On Being with Krista Tippett

Vivek Murthy

To Be a Healer

Last Updated

April 13, 2023

Original Air Date

April 13, 2023

We need a modicum of vitality to simply be alive in this time. And we’re in an enduringly tender place. The mental health crisis that is invoked all around, especially as we look to the young, is one manifestation of the gravity of the post-2020 world. How to name and honor this more openly? How to hold that together with the ways we’ve been given to learn and to grow? Who are we called to be moving forward? Dr. Vivek Murthy is a brilliant, wise, and kind companion in these questions. He’s a renowned physician and research scientist in his second tenure as U.S. Surgeon General. And for years, he’s been naming and investigating loneliness as a public health matter, including his own experience of that very human condition.

It is beyond rare to be in the presence of a person holding high governmental office who speaks about love with ease and dignity — and about the agency to be healers that is available to us all. There is so much here to walk away with, and into. This conversation quieted and touched a room full of raucous podcasters at the 2023 On Air Fest in Brooklyn.

There are many resources for mental health support. If you’re in the U.S., find some of them here.

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Image of Vivek Murthy

Vivek Murthy is the 21st Surgeon General of the United States. He also served in this role from 2014 to 2017. He hosts the podcast House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy. And he’s the author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.


Transcription by Alletta Cooper

Krista Tippett: We need a modicum of vitality for what simply being alive in this time asks of us. And we’re in an enduringly tender place. The mental health crisis that is invoked all around, especially as we look to the young, is one manifestation of the gravity of the post-2020 world that each of us is carrying. Even as we try to power through in the face of ungrieved losses and unnerving change. I’m longing for us to find ways to name and honor this more openly. Because it is showing up sideways in our families and workplaces and communities even as we try to power through. I’m also longing for us to hold this more honest grappling together with the questions of what have we been given to see and to learn. Who are we now, and who are we called to be moving forward?

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

I cannot imagine a more brilliant, wise, and kind conversation partner about all of this than the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy. He’s a renowned physician and research scientist, and for years he’s been naming and investigating loneliness as a public health matter, including his own experience of that very human condition. And it is beyond rare to sit with a person holding high government office who speaks about love with ease and dignity, and about the agency to be healers that is available to us all. There is so much here to walk away with, and into. This conversation quieted and touched a room full of raucous podcasters at the 2023 On Air Fest in Brooklyn. And I am so happy to invite you into the experience now.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

It’s important for me to quickly set the scene for you to take in what unfolds here. Vivek Murthy sits with me in military regalia, because part of his role makes him a vice admiral commanding a uniformed service of over 6,000 public health officers serving vulnerable populations. And, we are sitting in exactly the same place, perhaps the same chairs, where I interviewed Ocean Vuong in March 2020. Unbeknownst to us, a state of emergency had been declared that day in New York. So we all left that room and entered a changed world.

[audience cheers and applauds]

Tippett: Oh, it’s so good to be in this room again. And so I know we all think of Dr. Fauci as the nation’s doctor, but actually, this is the official nation’s doctor. [audience laughter and applause] And we have had a number of touchpoints over the last few years all in pixelated form. And this is a human being of intelligence and integrity and deep care, which is what we hope for and long for in our public servants. And so I’m so glad to have you here. Now, this is your second tenure as the Surgeon General. You were Surgeon General the 19th and the 21st. Are you the first person to do it twice?

Vivek Murthy: I believe I am, actually.

Tippett: Okay. You’re also, I believe, the first Surgeon General to take your oath on the Bhagavad Gita.

Murthy: That’s right.

Tippett: Yeah?

Murthy: Uh-huh.

Tippett: And, very importantly in this room, you are the first Surgeon General, I suspect, to host a podcast.

[audience laughter]

Murthy: That is right. [laughter]

Tippett: And it’s a good one. It’s called House Calls and it’s a wonderful mix of reflection and conversation and also some brief meditations. So Vivek — and I’ve been given permission to call you that.

Murthy: Yes, please do. We are friends.

Tippett: Western medicine classically, certainly in the century I was born in, the 20th, was profoundly dedicated to curing, which is not always the same as healing. You speak about your commitment to the art of healing. I know your grandfather was a farmer in rural India. Your parents immigrated from India. Were you born in Yorkshire in the UK?

Murthy: I was, yes. [laughs]

Tippett: That’s right. You went through Newfoundland, you ended up in Miami…

Murthy: Yeah, that’s right.

Tippett: That’s a really interesting trajectory. Your father was a doctor. But I’m curious about, in this background of your childhood and your family, where do you trace the roots of this care that you have, this passion, for the art of healing?

