Nov 30, 2023 - Podcasts

Laurie Santos: Finding connection in lonely times

According to the Surgeon General, about one in two American adults report experiencing loneliness. As self-help voices continue cropping up in every corner of the internet on staving off loneliness and finding happiness, Laurie Santos of Yale--host of The Happiness Lab podcast--brings a scientific perspective. She says research tell us we're bad at knowing what makes us feel good, but that getting better at it could have far-reaching consequences for society as a whole: "Ultimately, social connection really needs to be our bottom line in terms of public health."

Finding connection in lonely times: Why it may matter more than we ever realized.

Guests: Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast; Erica Pandey, author of the Axios Finish Line newsletter

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Alex Sugiura, and Fonda Mwangi. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.

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DR. LAURIE SANTOS: "Loneliness is as bad for us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day."

NIALA BOODHOO: Finding connection in lonely times. Does it matter more than we ever realized?

LAURIE SANTOS: "Ultimately, social connection really needs to be our bottom line in terms of public health."

I'm Niala Boodhoo. From Axios, this is 1 big thing.

A few weeks ago on the podcast I talked with Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy about how social media is contributing to the declining mental health of young people in the U.S. Thanks to the many of you who reached out to us about grappling within this as parents.

This got us thinking about an overlapping crisis that affects a huge swath of us, regardless of age, and one that's also been front and center for public health experts, especially in the last few years. That's loneliness.

Nearly 40% of Americans rated their mental health as only fair or poor, toward the end of last year--that's according to the American Psychiatric Association--and according to the Surgeon General, about one in two American adults report experiencing loneliness.

Not surprisingly, one result of all this is even more self-help voices emerging in every corner of the internet, from TikTok to instagram to podcasts and beyond--talking about staving off loneliness and finding happiness.

Well one of those voices is rooted in science and has been around for years. Dr. Laurie Santos is a Professor of Psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast.

LAURIE: "We're pretty bad at predicting what makes us feel good. A lot of us are putting a lot of work into feeling better and feeling happier, but we're going about it the wrong way because we don't know the stuff to go for."

NIALA: Dr. Santos became known for her now extraordinarily famous course at Yale, Psychology and the Good Life, which put her front and center of conversations around cultivating happiness in our modern world…and connecting to combat loneliness and isolation. And people are clearly seeking out that help… her podcast The Happiness Lab has been downloaded more than 90 million times since it launched in 2019.

I asked her to sit down with me to talk about how we can do this better - and how to foster connection in this moment…

Hi Laurie! Welcome to 1 big thing!

LAURIE: Yeah, thanks so much for having me on the show.

NIALA: Laurie, let's start with loneliness….when we're talking about this, what do we mean. Is it about a lack of interaction with other people?

LAURIE: I think you can think of loneliness in three different ways, and a lot of scholars think of it like this. So there's this kind of interpersonal loneliness, which is kind of like, I don't really have a best friend, right? I don't really have somebody that I can talk to about big issues, right? I think there's also a kind of what you might call relational loneliness, right?

Which is that I don't have like a crew of people that I just like go hang out with, I don't like do things socially. I don't engage in dinner parties, these kinds of things. But then there's also a sense of real community loneliness, Where there's not kind of... Bigger groups that are doing meaningful things together, you know, think of civic organizations like the Lions Club, you know, engaging in church organizations, things like that.

You know, there's just lots of evidence that those kinds of community connections are going down. And so I think when we're thinking about loneliness, we often mean it at those three different levels,

And I think the remedy is that we need to be solving loneliness on all three of those levels. All of them affect our psychology and all of them honestly affect, I think, our politics and our civic engagements.

NIALA: How much of that connection or that support needs to be in person versus virtual?

LAURIE: Yeah, this is a great question, and I think by and large, the research really suggests that what seems to matter the most is that we're connecting in real time.

