Sen. Chris Murphy wants to solve the loneliness epidemic

They admit there’s no quick fix, so they are batting around ideas, from funding community groups to regulating social media, as they grapple with how government can help us break out of our malaise.

“I care about it,” Murphy said. “And I’m willing to spend the time to try to understand it.”

This year, Murphy’s written op-eds on isolation and technology. He’s held roundtables. In July, he introduced legislation with fellow Democrat Tina Smith of Minnesota laying out a government strategy to advance social connection, proposing a White House office, an advisory council, and $5 million in research funding.

Murphy’s taking cues from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who’s also made combating loneliness his cause coming out of the pandemic, holding friendship-building rallies on college campuses and encouraging Americans to reconnect on his “House Calls” podcast.

Recent episodes have explored questions like “Why Are Boys and Men Struggling for Connection?” with American Institute for Boys and Men President Richard Reeves, and subjects such as “Walking a Spiritual Path in a Lonely World” with Rainn Wilson, the actor who played the socially awkward Dwight Schrute on “The Office.”

In Utah, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox used public records to make a list of strangers with one common characteristic, like couples married for more than 50 years, or people who held lifetime fishing licenses. Then he invited them to a dinner party at the governor’s mansion as part of a campaign to encourage kindness.

Back in Washington, Rep. Mike Flood, a small-town Nebraskan elected in a 2022 special election after hosting a television show called “Quarantine Tonight,” has proposed a resolution endorsing Murthy’s mission and he plans to introduce legislation soon tasking the Department of Health and Human Services with gathering more data on Americans’ social isolation.

“It’s obvious to me that social connection equals health,” he said.

‘It was a language they understood’

Murphy explained his philosophy during a two-mile stroll through the business district and decaying south end of his hometown, the state capital, Hartford. He walked along the overgrown sidewalk dotted with Red Stripe beer bottles and talked with anyone on his route about their day-to-day problems, such as being unable to afford housing and needing better jobs.

Unshaven and outfitted in athletic gear for his annual walk across his state, Murphy was emphatic that despite being an imperfect messenger, he felt compelled to lead.

“What the government is supposed to do is create the rules of the economy and society, which makes it easier for us all to live happier, healthier, fuller lives,” he said.

While Murphy worries about America’s unmooring, he maintains that it’s not personal.

Yes, he’s worried about his pre-teen and teenage sons and their friends, who are grappling with how to have healthy relationships with technology.

He suspects there’s a connection, if only a weak one, between loneliness and gun violence, which he cares about deeply after responding to the school shooting at Sandy Hook a decade ago. And he’s confused. Even with a growing economy and record low unemployment, his constituents say they feel shaky about their lives and the country despite legislation Democrats passed last year aimed at helping them.

Lawmakers need to back up and figure out what’s going on, he said.

A hint came when he published an op-ed on loneliness on the conservative news site The Bulwark last year and got more positive feedback in Connecticut than anything he’d ever written on foreign policy, guns or health care. It made him question his approach as a lawmaker. “It was a language they understood. Their kids are lonely. They’re feeling lonely,” he told a forum on building connected communities at Harvard in October.

As Murphy sees it, Americans feel exhausted and overwhelmed. They’re working longer and can’t disconnect from their jobs. They have fewer friends and it’s harder to carve out time for those they do have. They’re exhausted by how fast technology is evolving and the unforeseen mental health impacts of social media, leaving them — and their kids — vulnerable.

He sees an opportunity for bipartisan work in that shared reality.

Murphy’s first attempt at loneliness policy, the “National Strategy for Social Connection Act,” was born out of those realizations. The bill calls for creating an office of social connection, with a director who would advise the president and create a national strategy combining public health, technology and social infrastructure to foster social connection. An advisory council with members from the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Veterans Affairs, Education, Commerce and other agencies would help assess and implement the plan.

So far, it’s just an idea. A step. Murphy is the first to say he doesn’t have all the answers.

“I will admit that I don’t know how much of the decline in friendship and increase in loneliness is reversible. But I don’t think the answer is to not try.”

‘Hey, I’m feeling a bit down today’

Loneliness is associated with a raft of physical and mental health problems, some life-threatening.

A growing body of evidence links loneliness and isolation to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression and anxiety.

While suicide is complex, with no single cause, more than 100 years of research suggest a strong link between suicide and lack of social connection. In a systematic review of 40 studies on older adults an increase in loneliness was one of the primary motivations behind self-harm.

Those forces cost the U.S. $6.7 billion in excess Medicare spending and $154 billion in stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness each year, according to research Murthy has cited.

His recent surgeon general’s advisory report warned that loneliness and isolation pose a profound threat to the nation’s health and well-being.

Such advisories aren’t issued frivolously or frequently.