Murthy: Well, I’ll just say Krista, just to start, what a joy it is to be with you as well, as somebody who’s listened to On Being for many years long before I met you. I’m just such a fan, but also a deep admirer of what you do and the dialogue you support. And I will say also that ending up in Miami, which is where I grew up, is what happens when two parents who grew up in the sunny part of south India spend two years in Newfoundland in the icy cold. [laughter] What happens is they move to Miami. So that is where I grew up.

But my interest in healing really comes from my parents. Because when I was growing up in Miami, they had started a medical clinic there and it was just the two of them. My father seeing patients, my mother also caring for patients in her own way and helping run the clinic. And I spent afternoons and weekends there, watching patients come and go, greeting them, and seeing people come in looking anxious and worried, and seeing them leave feeling less so, knowing that they had a partner in their healing. And that word “healing” is so important. I’m so glad you underscored it because it is different from fixing. In order to heal — to me, healing is about making whole. And to be a healer, you have to be able to listen, to learn, and to love. And I saw those three forces at work in my parents and how they cared for their patients. So that’s what got me interested in the process of healing.

But I also saw that when you help people heal, as my parents did, you also build these beautiful relationships with them. And I saw my parents who, as two immigrants, who came to this country not knowing anyone, not really having any connections or supports, they built a community through their service. And those relationships are really beautiful. They inspired me ultimately to become a doctor.

Tippett: I so appreciate that connection you made between healing and becoming whole. Because I think one of the things that has emerged, just conversation-by-conversation across my 20 years now of radio, which then became podcasting, is that we don’t become whole because of all the things we have going for us, or what our strengths are. That actually, the wise people I have spoken with who actually shift the world on its axis, it is how they have integrated everything — their vulnerabilities, what went wrong, what failed — into their wholeness on the other side.

Murthy: Yes. And I think that yes, wholeness isn’t something we acquire by stacking achievements or checking boxes or acquiring products or consumer goods. And I worry about this because I have two small children myself. They are five and six, and I’m thinking often about the world that they’re growing up in and what is that world telling them about who they should be and what success is. And what I worry about is that right now the world tells our kids and all of us that to be successful, you need one of three things: to be powerful, to be famous, or to be rich. But we all know people who have all three of those — who are wealthy, powerful, and famous — and profoundly unhappy, who don’t feel whole. And so I worry that many of our kids are being led down a path that will not make them whole or fulfilled.

I think to truly feel whole — it’s not about acquiring something that we don’t have. It’s about remembering who we fundamentally are. When we come into this world — as I see with my own kids, and many of you may have seen with other young people in your lives — we are content. My kids don’t care whether we have a big house or a small house. They don’t care about how fancy the clothes are that they wear or not. They care about finding moments of joy. They care about their relationships they have with the people around them. They observe things whether it’s a fleck on the wall that wasn’t there before, or whether it’s the play of lights as they come through the window in the setting sun. And they find joy in that, in those day-to-day, seemingly ordinary moments.

And so I do think part of what has challenged us right now in this moment is that there are a lot of forces around us that have made us feel that we are not whole, that we are not enough. That tell us, well, we’re not good-looking enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not popular enough, we’re not wise enough. But part of what we have to do is to ask ourselves: are those messages speaking the truth about who we are or is that a narrative that’s different? And often I find that that narrative is driven usually by an organization, a product, a company that makes products, or something where they’re trying to sell you a service or a product to make you feel more whole. But I think part of healing, to me, is about recognizing what we already have inside of us, coming to trust that, coming to rely on that, and ultimately coming to find fulfillment in who we are.

Tippett: And we are also living with a great deal of brokenness and rupture. So I think what I want us, if we think about — well, first of all, I want to name that you lost 10 family members to COVID. Is that right?

Murthy: Yes.

Tippett: In the United States and in India.

Murthy: Uh-huh.

Tippett: And I’ve been so admiring of how in your role, you’re in workplaces, you’re in schools, you’re with the [U.S. Conference] of Mayors, you’re with every kind of institution and community that we create in this country. And you’ve been so clear that you’re interested in how we can heal not only from COVID, but also from the isolation that existed before COVID. These things that we just see that much more clearly and feel that much more clearly. So if we think about the way we’re orienting this is, let’s talk about this for the sake of how we reach for health and wholeness in the world ahead. How do you start to characterize or diagnose this moment we’re in and what’s behind it? What is the core distress that we can name in order to grapple with?

Murthy: So this is at the heart of what I think we have to grapple with as a country and really more broadly as a global society, which is that there is this sense that I get when I talk to people all across our country that people are feeling worried, they’re feeling anxious, they’re feeling pessimistic about the future. And if you try to understand the reasons for that, on the surface, people will point to near-term trends. They might point to something like inflation or they’ll point to COVID itself or they’ll point to other structural challenges. But I actually have come to believe it’s something deeper that’s happening, because even when inflation was low and when unemployment remain low and the economy seemed to be doing very well, people still didn’t feel great. Even before COVID, before we hit a giant pandemic, people still weren’t feeling great. So there was something deeper happening.