You know, you and I are having this conversation right now over Zoom. And so we're not in the same room. We can't like hug one another or really see one another closely. But because we're connecting in real time, it kind of feels like we're having an ongoing conversation, right? I can read your emotions in real time. I can kind of tell what you're talking about. I think the problem is that a lot of our online connection isn't in real time. It's that I text you and like five minutes later, you text me back or I'm scrolling through a social media feed that you posted something on weeks ago, that you might not even be paying attention to. And so I think, you know, while of course in real life connection is best if you can get it, that's what we're evolved for primates, it seems like the real nutritional value comes from the in real time. And so there are lots of technological ways we can do that, which is awesome.

It means that you can connect with your ride-or-die bestie, you know, even if they're living across the country. It means that you can form smaller community groups, book clubs and things like that on Zoom and they work, you know, kind of just as good as in- person.

NIALA: When we look at headlines that say, like, last year we had the highest number ever of Americans who took their own lives, or when we look at numbers of opioid overdose deaths. Are we making the right connections between loneliness and its role that it can play in mental health?

LAURIE: Well, I think that role is becoming clearer and clearer. I think experts are realizing that when you look at things like deaths of despair, yeah, there might be addiction issues and substance issues, often poverty issues and structural issues. But on top of that, you often have the psychological issue of loneliness.

Loneliness is one of the things that causes people, you know, to potentially engage in addictive tendencies, right? Just because you're kind of not feeling good. Loneliness feels really quite terrible, right? Loneliness, I think also is just a really terrible health stressor. It's actually worse as a public health problem than the obesity crisis because loneliness actually affects things like our immune function, our level of heart disease, our ability to recover if we have a terminal illness or something terrible like cancer. And so I think it's really important to start thinking about thinking of loneliness, not as this kind of, oh, it's a sort of problem. It'd be nice to solve it and improve social connection. Ultimately, social connection really needs to be our bottom line in terms of public health.

I think we need to solve for that first, and interestingly, a lot of the other problems we're talking about, deaths of despair and so on, I think those things will get better as a result of focusing on connection.

NIALA: Can you explain a little bit more about how connection also doesn't just fight loneliness but also fosters joy and how important that is for our well being?

LAURIE: Yeah, I think this is something that we often forget, which is that just, like, having a random conversation with somebody makes us happy. One of my favorite experiments on this comes from the University of Chicago psychologist Nick Epley, where he did this study where he just asked people on trains to just chat with a stranger.

And he had people predict, how would this make you feel? And people predicted that this was not just going to be neutral for their joy, they predicted it was going to feel awkward and terrible. It was going to feel yucky. But when people actually engaged in those conversations, they wound up increasing their positive emotion in ways they didn't expect, and this was true for introverts and for extroverts.

So I think this tells us two things. One is that just chatting with people, just feeling like you're connected, makes us feel more joyful. It increases our positive emotion. It feels good. But the second thing his study tells us is that we don't realize that. You know, we're often in a position where we're kind of feeling crappy, you know, I've watched, you know, the latest terrible news about what's taking place in the Middle East or what's going on with climate change and I feel yucky and I'm motivated to do something that will make me feel better, but often I think that's like, plopping down to watch TV or like, eating something delicious or like what I could just do is reach out to a friend.

And that will make me feel better. The next time you're tempted to, you know, treat yourself to a cupcake or a latte, you know, treat someone else to the same kind of thing and enjoy the benefit of that.

Even something as simple as complimenting a stranger can be the kind of thing that gives us a well-needed boost in well being. And so, I think we often forget the power of social connection for making us feel good and making other people feel good, too. This is a bias that researchers like Nick Epley call undersociality. We're kind of mistaken in our beliefs of how good social connection feels, and that means we don't really engage in it nearly as much as we should to feel better.

NIALA: In fact, in that same study... I feel like I remember talking to Nick about this when I was first starting out in Chicago. Even smiling at people makes you feel better, right? You don't even have to talk to them. You could just smile at strangers on the train.

