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As a resident, I took care of a patient in the medical intensive care unit in her early 60s, whom I’ll call Valentina. When I met her, her large frame lay sprawled out, motionless, on her bed. I saw Valentina every day for weeks, yet I never heard her voice. She’d been intubated with a breathing tube for respiratory failure before I arrived on the unit. She never had visitors.
Then, one afternoon, a woman named Constance turned up. She brought a photo of a younger Valentina, decked out in a red velvet dress on stage at the opera. “I was her assistant for years until she fired me,” Constance explained. “She was one of the most renowned opera singers — and one of the most difficult people.” Constance sat with Valentina for some time that day, but only visited once. The following week, Valentina took her last breath without an audience. The tragedy of her final act haunted me.
Over the years, I’ve cared for patients who’ve achieved phenomenal professional success, yet spent their last days solo. Often the person has admirers from a distance, but they don’t go the distance by their side. Support, after all, is both the number of friends one has, and the quality of those connections.
While Valentina’s death certificate didn’t state it, I’ve wondered if loneliness contributed to her early demise. As I discuss in my book, The Rabbit Effect, evidence shows that chronic loneliness is as risky to one’s health as obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or heavy alcohol use. A life lived disconnected from others increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and premature death. We’ve just begun to recognize the loneliness epidemic in America, and much less discussed are the severe and often unrecognized physical ramifications of neglecting our mental health.
So what can we do?
It turns out that the antidote for loneliness is all around us. It’s in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our schools, and our broader community. Decades of public health research show that if we improve positive connections to others in these often overlooked areas of everyday life, we’ll feel better, live longer, and lead healthier lives.
While doctors may not often prescribe it, supportive friendships are powerful medicine. Time spent with loved ones can activate immune functioning, boost mood, and reduce pain, inflammation, and cortisol levels. Good friends make the bad times better, protect us against infections, and help us live longer with chronic illness. An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but a good friend also helps us mend.
Here are three ways that you can create more positive connections to others:
1. Practice kindness — It can be harder to be kind to yourself than to others, so start with others. Little acts of kindness are as important as grand gestures, and can boost your mood. Look for opportunities to do something unexpectedly lovely. Buy a friend a cup of coffee or flowers, give a compliment, offer to walk your neighbor’s dog, or ask a cashier how her day is going. If you have more time, volunteer or organize a park cleanup or mural painting in your neighborhood. Check out the daily kindness calendar from Action for Happiness (https://www.actionforhappiness.org/) for more ideas. I use it with my kids.
2. Put down your phone (or pick it up and call a friend) — Aim to increase your face-to-face time with people you care about, and please put away your phones when you’re together. Give a child, spouse, or friend the gift of full attention to boost existing connections. Plus, research shows that even having your phone on the table distracts from engaging with the person in front of you. If you live alone, call a friend to say hi. Ask to meet up for coffee or lunch if you’re nearby. Even if they say no, just reaching out is a success. Or write a quick note of gratitude to a person who’s helped you. When someone crosses my mind, I try to take a minute to text to say hi or to say I’m thinking of them, no response required.
3. Take a class or teach one — A lifelong learning habit is one of the best ways to boost your brain function and connect with others. It can be a one-off event or a recurring activity. Check out a walking tour, take a cooking class, or try a new workout. On my book tour, I’ve met people who go every Thursday evening to check out the speaker at a favorite local bookshop. There is power in just showing up. Airbnb now offers one-of-a-kind local “experiences.” You can explore new neighborhoods with an insider, learn aerial moves with a circus star, or finally track down that elusive world’s best pizza slice. Check out your local library for free ideas too. If you have a hobby or area of interest, offer to lead a class. Learn even more by teaching others.
One final note: Kindness takes bravery. Reaching out to another human being requires vulnerability. But also remember that loneliness is universal. No matter how successful or Instafamous a person is, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone you suspect could use a check-in. While setting limits is healthy, let’s pledge to support each other. Years later, I still think about Valentina. I’ll never know what drama unfolded in the opera of her life, but I do know that if you have the chance, you should belt out a duet. You’ll be healthier and happier for it.
Kelli Harding, M.D., M.P.H. is the author of THE RABBIT EFFECT: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness (on sale now; Atria, Hardcover). For more information on where to find Kelli on book tour, check out kellihardingmd.com.
This content is informational and educational, and it does not replace medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a health professional. We encourage you to speak with your health-care provider about your individual needs, or visit NAMI for more information.
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