One is the extraordinary pace of change that we are living through. And the thing is — everything is changing: how we communicate with one another, how we think about ourselves, how we think about job prospects, how we even think about what constitutes success. And even good change is hard. As a good friend of mine was sharing the other day, his kid graduated from school, from high school and was going to college and he said, “This is what I’ve wanted for so many years: my child to do well, to be able to go to college. And I’m heartbroken because my child’s leaving.” So good change can be hard.

But the second force has to do with the information environment we’re surrounded by, which often is profoundly negative. And I think that’s in part because so much of what we see on the news and what’ll get shared on social media stokes our anxiety and our fear. And if we’re immersed in it — which we are much more so now because information is coming at us through so many channels unlike 30 years ago — then it can lead us to feel that everything is broken about the world.

The third force, though, is our dialogue, which is that our ability to talk to one another is broken, to put it plainly. We hesitate to bring up issues with other people that we may disagree on because we don’t know how they’ll react. We think twice before we post something because we’re not sure if we’re using the right words. And we’ve come to care less about people’s intentions somehow than about the words they use or about the position that they have.

But the final factor that’s really — And I’ll just say about dialogue, the reason that is so important is when we have times of confusion in our life or when we’re uncertain about something, a lot of how we work through that is we talk it through, we listen to what other people say, we ask some questions, we process out loud. But when we can’t dialogue, we can’t do that.

But the fourth and final force I’ll mention is the one that’s at the heart of your question, which is around loneliness and isolation, which has been growing. If you had told me that loneliness and isolation was a challenge, a public health threat, if you will, on a scale as big as any other public health threat we face, six, seven, eight years ago, I would’ve been skeptical. I would’ve said, “Eh, are you really sure?” But I actually was educated on this by people all across America, who through their own stories helped me realize that loneliness was more than something that I had experienced in my own life as a child and as an adult. It was more than something I had just seen in my patients. But it was something that people all across America were experiencing.

There are many surveys now which are telling us that more than half of Americans feel lonely and the numbers are greatest among young people, as it turns out. And when people struggle with loneliness, not only is it bad for their mental health, increasing their risk for depression and anxiety, but it also increases their risk for heart disease and premature death and so many other physical illnesses.

So you put all of this together and what you find is a recipe for despair. And if we want to break this cycle, if we want to actually reclaim lives that are full of joy, that are fulfilling, we have to rebuild, fundamentally, our connection to one another. And that is one of the great challenges that we’ve got to undertake in the years ahead.

Tippett: And I think that these many faces of despair often are discussed and fretted about under the headline of “mental health.” And I think you and I, on Zoom a couple of times in these last couple of years, have talked about how the irony that, when we use the phrase “mental health” right now, what we actually mean is “mental distress.” And to the extent that we’re talking about — generally, I feel like this is true of educational institutions — actually what we’re trying to do is, can we come up with a remedy just to stem the harm to some extent. And of course, we don’t want to think that mental health is just the absence of distress. We don’t even know how to talk about the other side beyond just the absence of distress.

And I think that one thing you’re doing with your emphasis on loneliness and isolation is a way into all that. It doesn’t describe all of it, but I think you’ve done so much investigation that it really is at the heart of it. And one thing I know you’ve said, though, is also that young people don’t, that that’s not a word that — you said young people, if you study it statistically, feel this. But it’s not necessarily the first word they reach for.

Murthy: Yeah.

Tippett: So just to break that open, what are we talking about in terms of what people are feeling, but what does this call us to collectively? What are the ramifications for our life together?

Murthy: Well, the ramifications to not being connected could not be more profound. Because we have — over thousands of years, we’ve evolved to live in connection with one another. That seems perhaps a little counterintuitive in the current age where we seem to, in modern society, value independence and we define that as not needing other people, not needing to rely on anyone else, being able to do everything on your own. But that person who thousands of years ago when we were hunters and gatherers tried to do everything on their own and go it alone — we know what happened to that person. That person got eaten by a predator [audience laughs] or they died from an insufficient food supply. We learned over time that it’s when we built trusted relationships with one another that we all did better, that we lived longer, that we were safer, we were more fulfilled. And the thing is, even though our circumstances are so different now, fundamentally our nervous systems haven’t changed.

Tippett: The same nervous system. Yeah.

Murthy: They are very similar to where they were thousands of years ago, such that when we are separated from one another, it actually puts us into a stress state. Now, stress in the short term, to be clear on this — because to your point about mental health, one of the many things we talk about in mental health is stress, too. Well, what is that? Stress is not necessarily always bad. Short-term stress can actually improve your function. You think about the stress you might have right before a race or before an exam or before asking somebody out on a first date. I’ve felt all of those stresses. [laughs] But that stress — when it becomes chronic, when it’s long term, that’s when it becomes destructive. And that’s why loneliness, I would think of it like hunger or thirst. It’s a signal our body sends us when we’re missing something we need for survival. And if we respond to it by seeking out connection and experiencing it, then we are okay.