LAURIE: Exactly. I mean, I was walking over here for this podcast interview and lots of schools were getting out on my street and I just happened to make eye contact with, you know, this high school student that was coming out and she smiled and I smiled. And that was just, again, a little tiny moment of positive joy.

I think another thing is that we have a mistaken idea about how happiness works. We think it has to be this big thing that, you know, we get some enormous, you know, promotion at work or some enormous vacation. But, but really the better metaphor is for happiness is it's kind of like a leaky tire and you need to sort of fill it up with these tiny moments and those tiny social moments mean a lot for our positive emotion.

NIALA: More with Yale's Dr. Laurie Santos, coming up in a moment.

Welcome back to 1 big thing, from Axios. I'm Niala Boodhoo. I've been talking with Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast, about how critical social connection is to our health as individuals…and as a society.

Laurie, I want to get a kind of reality check on what we've been talking about here. There's a whole industry now of podcasts and self help books and things that claim to help us find happiness. And I think some people might be really skeptical about what you're saying, right?

Now you're not an influencer. You are a scientist. So I wonder if you can give us some more examples of how cognitive science and psychological insights are actually applicable here. Like you mentioned Nick Epley's research…are there other specific examples that explain why this social connection really works?

LAURIE: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, the biggest insight that I think we're getting about happiness kind of empirically, like in terms of the research, is that we're pretty bad at predicting what makes us feel good, right? You know, we assume it's much more money or more accolades or changing our circumstances.

And, and I think that, you know, it is true that getting more money will make you happier if you don't have very much money, right? If you're living below the poverty line, of course, you know, universal income and these things matter. But for a lot of us, getting more money isn't really going to be the thing that helps us.

Getting more time, for example, taking time off work would probably make us much happier than kind of getting more hours at work and making more money, right? I think the same thing is true of social connection. There's just so much evidence that we just don't realize the power of social connection.

And I think this is one of the reasons that Kind of learning more about happiness, can be so powerful. It's because we have these mistaken intuitions. A lot of us are putting a lot of work into feeling better and feeling happier, but we're going about it the wrong way because we don't know the stuff to go for.

You know, I see this in my students at Yale who, you know, are constantly, not getting the right enough social connection because they're working so hard, not getting enough sleep, not getting enough exercise. And they're doing it to get, you know, perfect grades, which we know are not going to make them happy.

In fact, there's actually an inverse correlation between grades and happiness. So the better grades you get, often the more unhappy you are as a student, right? And so I think this is all about these misconceptions we have and what What this kind of training in happiness science can help us with is to get it right, is to say, okay, well, what does the research really show will make me feel better right now?

And then when you get those insights, you can start putting things into practice more. So you can learn, actually, I'm feeling kind of crummy, calling a friend will make me feel better. Chatting with the barista, you know, at the coffee shop will make me feel good. trying to engage a book club, even though that takes a little bit of a start-up cost, will ultimately deliver more joy than I'm expecting.

NIALA: Do you think in a way talking about it may actually make people feel worse? Just because there's so much conversation about this?

LAURIE: Yeah, I think the key is that we need to talk about happiness in the right way. I think another misconception we have is that happiness and a flourishing life, not even to take happiness, but kind of living a good life involves no negative emotion at any time, right? So people think if I'm feeling stressed or anxious or frustrated or sad about what's going on in the world, there's something wrong, like I'm doing something wrong.

And I think, you know, good happiness podcasts and, you know, what I like to teach my students is that negative emotions are essential. There are these really important signals that are showing us which direction we need to go in and we need to pay attention to them. Right. We wouldn't, we wouldn't have a flourishing life if it meant no sadness or anger or frustration.

It's just kind of part of the human condition. And so I think, you know, these, I think there can be this sort of. feeling of like toxic positivity of like, Oh, I hear about happiness all the time. I'm just not achieving it. But again, we need to think about happiness in the right way, where it really is about a decent ratio of positive to negative emotions.

And as we've been talking about, there's so many things you can do to increase your positive emotions. But it's not about getting rid of negative emotions. I think especially in the tough times we're dealing with. negative emotions are normative. We need to pay attention to them because they're signaling changes that we need to make.

