
What Governments Can Learn From Behavioural Scientists
RS: I wonder if you might have any suggestions for the policy-makers about interventions that the government might be able to lead?
SC: They can learn from our failures in behavioural science to talk people out of loneliness, and start thinking about what they can do as governments and communities to bring people together to help solve problems, which you can think of as an off-target effect in reducing the basic social and psychological processes that spurred loneliness in the first place. I think that’s a big, big opportunity.
And we need that, right? It’s not like the world is suffering from an excess of good, reliable solutions to all sorts of societal problems, so I think there’s plenty of opportunity to crowdsource community-based interventions for the things that centralised policy-makers used to pay attention to. That shouldn’t displace centralised policy, but I think there is a lot of opportunity to supplement centralised policy with more localised, grassroots, community-based activism. It’s great to see solutions coming from local organisations deciding “we want to do this”, and then that being generalised to different locations and being adapted based on local conditions.
Certainly, what we’ve seen in international development are these kinds of locally steered or locally adapted initiatives are much, much more effective than the imposition of canned programmes from centralised administrative structures that developed in a completely different economic and political system.
Ways to Cheer Up, Right Now
RS: Final question: coming back to our rather depressed individual who feels they just don’t have the energy to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, I wonder if you can suggest two things: first, a reason why it’s important for them to try, and second, a minimum viable action that they can take.
SC: There are a couple of simple protocols that have worked considerably better than I would have expected in experimental research studies. One of them is just to do random acts of kindness for other people, which sounds corny and absurd, but it is surprisingly powerful. It’s tricky to do right now, because most of the easiest ones involve acts of grace for strangers, but right now we’re all terrified of strangers, and we can’t get out and see them anyway, but nonetheless you should be able to still survey the array of people that you know. Even in our most depressed and inert states, there are usually people that we care about. Underscoring that, even if that comes down to sharing suffering, that’s an opportunity, but that’s a hard one, especially for somebody who is depressed.
One of the other protocols that has worked really well is a generativity protocol. And this one was developed by psychologists and gerontologists, mostly to help older people reconnect with purpose and generosity in their lives. So they have people compose letters or video messages that convey to the next generation what they’ve learned in life. There is something about thinking about your life and what’s happened, and saying how you would have done it different, and what you’ve learned, and how you accidentally got it right — this idea of taking the measure of your experience, and what are the different angles through which you could view what you’ve been through, and what are the different ways in which you can extract importance and meaning from your life.
And you don’t have to be the prime minister to feel you’ve done something important. Often the most important things in life are just being there for other people. If you are worried about a depressed friend, the most important thing is simply to be there. You don’t have to have the solution. You don’t have to have magic powers. You can’t solve all their problems. But at least you can be there for them. These are the fundamental motivational hooks of human beings that we can work with, even in the most grim and challenging times.
RS: So these times really offer us an opportunity for reconnection, that helps us and also helps those we’re connecting with.
SC: Yes, both internally in terms of our neck-down physiology, and externally, in terms of the network of people that we’re enmeshed in, we can derive powerful health benefits from both of those, particularly as they work together synergistically.
Mind, Body, Spirit, Community
RS: It really is mind-body-spirit in the way it is all connected.
SC: Mind-body-spirit and community. I think that’s the big challenge is to get ourselves out of the view that all of this is happening within one body, and to start realising that in fact bodies are together naturally, especially if they’re human bodies — so a lot of what we call spirituality has to do with perceptions of the world, perceptions of others, the way we want to be in the world, the moral philosophy of spirituality. So always paying attention to the fact that we are fibres in a fabric, in addition to our own vertically integrated individual organism, is a helpful way of thinking about it.
“Your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months or, perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly.”
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And stay safe, sane, and as happy as you can in these interesting times.