But the chronic loneliness is what pushes us in a bad direction. Now, we talked a little bit about some of the health effects of that, right? Increasing our risk for anxiety, depression, and physical illness. But outside of health, they’re also really important ramifications for individuals and society. We know that when people struggle with that sense of disconnection from one another — loneliness — when they don’t feel like they belong, it actually impairs their function in the workplace. It reduces productivity, creativity, and engagement, and ultimately retention. It impacts how students perform in school. It impacts our level of civic engagement. Think about this. In a society, especially a democratic society like the United States, we require and — not require — but we rely on the participation of people in communities to help make it better, to advocate, to vote, to help and serve. But that suffers also when people feel disconnected.

And finally, just think about the violence that we see in our communities. Violence is — I do not believe the innate instinct of people when they’re in a good state when they’re feeling well — violence is a reaction to something. And some people may react to loneliness and distress by going inward and retreating from everyone else. Others may lash out at others. But however you look at it, the consequences to individuals, organizations, and society of loneliness is really profound. And that’s why I think what we have to do as a society is ask ourselves what has led us here, to a place where we evolved to be connected, yet we feel so disconnected, and where some of the technology that we were promised would actually help build connection and community seems in many cases to have led us in the opposite direction.

Tippett: Yeah, well, we invested in the technical, the technological connection, but not the quality of that connection. Some things I think have been released just in these last weeks as I knew I was going to speak to you that are very hard, that speak to this. I think it is so useful, though, to see this as a whole picture, to see mental health and the violence in our society as public health crises with human roots. There was a New York Times article just the other week where they had profiled the signs of crisis in 50 years of mass shootings. A third of them were from the last decade. And they were almost all men.

One of the things — there’s a lot of new research also on the terrible state of the mental wellbeing of girls, which I’m sure terrifies you as the father of a girl. And also what’s in all of that is that boys struggle in silence. But then there is this picture of boys and men. Here are some of the things that these people will say: “He suffer[ed] from severe back pain… He thought his co-workers were conspiring against him… He dropped out of college and lied to his parents about it… He had intense mood swings and alcohol problems… He believed he was straying from his faith… He had been isolating himself from his online friends…” He was evicted from his condominium. “He stopped communicating with his mother and ex-wife” — or his mentor, his old boss. Jealous when his girlfriend started dating someone else. Depressed, broke, isolated, angry, had no friends, distressed his wife had left him, forced to resign from job, hostile to neighbors, needed knee surgery, wife and daughter left him.

The concluding line of this was, “Mass shooters live among us. They are us. They are for the most part the men and boys we know.” Which is a really scary way to frame it. But I think to your point, what we’re talking about is human despair and it is actually something we can name and work with if we work with it as despair. There’s almost like a pathological resistance we have in this society to naming the human — underlying human root conditions of social problems.

Murthy: I think there is, and it is heartbreaking just to hear those anecdotes that you shared. And there is a common thread of pain in all of those stories. And that pain, that despair, is what we have to grapple with because I think for too long, what we have assumed is that dealing with that pain is up to each individual and it’s their responsibility. We can believe that all we want, but the reality tells us something very different, which is as social creatures, as communal creatures, that we have to help heal one another’s pain, that we have to help support and create the circumstances and institutions that allow people to heal, that helps prevent that pain in the first place. That’s our collective responsibility to one another. When you have a circumstance where we put that aside and say it’s each person for themself — then this is what happens: you have people struggling in pain, you have situations where people can’t come together around solutions because they can’t agree on our common responsibility to one another.

And I think this, to me, is one of the fundamental issues that we need to talk about, is: What is our responsibility to one another? This is a moral question. It’s a spiritual question that has implications for policies and for programs, but it has to start at the moral and spiritual level. We can build the best programs and policies in the world, but my belief is that none of those will work as well as they need to if we are not clear on the values that should be guiding us in our work.

If you were to ask people right now: What are the values that guide us as the United States of America? I don’t know that you would get a clear, consistent list of values. Everyone may have their own sense of what that is. And one of my beliefs here, Krista, is that we can’t get clarity on that unless we have a conversation as a country about that. My belief is that we need to be a nation that is kind, where people take care of one another, where people step up for one another because they can and because they know that we are all better off when we are all, in fact, better off. And I want us to be a nation where people are generous with one another, where they recognize that there are times all of us are going to be in need, where all of us may stumble and fall, but we have to help each other up.