A few have influenced the course of public health, like Surgeon General Luther Terry’s 1964 report on cigarettes, which is credited with changing Americans’ perceptions of smoking.

“Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis,” Murthy wrote in the report.

He’s a very different messenger from Murphy, more soft-spoken and introspective — Murthy describes a good Saturday morning as one that begins with yoga and meditation followed by work besides his slumbering cat.

At the moment, he’s on a social connection tour for college students, where he’s asking them to join what he calls the 5-for-5 connection challenge: five actions to forge connection — like expressing gratitude, offering support or asking for help — for five days.

During a phone conversation in August he described loneliness as a “very personal” issue for him, something he’s struggled with many times, both during childhood, when he felt intensely ashamed of being lonely, and as an adult during his first tenure as surgeon general when Barack Obama was president.

He has a plan and tools for helping him through lonely moments. He’s built a few close friendships over the years with people he can confide in, and on bad days, he’ll reach out with a phone call or a text: “Hey, I’m feeling a bit down today. Would love to connect or talk.”

“They respond because we’ve talked about this before,” he said. “We’ve built an understanding that we all actually from time to time struggle with loneliness and we can be there for each other.”

Murthy has big-picture plans for addressing loneliness, outlined in the advisory report, including a six-pillar plan for building social connection.

Public policy is the second pillar.

Policymakers should recognize that every policy is infused with social connection choices, the report said, from transportation to zoning to nutrition to labor. The reverse is also true. “Government has a responsibility to use its authority to monitor and mitigate the public health harm caused by policies, products, and services that drive social disconnection,” the report said.

‘We haven’t tried’

But while Murthy can proselytize and suggest, Murphy can propose and help make law.

“He and I can make a pretty good team on this,” Murphy said of Murthy, explaining that there’s also a limit to what the surgeon general can do. “He can’t go out and build a political coalition. He can’t do hand-to-hand combat inside the Congress.”

There, Murphy sees a need for more social media regulation, economic policy to provide more free time and direct support for the types of social organizations people used to belong to in droves.

While he expects difficulty in directing money to barber shops or bowling alleys, he sees growing consensus around regulating social media.

On that, Murphy has proposed a bipartisan bill with Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Katie Britt (R-Ala.) to regulate teenagers’ access to Facebook, TikTok and other sites, and ban kids younger than 13 from the platforms.

“There’s no question that it’s not too late to properly regulate social media,” Murphy said. “We haven’t tried.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Flood also sees a role for Congress. The success of his nightly variety show during the pandemic brought home for him people’s need to connect.

He got more than 4,000 handwritten letters in response to the show, he said, a good number of them from widows. They wrote to tell him how sad and isolated they were. They missed their husbands. They weren’t talking with anyone. Some waited all day for the mail carrier to come.

It recalled for Flood his dad’s isolation after his mother passed away.

But “Quarantine Tonight” brought his audience joy. They felt like part of a community, they wrote, and that they still mattered.

After the surgeon general’s advisory, Flood proposed a resolution that would recognize loneliness’ role in public health. “I dipped my toe in the water,” he said. Soon, he plans to dip further, by introducing companion legislation with another Nebraska Republican, Sen. Pete Ricketts, who serves on the Special Committee on Aging.

Flood’s bill is narrower than Murphy’s, focusing on collecting data before investing in policy. His focus, on isolated older Americans, is narrower too. The bill calls on Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to convene a working group to develop unified definitions for loneliness and isolation and how to measure them.

“I’m intentionally not at the solution phase,” Flood said. “This is the necessary first step, so that when we do get the data, we can act upon it.”

‘Another way to feel less lonely’

By any measure, Murphy has led a charmed life.

But when he started at the elite Williams College, he felt mediocre, he said. So did jumping into politics, even though Murphy won his first seat in the Connecticut statehouse when he was just 25 and joined the U.S. Senate at 39 after winning a 2012 election to replace Joe Lieberman.

“My experience over the past 10 years has more been one of managing a crippling fear of failure,” he said, mentioning his work combating gun violence. “I’ve often felt very frightened that I’m not going to be able to deliver.”

To help, he’s making an effort to broaden his social circle.

“We’ve become so obsessed with our own success and individual achievement and wealth. We’ve lost a sense that we should feel better the healthier our community is doing,” he said.

In Hartford, Murphy stopped across the street from a red-brick building topped with a cross. “It’s convenient that we’re walking by my new church,” he said. Over the past two years, Murphy’s joined not one, but two churches, one in Hartford and one in Washington, where his wife and kids live. He said he wants to meet people he wouldn’t normally connect with through work or his personal life.

“Churches are places that I think do a good job of speaking that language,” he said. “That’s another way to feel less lonely.”

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