I’m pretty new to town – maybe you are too? I’m so glad to be in Urbana-Champaign and am enjoying new things to experience here – a big prairie sky at sunset, Jarling’s Custard Cup, and learning about all of the incredible research and learning happening here at the U of I (do you know all the things you all are working on?), but even with all of these good things I sometimes feel the lack of connections that threaded me into the community I left to come here.
The reality of grad school and the kinds of jobs many people get after grad school means that moving to new communities is often a fact of life. And moving to a new place means renegotiating what one’s community looks like (How do I stay in touch with people I care about? How do I make a new friend?) and dealing with the loneliness that can bring up.
Perhaps that is why this live conversation-turned-podcast exploring the benefits of human connections and community struck a chord. There is a gentleness with which Krista Tippett (the longtime host of the On Being podcast) and Vivek Murthy (the 21st Surgeon General of the United States) named the individual and collective traumas so many of us experienced during the height of the pandemic and then offered both practical and visionary ways to move forward from loneliness that can lead to despair to building our connections with one another.
Their vision for the importance of human connection and its benefits for physical and mental health and fulfilling lives feels important for those of us who have uprooted our lives to pursue education, and who will likely go on to work with and teach folks who might have also uprooted their lives.
I appreciated that even though the conversation was philosophical and wide-ranging, Vivek Murthy offers four concrete things to try if you are curious about some practical ways to build connections in your life. He says: “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.” Here’s what he suggests:
1. Spend 15 minutes a day connecting with somebody you care about.
There are some additional guidelines for this idea: The connections don’t have to be in person. They can include calls and messages. And he particularly focuses on connecting with people you love who aren’t the people you live with.
2. Give people your full attention when you talk to them.
This is the dreaded advice about putting your phone down when you are in person. It’s so hard! But it is interesting to experiment with this idea and to pay attention to when you’re engaging with people and when you’re looking at your phone.
3. Find opportunities to serve others.
Here, he highlights the connections we make to others and ourselves when we help other people. He says: “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.” Serving others doesn’t have to be a weekly volunteering gig (though it could be), it could be taking a moment to help someone new to campus find their building or offering advice on course selection or TA opportunities.
4. Practice solitude.
How is this a solution to loneliness, you ask? Murthy has an answer: “...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. 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.”
Those are a few bits of the conversation that really stood out to me, and here’s the link to the podcast (and transcript), if you’d like to listen to the whole thing. Vivek Murthy offers some thoughts on why these simple steps toward connection can be incredibly important in our lives:
“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. ...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.
“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.
Since I listened to this conversation, I have tried to cultivate more connection in my life. I have tried to be more intentional about being in touch with people I care about – even if it is just through the eight-minute phone call. When opportunities to nudge acquaintanceships toward friendship arise, I have given myself a pep talk to push through my awkward feelings because connection is good for my mental and physical health. I have not, however, transformed into a person who never checks their phone when present with other humans. I’m working on it. Maybe there is something from this conversation you’d like to experiment with, too? Please let me know what you think if you listen.
Andrea Bridges is the Wellbeing and Community Coordinator in the Graduate College. Andrea earned degrees from Gordon College and Duke University. You can often find her in the garden or at a youth sporting event.