And finally, I think we’ve got to be a nation that fundamentally recognizes what strength really is. Because strength is not just about how much money we have in the economy or about the might of our military. Those are important. But our greatest source of strength comes from, I believe, our fundamental ability to give and receive love. We don’t think about love as a source of strength, but I find it hard to think of any force that is more powerful than love. And I think we need to talk about that more, because especially with young boys, and I think as the father of both a young girl and a young boy, I want my son to know that he shouldn’t feel ashamed to express love, to receive love. He shouldn’t think that somehow that that is not becoming of a young boy or not manly in some way. All of us, men, women, everyone, we all have the desire and need to give and to receive love.

So this has to be part of how we redefine strength. Nobody would look at the sacrifices that a parent makes for their child, how they sometimes put themselves in harm’s way to protect their child, and say, “Wow, love is weak.” Nobody would look at the soldier — I remember a father I met, a heartbroken father whose son had lost his life after throwing himself on an IED so he could protect his fellow soldiers when he was in theater of war. Nobody would look at that kind of sacrifice and say, “Oh, that love is weak.” Yet what are we doing to cultivate love in our society, in our schools, in our families? We have to give people the permission and the encouragement to feel love, to cultivate it, to prioritize it, because to me, it is a backbone of good policies, good programs, and a strong society.

Tippett: And it almost sounds idealistic, right? We’re not used to hearing public officials speak this way. But you and I have been in conversation with Richie Davidson who’s a neuroscientist who works on compassion and they’re actually taking — teaching kindness, cultivating kindness, love, and compassion in classrooms as human skills that are needed for education and formation in the broadest possible sense. It’s something that’s important to me also. I agree with you. We have to talk about love as a public good and also de-romanticize — the way love, as you say, the way love actually works is often, very often in the course of a day has nothing to do with how you feel. It’s what you do. And it’s daily giving, and it’s what you do sometimes in spite of how you feel, but you do it because you care about that relationship. You’re invested in that relationship.

I’d love to keep going on that a little bit. So if we think about how you think about getting to the other side of talking about mental health as something we’re putting a bandaid on just to try to minimize distress, how do you think about — and you’re out in all kinds, in schools — how do you think about what would that look like if we oriented and got pragmatic about formation for whole, healed human beings? And again, that’s not to say that we’re raising people for whom nothing will go wrong because it is true of life that things go wrong all the time. So how do they be healed and whole and walk through life as it is in that way?

Murthy: It’s a good question. I think that one of the most tangible and practical places we can start is by rebuilding social infrastructure in our country. Now, we’re used to thinking about infrastructure as bridges and roads, and that is part of the traditional infrastructure. But there exists in communities a social infrastructure that consists of the programs, policies, and structures that foster healthy relationships. And that can be everything from how you plan cities and towns to allow people to actually interact with each other. That has to do with the kind of programs you institute in schools, particularly around social-emotional learning, to give children a foundation for building healthy relationships for one another. It has to do with the kind of culture and practices you have in the workplace. And we have some in ours, others have been developing these as well, but practices that allow people to get to know one another as human beings and not just as skill sets.

These are some of the many things —and then there are, of course, many other initiatives that I’ve had the privilege of visiting in communities from the Men’s Sheds program to the Hi Neighbor program to an incredible group of individuals that my team just visited in Northwest Indianapolis — people who call themselves “roving listeners,” who actually go door to door and knock on neighbors’ doors. And they don’t ask them what they need; they ask them what they love, what brings them joy. And they help foster and build connection with their neighbors that way. So there’s a lot we can do to build this social infrastructure that’s very tangible that includes steps that local government, workplaces, and schools can take.

Krista, one last thing I’ll say, which is to a point you brought up earlier about how we think about mental health and despair, and are we really getting to the root cause of issues. I worry that the way we think about mental health and talk about it is, I think that seems almost to be a proxy for talking about severe depression and anxiety. And by extension, then, we think that all mental health problems just require having more psychiatrists and therapists and then we would solve it.

Now, I do think we need more therapists. We need more mental health professionals. I’ve been a big advocate for investing more in that area, and I’m very proud that President Biden has made that a priority as well. And there are more investments. But I do think that the way that you and I are talking about mental health is much broader. This is actually more in the realm of wellbeing, of understanding, as I think of it: is our tank full? Our mental health, in my mind, is the fuel that allows us to be and do what we do to show up for our family, for our friends, for our workplaces, for our communities. And if that tank is empty, we may not have a diagnosable mental illness, but we won’t be functioning anywhere near our full capacity. We lapse into sadness, into despair, into anger.

And so this is about more than diagnosable mental illness, as important as that is. This is about improving our overall level of wellbeing. And this is where social connection is one of the most powerful tools that we could foster. And it’s so — it seems so simple that just building relationships could contribute to those outcomes that we almost don’t believe it. And if I told you, Krista, if I said, “Hey, I went into my backyard and I made this pill and it’s pretty amazing and it’s free. And if you take it, it will actually improve your health. It’ll make you feel better. It will improve your performance at work. It will improve your grades…

Tippett: Boost your immunity.

