Written by our Founder and CEO, the Celebrations Pulse letters aim to engage with our community. By welcoming your ideas and sharing your stories, we want to help you strengthen your relationships with the most important people in your life.
Over the past month, this letter has focused on different aspects of the loneliness epidemic. We’ve touched on the importance of friendship, how the season affects our feeling of isolation, and how once-popular social hubs like churches and bars have made it more difficult to connect.
As I wrote last week, the impact of loneliness is staggering. It contributes to shorter lifespans by increasing the risk of heart disease, depression, and other ailments. On a broader scale, many researchers believe it’s a major contributor to the decline in civil discourse. If we don’t know each other, we’re less willing to compromise and seek out solutions for the common good.
Loneliness is a public crisis in terms of individual health and the collective good. Several public officials, including U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, have made finding solutions a top priority. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers have even introduced legislation aimed at better understanding and ending loneliness.
Late last year, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul took a step in raising awareness. She appointed a familiar name as the state’s – and the country’s – first ambassador to loneliness: Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
A new role for Dr. Ruth
For so many of us, Dr. Ruth is iconic. She is best known for her candid talk about sex – a topic, like loneliness, many people are uncomfortable talking about.
At 95, Dr. Ruth has lived an extraordinary life. She has experienced immense pain and enormous popularity. She lost both parents during the Holocaust. On moving to the United States in 1956, she worked as a maid to pay for her education. She earned a doctorate from Columbia University in 1970 – at the age of 42.
In the 1980s, Dr. Ruth began her legendary career as a sex therapist on radio and television. And the rest, as they say, is history. But after a long and productive career, Dr. Ruth is ready to take on her next challenge: the loneliness epidemic.
A conversation with New York’s loneliness ambassador
I had the wonderful privilege of connecting with Dr. Ruth recently to talk about her new role, the crisis of loneliness, and how we can help those who are lonely. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
You went from being the world’s best-known sex therapist to New York’s new ambassador of loneliness. What prompted you to raise the issue with Gov. Hochul?
I’ve known loneliness, even extreme loneliness, during my 95 years. When I was 10 years old, I was separated from my family and never saw them again. When I was 20, I was caught in a bomb blast and almost died and wondered what would happen to me.
Also, I lost my husband of 35 years to a stroke in 1997. And I’ve been lonely at other times too. So, when I read about the loneliness epidemic, given my history and my experience as a therapist, I knew I had to join the fight against loneliness.
Your story shows that the issue of loneliness is not something new. Why do you suppose it’s receiving so much attention now?
Loneliness is part of the human condition, and everyone has felt it. But today we are seeing it affect large swaths of the population in ways it never did before. The isolation caused by the COVID [pandemic] played a huge role. Young adults should be out, having a good time with their friends, but they’re not. And with people living longer, seniors are finding that they’ve lost most of their friends.
With technology, we’re more connected than we’ve ever been. Why isn’t social media helping us to be less lonely?
In order not to feel lonely, you have to physically be with another person. Being online with someone offers some relief, but not enough. And so many young people aren’t even online with a friend but with strangers and bots. That’s not going to help the situation at all.
How do you approach someone who is lonely?
It doesn’t take much. A smile or a hello will mean a lot to the lonely person. I know people are afraid of getting involved, that if they reach out to a lonely person, they’ll get stuck being their friend and they don’t have the time for that. But there are lots of ways of reaching out that will help the lonely person without risking too much involvement. Certainly, sending flowers is one of those.
What is your advice for helping someone who appears lonely but doesn’t want help?
That’s a tough one because people will get defensive and say they’re not lonely when they are. The first step to curing loneliness is to admit that it’s a problem and then act, but that first step can be very hard for some people. I’m writing a book, The Joy of Connections: 100 Ways to Beat Loneliness and Live a Happier and More Meaningful Life, which will offer many tips about what to do because I know how difficult it can be.
Finally, what advice do you offer to someone who is feeling lonely?
The first thing I advise is to step in front of a mirror and have a talk with yourself. You can accomplish much the same thing by journaling. Or you can turn on the camera on your phone and make a selfie video. The lonely person will discover that once he or she has shined a light on the problem, it will be much easier to deal with it.
Until you admit that you’re lonely, you’ll never be able to get over it. And it’s alright if you cry. Yes, your situation is sad but once you admit the problem you can begin to take steps to cure it.
Thank you, Dr. Ruth, for raising awareness of the loneliness epidemic and bringing not just your expertise, but also your experience to the table as we try to combat this emergency, one person at a time.
All the best,
Celebrating Amazing Moms for Valentine’s
Valentine’s – the worldwide celebration of love – is a little more than two weeks away. This year, we’re paying tribute not only to romantic love, but also motherly love.
In an upcoming Celebrations Pulse, I’ll be featuring Amazing Moms in our community. Please share the stories of your mom and how you’ll be celebrating her next month. I’ll surprise the first 10 stories with a special treat for you to share with the woman who brough you into the world.