Home » Will Wright: Loneliness is Literally Killing Us at TEDxBirmingham (Transcript)

Will Wright: Loneliness is Literally Killing Us at TEDxBirmingham (Transcript)

So that’s my story. And I think many of us have or can recognize similar stories. But what really worries me is that we seem to be going through an epidemic of loneliness.

Since the 1980s, the percentage of people who report being lonely has doubled to 40%. That’s two out of every five people. Now, why is this? Well, I think the nature of relationships has fundamentally changed over the last three decades, and we have yet to adapt. We live in this always-on society that is increasingly becoming ever more always-on, and this is atomizing our relationships, and worse yet removing the traditional forces that caused us to empathize with one another.

And if we’re not forced to empathize, most of us, unfortunately, won’t. That’s because empathy requires being vulnerable, and being vulnerable opens us up to being hurt and being judged. And I don’t know about you all, but I don’t leap out of bed every morning asking to be judged.

Okay. So loneliness is killing us and more and more of us are becoming lonely. So far, so depressing, right?

But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because I want to share an idea that I have on what we can do about this. Now, traditional advice at this point goes something like this: “Hey, if you’re lonely, put down the phone, send fewer emails, turn off social media, and go outside and meet people.”

Um… You know, while that makes sense on a surface level, I actually think it’s a little insensitive. Quite honestly, it’s actually a little inconsiderate. We need our phones, we need emails. I mean, social media has become almost like a public utility at this point.

So it’s unrealistic for us to turn off our always-on society to address this problem. Rather, I think the answer lies more in turning towards the digital connections that we have, and perhaps using them to massively amplify the empathy that we can have for one another.

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Now again, I saw this firsthand; I got a glimpse of it a few years ago on a particularly tough trip as I was saddling up to the bar to wallow in a drink, as was my custom. A friend who I hadn’t seen in a very long time sent me a text message. This friend lived a thousand miles away, but he checked in on me; he was asking how I was doing.

And for whatever reason, that day, I opened up, I shared, I let him know that I was struggling. And he empathized with me via text message, no less. Turns out he had gone through the same pain. But then he took it a step further; he said, “Hey, Will, why don’t you put the drink down and go do something positive? Go for a run.” So I did, and it felt pretty good.

And it felt good not only because I got the endorphins pumping and did something healthy, but also because I was reminded that there was someone out there who actually cared about me, who was connecting with me, and, quite honestly, was holding me accountable.

So I had an idea: If a text message sent to me could help me turn my health around, could a text message sent to someone else help them turn their health around? And could a million text messages sent to a million people help them turn their health around? And could we fundamentally digitalize empathy to present a scalable solution to trends in global chronic disease?

Four years ago, I decided to find out; I quit my job and I co-funded a healthcare start-up built on the idea of digitizing empathy. We hired some of the most empathetic people we could find and we partnered them with people struggling with chronic disease. We then set about sending helpful messages, coaching them, holding them accountable, being cheerleaders for them, and we did so digitally.

We sent text messages, we made phone calls, we wrote caring emails. And we’ve built a process around this to make this repeatable, scalable, and measurable. And while still young, I’m excited to say that it seems to be working. The people we’re working with are reporting significant improvements in their health: they’re improving their mental health, they’re improving their physical health, they’re sleeping more, they’re eating healthier, they’re exercising more.

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Better yet, their diseases are becoming more managed: their diabetes is becoming more managed, their depression is going away, even their experience with cancer is becoming less distressing.

And we’re helping them save money, not only because people who are empowered are better able to access the right care at the right price, but also simply because when you’re healthy, you go to the hospital less. But what’s really exciting is that we’re helping them live longer. Our calculation suggests that we’re adding 12 years of life to every person that we work with. If you multiply that by the roughly 5,000 people we’ve worked with to date, that’s 6,000 years that we’ve added to humanity.

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