Murthy: …Everyone will be happier.” Yeah. You’d be like, “Hey, sign me up. I’ll take that tomorrow.” It turns out that’s what social connection is, and we just have to make that a priority and build — rebuild, I should say — the social infrastructure in our country.

[music: “Basketliner” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Tippett: You and your wife, Alice Chen, who is also a physician, wrote this completely prescient article in — can this really be true? — in March 2020 in The Atlantic. When I read the date, I couldn’t really believe that it was March 2020. That must have been weeks into us understanding that we were in a pandemic, as lockdown had started.

So yes, that thing — because the idea that what we’re talking about is organic and elemental, and in fact, a lot of this, we know in our bodies how to do this even if we’ve become estranged from that knowledge. So one of the things you did in this article — so you said, “In the short term, the stress of loneliness serves as a natural signal that nudges us to seek out social connection — just as hunger and thirst remind us to eat and drink. But when loneliness lasts for a long time, it can become harmful by placing us in a state of chronic stress.” And then that has all this cascade of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual ripple effects. But you also offered four strategies in that article that anybody could do that move us individually towards this social reality. Do you remember what those were?

Murthy: I do. I do.

Tippett: Share them, please. And I’m also curious if you added any since.

Murthy: Sure. And they are four simple steps, because it turns out that because we are hardwired for connection, even just a little bit of time and a little bit of investment in human connection goes a long way toward us feeling better. The first is to spend 15 minutes a day connecting with somebody you care about. That could be calling them up. It could be video conferencing with them. It could be sending them a text just to say, “Hey, I’m thinking of you. I just wanted you to know that you’re on my mind.” The second—

Tippett: But hang on, you said, this seemed important to me, but you said communicating with people you love other than the people you live with — they don’t count in this, right?

[audience laughter]

Murthy: Yes.

Tippett: Okay.

Murthy: And the reason for that is, like many people — and I’m happy to share some personal stories here later if you’d like, but — we sometimes think that the world of people who care about us is a lot smaller than it really is. And sometimes — well, maybe if you’ll indulge me, I’ll tell one quick story here, which is when I finished my first term as Surgeon General — and finished means it ended quite abruptly. And it was surprising to me. And what had happened during that time is that time I had spent as Surgeon General, I made one critical mistake, which is that I convinced myself that in order to really do well at this job and give everything I could, that I just needed to be a hundred percent focused on the job. And I neglected my relationships. I didn’t keep in touch with a lot of my friends. Even when I was with family, I was distracted, on my phone.

And when suddenly I no longer was serving as Surgeon General — the one community I did have was my community at work, and all of a sudden they were gone. And I felt profoundly alone. I actually sunk into this deep abyss of loneliness for a long time. And I remember seeing a friend once on a trip to Boston, and she said to me over breakfast, she said, “Vivek, you know what your problem is?” She said, “Your problem is not that you don’t have friends.” She said, “Your problem is you’re not experiencing friendships.” She said, “If you called any one of those people you had lost touch with, they’d be more than happy to talk to you, much happier than you realize.” So she said, “You have to get over your shame and your sense of embarrassment at not being in touch and just reach out. And you’ll find that people are also hungry for human connection.” So that’s why that 15 minutes with people you care about outside of those you live with can be powerful.

The other three I’ll mention quickly. So the second is to give people your full attention when you talk to them. This is something that I have been guilty of not doing at many points in my life because my hand somehow sneaks into my pocket, takes out my phone, [audience laughter] and before I know it, I’m refreshing my inbox, checking the scores on ESPN and God knows what else, while I’m catching up with a friend who I was looking forward to catching up to for so long. Where is that coming from? Well, it’s not just a failure of willpower, per se. These devices were designed specifically to pull you in and to keep you on them. But if you can take even one of those conversations, that 15 minutes that we talked about each day, and just give somebody the gift of your full attention, your attention has the power to stretch time. It can make five minutes feel like 30 minutes. And so that’s very powerful.

The third thing that’s important to do is to find opportunities to serve others. Now, this is also a bit counterintuitive. You might think, “If I’m lonely, don’t I need somebody to help me? Why am I helping somebody else?” Well, it turns out that when we help each other, we not only forge a connection with someone else, but we also reaffirm to ourselves that we have value to bring to the world. And that’s important because when we struggle with loneliness for a long period of time, it erodes our sense of self-esteem and self-worth. We begin to think we’re lonely because we’re not likable, that it’s our fault somehow. But service shortcuts that circuit and help us feel more connected to others and ourselves.

