Here is the full transcript video game designer Will Wright’s TEDx talk: Loneliness is Literally Killing Us at TEDxBirmingham conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Loneliness is literally killing us by Will Wright at TEDxBirmingham
I’d like to ask you all one question: who here has never, not once in your life, been lonely? Now, I’m not talking about being alone. Being alone is a choice.
People go on hikes alone. People go to the movies alone. Philosophers oftentimes think their best thoughts alone. No, being alone is good. I’m talking about being lonely.
Loneliness is not a choice. It represents a fundamental mismatch between the relationships that we have and those that we want. Loneliness is not good.
And here’s the thing: loneliness is killing us. I’ve worked in public health for over a decade, studying trends in chronic disease, and I can tell you that loneliness puts us at greater risk of developing disease.
People who are struggling with diseases like diabetes, depression, even cancer, oftentimes got those diseases in large part because they were lonely to begin with. In fact, a meta-analysis of 70 peer reviewed journal articles estimated that loneliness is as risky to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
There are many biological and physiological reasons why this is the case, but deep down I think we all understand this. Loneliness is painful, right? It represents a fundamental challenge to our core humanity. We crave human connection.
We crave it almost as much as we crave food, shelter, and sex. And, of course, it’s hard to have sex when you lack human connection, right? And so when we lack human connection, we cope, we find ways to get it, and oftentimes we do that in unhealthy ways.
Now, I think we can all empathize with this a little bit, but I think I’ll share a story of my own struggle with loneliness.
Several years ago, I used to work at an intense place. I worked 70 hours a week, I traveled all the time, and yet, it never felt like it was enough.
I worked every weekend. I worked most vacations. I even sent emails on Christmas Eve, if you can believe it. And predictably, if you do this for not that much time, work gets in the way with friends and loved ones. I was that guy who, if I ever said yes to being invited out to some social function, was in the corner on his Blackberry, checking work emails.
And pretty soon, I stopped getting phone calls, and I got pretty lonely. Now, to cope, I sought acceptance in the only place that I really understood, which was work, and I developed some pretty unhealthy habits to work more. So for me, I slept less so that I could work. I stopped working out so that I could work. And because of the pain I was still feeling, I ate poorly and drank more to numb it.
You don’t have to do this for very long for it to catch up to you. In my case, I gained weight, I got depressed, and I developed this nagging back pain that wouldn’t go away. But worse yet, my doctor sat me down and said, “Will, at 31, you’ve become chronically ill, and you’re going to die sooner as a result.
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.
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.
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.
And we’ve done it by sending a whole heck of a lot of text messages. So I’m excited I believe we can fundamentally reverse trends in loneliness, and as a result of that, change trends in chronic disease. And we don’t have to do this by fundamentally changing the way in which we live and work today. Rather, I think that we can use the digital connections that we have to digitize empathy to address this problem.
We simply have to work at it. But I can’t do it alone, and so my challenge to you is this: If you are lonely, please do something about it. If you don’t, you might end up with a chronic disease sooner than you think. But don’t worry if your life makes it hard to connect with people. The phone in your pocket opens up a universe of people who are there and care for you.
Have faith in that and reach out to them. If, on the other hand, you are trying to help others manage their chronic disease, consider that they are likely lonely. Empathize with them, but do so digitally. You might find it to be a far more efficient solution than you could have imagined.
We need to address loneliness. It is literally killing us. But I believe, with a little ingenuity, we can all have the relationships that we want and need.