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TED Radio Hour Offers A Show About Loneliness During The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Fear, uncertainty, grief - there are plenty of challenging emotions to go around during this pandemic. And here's another big one - loneliness. I know I'm certainly struggling with that as someone who lives alone. I mean, we are all interacting with fewer people than we're used to, and that can take a real toll on your mental health. So to that end, our colleagues at the TED Radio Hour have put together a show exploring loneliness and how to best cope with it. Joining us now is the host of the TED Radio Hour, Manoush Zomorodi. Hey, Manoush.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I loved how you guys came at this topic from a bunch of different angles. Like...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

CHANG: One that I was really struck by was a conversation with a developmental psychologist. Her name's Susan Pinker. And she talks about how loneliness is actually really bad for you, I mean, not just mentally or emotionally but also physically.

ZOMORODI: That is right. So Susan Pinker specifically studies loneliness, how people who actually have consistent contact with other people live longer. And, you know, part of it - it's not a surprise, right, Ailsa? We humans are a social species.

CHANG: Yes.

ZOMORODI: We need handshakes and hugs.

CHANG: Yes.

ZOMORODI: We need to look each other in the eyes to connect. And actually, when we have that face-to-face connection, our brains release neurotransmitters that act like vaccines. They protect our health. And so loneliness hurts as an individual, but, you know, it's not good on a macro level, either. So here's how Susan puts it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUSAN PINKER: It's a huge problem because real social contact is a biological need like eating, drinking or sleeping, and our bodies react to the loss of that interaction the way we react to hunger. It's physically painful. It's damaging. It's even dangerous long-term.

ZOMORODI: So as I mentioned, Susan says social connection is actually key to living a longer life, and that is something to think about since around a third of the population says that they have two or fewer people to lean on in tough times like now.

CHANG: I mean, that is so hard right now. And even before all this social distancing, I noticed that she was saying that loneliness was already a public health problem. So I guess what I'm wondering now is, how much worse is this public health problem?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So I mean, look, Ailsa. You are not alone in living alone.

CHANG: (Laughter) That's sort of comforting but not really.

ZOMORODI: Single-person households make up about one out of every four households in the U.S. But Susan Pinker is particularly concerned about how all of us - we have shifted most of our socializing to our screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PINKER: Digital contact is not helping. Actually, it's making us more lonely, and we're getting more and more evidence that shows that it's really not a good replacement for face-to-face contact.

CHANG: No, it's not. That's exactly what I'm feeling right now.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHANG: Like, email and Slack - none of that even comes close...

ZOMORODI: No.

CHANG: ...To physical, face-to-face contact. But we have no choice right now. So much of our lives are trapped in these digital interactions. So what does she advise we do?

ZOMORODI: OK. So she says - and I hear this from a lot of different experts - you know, try to engage as many of your senses as you can. Like, don't text or chat. If you can hear someone's voice on the phone or you can see their face on a video call where you can actually respond to each other in real time - and look. Like, none of these platforms are perfect, but right now - and Susan agrees - like, it is better than nothing.

CHANG: You also spoke with a very different sort of expert, someone with firsthand experience with isolation. I found her fascinating.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, me too. OK, so writer Suleika Jaouad - when she was 22, she was diagnosed with leukemia. And for the next few years, she had to be isolated in the hospital during her cancer treatment. And actually, what this meant was that lockdown - you know, it's new for most of us. It is not new for Suleika. But she actually had an interesting workaround when she was stuck in the hospital. She and her parents came up with this idea for a hundred-day project. And what that meant was that every day, they did one thing that was creative - anything that was creative, big or small. And here's what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SULEIKA JAOUAD: My mom who's an artist decided to paint a small ceramic tile every day. My dad decided to write a short childhood memory about growing up in Tunisia. And I decided to return to what I'd always sort of done from the time I was a child but especially in difficult moments, which was journaling.

ZOMORODI: By the way, Suleika is better - completely cured. She is in isolation, though, because she is immunocompromised. But what she's decided to do is launch another project for anyone to join into. It is called The Isolation Journals. And every day, if you sign up, you'll get a writing prompt because she is hoping that people find a way of turning their loneliness into something that feels more like solitude because there really is a difference. Here's how she describes it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAOUAD: Loneliness is something that often feels not just difficult but involuntary. And I think the shift from that to solitude, which, you know - solitude is something that can feel not just extraordinarily generative and empowering, but it's something that we choose.

CHANG: When it's a choice, that is what makes a world of difference.

JAOUAD: Hopefully.

CHANG: Manoush Zomorodi is the host of the TED Radio Hour, and you can find that wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much, Manoush.

ZOMORODI: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.