And the fourth and final one is around solitude. And this also is counterintuitive because you might think, “Solitude? If I’m lonely, do I really need more time alone?” But loneliness is not so much about how many people you have around you. It’s about whether you feel like you belong. It’s about whether you truly know your own value and feel like you are connected to other people. It’s about the quality of your relationships with others and yourself. The solitude is important because it’s in moments of solitude, when we allow the noise around us to settle, that we can truly reflect, that we can find moments in our life to be grateful for. But those moments of solitude have become increasingly rare because all of the white space in our life has been filled by our devices. Back in the day when I was waiting for a bus, that’s the time I would just sit down and I would think.

Tippett: You were actually waiting.

Murthy: I was actually waiting. Now, if I’m waiting for a bus or waiting for the subway, then I’m looking at my phone in between to either be efficient and clear out my inbox or to find something interesting. So our mind is constantly filled and we don’t have that silence that is so integral to growth. And you might think, “Well, yeah, I could do that, but I’d feel bored.” Boredom is not a bad thing.

Tippett: No.

Murthy: Boredom can be generative and creative. So anyway, these four simple steps are things that you can do. And that solitude, by the way, it can look different for each person. It can just be a few minutes. It could be a few minutes sitting on your front porch before the day begins. It could be a few minutes in nature, a few minutes in prayer, a few minutes in meditation, a few minutes listening to music that inspires you or stills you.

I’ll tell you for me, one of the things I do toward the end of the day is I have a list of videos and speeches and guided meditations that I’ve collected over the years that are sometimes just a couple minutes long. Some of them are longer, half an hour. But I’ll usually dip into those every night before I go to bed, sometimes even more than one if I’m having a particularly tough day. But that’s part of what is in my toolbox to help me reconnect with myself and remember what I have to be grateful for. These are almost disarmingly simple, these four tools I mentioned, but they can be very powerful in helping us feel more connected to ourselves and others.

Tippett: Wonderful. So I was going to ask you what love has to do with public health, but you’ve answered the question already so beautifully. If we imagine a world that is oriented towards human wholeness and mental and emotional flourishing, where that is part of the formation and education of our young, what would the Surgeon General spend his days doing?

Murthy: To both build a world that’s oriented around healing, around supporting our young, supporting everyone, but also to maintain that world means that we have to make sure that we’re talking about it, that we’re keeping it in our hearts and raising it up as a priority, that we’re continuing to focus on it. Because if we take something for granted, it starts to disappear, right? There was a time, perhaps, in parts of society where we were far more connected than we are now, but I suspect we may have taken that for granted and allowed the forces of change and technology to sweep in and then sweep out many of those connections that we had.

Look, I think that for every generation there’s a moment where they face a moment of existential change, where there are forces that are visited upon society that threaten our way of life and our way of being. And it’s up to that generation to figure out how to respond. To me, this is that moment and we are those people who have to take it upon ourselves to stitch together the social fabric of our country once again because it is the foundation on which we build everything else. If you want effective policy to address climate change, if you want effective policy that ensures that we have more support for people so they can be with their families when they’re ill, if you want effective policies to help strengthen education in our schools, you need social connection. Because it is only when people care about and are vested in one another that they advocate together, that they move together in the same direction, recognizing that a solution to someone’s problem, even if it’s not my problem, is a solution that we all need because we are one people and we are united.

And so how do we build that broader movement? Well, it starts with the actions that we take in our day-to-day lives. How do we choose to treat other people? Is it with reflex indignation, or is it with respect and a desire to understand where they’re coming from? How do we prioritize relationships in our own life with our attention as well as with our time? Do we choose to speak up for other people in the public square even if their concerns aren’t the same as ours, but because we care about them? And do we choose to support leaders who reflect our values? These are the decisions we can make as individuals that can shape the world that we live in and the world that our children inherit.

This is, to me, very personal because to me, this is about my children, too. Before my son was born six years ago, I still very distinctly remember that moment of sitting on the bed next to my wife and looking at the pregnancy test indicator that indicated that we were going to have a child. And I was incredibly excited. I was just thrilled. I was also incredibly scared [laughs] that whether I’d be able to do what this child needed, be the father that he needed.

But what also worried me in the days ahead was wondering about what kind of world my son was coming into. Was this going to be a world where people would be kind to him, where if he stumbled and made a mistake, people would forgive him and give him another chance? Where he would do the same for other people? Was it going to be a world that was driven by and informed by the core values of love, of kindness and compassion and generosity? Or was he going to be in a world that was driven by fear, where people were pitted against each other, where everyone was looking out for themselves? I know what kind of world I want for him. It’s the former. That’s the same world that I want for all of our children and for all of us.

But that won’t happen by itself. It will only happen if we make a conscious decision that this is the world that we want to live in and that fundamentally this is who we are. That we are not mean, angry, bitter people. But in our hearts we are kind, we are good, we are decent. And our capacity to love and to be generous and to serve has no limit, and it’s a muscle that the more we use it, the stronger it gets. So that’s what we have to recenter on in this moment. All fundamental change begins with identity, with a question of, who are we and what are our values? And so this is the time to get real clear on our values. And if we do that, then we will be the generation that this time needs. The generation not defined by age, but really defined by spirit, by vision, and by values. The generation that years from now, people will look back on and say, that’s when things changed. That’s when we turned the corner and built the world that all of us deserve.

Tippett: I watched a speech you gave to the, I think, U.S. [Conference] of Mayors — and I meant to warn you about this and I didn’t — but you gave them a little bit of a benediction, a short meditation, invitation as they went back out into the world. And I wondered if you might do that in this room, too. We’re in a room full of audio makers and storytellers and podcasters, and I do think of, well, first of all, I think of podcasting as a new form of radio and a new fireside.

Murthy: Yes.

Tippett: And of course, around the fireside, from time immemorial, we also told true crime stories to each other. [laughter] It’s not all sweetness and light. But it is a human space and it’s a place also where we remind ourselves what it means to be human and that we’re not alone in this. So for the people in this room, as we go out with this craft that we have, and also for people who will listen later, would you offer just a little bit of a reflection, meditation, just—

Murthy: Sure, sure. So I’ll share with you something that I do in my own life, a tool that I reach for when I’m having those moments where I feel alone or I’m starting to feel the despair creeping in. And it’s very simple. It takes about 15 seconds.

So just raise your right hand and place it over your heart and close your eyes. And I want you to think about the people who have loved you over the years, the people who have been there for you during difficult times, who have supported you without judging you, and who stood by your side even when it was hard. Think about the people who have celebrated your moments of greatest joy with you, the people who saw your successes as theirs, the people who derived such pleasure and fulfillment from seeing you happy. Just feel their love flowing through you, lifting you up, brightening your mood, and filling your heart. And know that that love is always there, even if they are not physically with you, because you carry that love in your heart. And know that you are and always will be worthy of that love. It came to you because you deserved it.

And now open your eyes.

What you felt in that brief meditation, that was the power of love. That is the power of social connection. That is our birthright. It’s who we were designed to be and what we were designed to experience. All of us, regardless of what walk of life we’re in, we have the ability to shine a light on the bright spots. Whether those are relationships that bring joy or movements in our community that are helping grow connection — it’s where we choose to focus our attention, it’s where we use our power to focus the attention of others that ultimately determines whether or not we create more light in the world or more darkness.

But I just want all of you to know, just as I want my own children to know, just as I remind myself as well, that we are all worthy of love and connection. Even in those moments where we feel that we perhaps aren’t. Even those moments where we feel like we’re the only one who might be struggling. The truth is we are not alone. There are others out there who want what we want. A world that is more connected. A world where we can actually be there for one another. A world that’s actually powered by love. And that is within our grasp. We only have to see it, to name it, and to start taking actions in our day-to-day lives to build that world and reflect those values.

And when we do, we will experience what one of my mentors in medical school told me years ago, which is, she said: Vivek, when you stand in strength, you allow others to find you. And every time you act out of love, whether that’s to a member of your own family or a moment of kindness you express to a stranger, you are telling people around you that it’s okay to give and receive love as well. You are inspiring people to be a new way and to be a new person in the world that constantly seems dark. And in a world that is full of despair, small acts of kindness are radical acts of defiance, and they’re the force that we need to ultimately build the world that we all need.

Tippett: What a joy to be back at On Air Fest and what an honor to bring Vivek Murthy with me.


Murthy: Thank you so much, Krista. Thanks, everyone.

[music: “Eventide” by Gautam Srikishan]

Tippett: Vivek Murthy is the 21st Surgeon General of the United States. He also served in this role from 2014 to 2017. He hosts the podcast House Calls with Dr. Vivek Murthy. And he’s the author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

Special thanks this week to Jemma Rose Brown, Jenny Mills, Scott Newman, Brooke Jones, and Tom Tierney — and the entire team at On Air Fest.

The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Laurén Drommerhausen, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Gautam Srikishan, April Adamson, Ashley Her, Amy Chatelaine, Romy Nehme, Cameron Mussar, Kayla Edwards, Juliana Lewis, and Tiffany Champion.

On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. We are located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. Our closing music was composed by Gautam Srikishan. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

Our funding partners include:

The Hearthland Foundation. Helping to build a more just, equitable and connected America — one creative act at a time.

The Fetzer Institute, supporting a movement of organizations applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.

The George Family Foundation — in support of On Being’s civil conversations and social healing work.

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

Books & Music

Music Played


Vivek Murthy — A Meditation for Moments of Despair, and To Feel Less Alone