But we also need some good strategies for regulating those emotions. And I think the happiness science can give us some of those as well.

NIALA: You were very open about your own struggle with burnout and the time you took away to reset. In fact, the last time you and I spoke was right before you took that break. What did you do during your time off to get back to a better place?

LAURIE: Well, honestly, it was really about engaging more social connection. Um, you know, I moved to a town that I went to graduate school in and had lots of friends in, lots of friends who were kind of Outside, you know, my job at Yale who are not academics and I just made sure I had some free time to engage in those social connections.

I think time is another barrier to socially connecting. I think we do have more time than we think, um, but we need to sort of feel free enough to kind of engage with these social connections. So for me it was really about going back to the basics of what the happiness science talks about, which honestly is really getting in a lot more social time.

NIALA: The Surgeon General has suggested that combating loneliness is one way of healing divides. Even along political lines, how much do you think personally that Americans fostering more connections can help our society overall?

I think the Surgeon General's really onto something here. think about what happens when you're feeling lonely, right? You're drawn to just like pay attention to stuff on social media, for example, I think you're just much more influenced by kind of just strong emotions generally. If you're feeling kind of down, right, you're going to be more drawn to political posts that are maybe inflammatory or kind of pushing you to one side.

And I think that if you're feeling lonely, it's really easy to get drawn into groups that maybe make you feel like you belong, even if the values of those groups might not align, you know, so I think even the kind of development of things like terrorist organizations and so on, they're doing awful things, but the folks in those organizations often get a sense of belonging that might be missing in their general life.

And so I think there's really reason to suspect that some of the divide we're seeing of just people paying attention to these echo chambers comes because people are lonely and they're not getting their social connection in real life. I also think that loneliness. At the community level means that we're not engaging civically in the way that we used to in ways that allow us to kind of cross political lines.

I talked with Robert Putnam, who wrote the book Bowling Alone Back in the Day, where he argued that, you know, back in the fifties and sixties, there were all these kinds of groups, like the Lions Club or the Barbers Shop, where people could get together that weren't necessarily from the same political organization, right.

Who, who had different. income levels with different identities, right? There were these so called third places where people got together. And these days there aren't as many of those. and that means two things. One is that you tend not to meet a real live human who might disagree with you politically, as opposed to kind of somebody who's posting on Twitter or X, things that you're not.

Really agreeing with, but it also means that there are not spots where you can develop solutions, right? Having the right conversations to figure out, okay, what are policies where we do agree, right? Where, where are spots where we can really see eye to eye? And so I think that solving loneliness, both at the individual level and at the community level, can have really important civic and even political consequences that are really positive, not just for us as individuals, but that will be positive for our country too.

NIALA: I actually wanted to end by asking you about one joyous thing. Like what is one thing that always brings you joy, something that you know you can always turn to?

LAURIE: Yeah, this is a little, like, kind of slightly silly and outdated, um, but I'm a huge fan of Guitar Hero, like the old PlayStation game, where you just kind of, play these ridiculous rock songs. And I'm not necessarily great at it, but it's very physical, right? I'm just, like, totally in flow the whole time as I'm singing these silly songs, and I can pick, you know, these Terrible songs that I love from the 80s.

And honestly, sometimes when I'm having a bad day, my PlayStation is like hooked up in my house when I'm working from home. And in between Zoom meetings, I'll just go play a quick, you know, Motley Crue, kickstart my heart or just something. and it always makes me feel better and it's great because it's a hack that's like a five minute hack, which are the kinds of things you really need.

NIALA: Motley Crue, huh?

LAURIE: Yeah. I mean, other songs too, but that's, that's a nice go to.

NIALA: Dr. Laurie Santos is a psychology professor at Yale, host of the Happiness Lab podcast. Thank you so much for your time.

LAURIE: Thanks so much for having me on the show.


NIALA: And an update from Washington: lawmakers are increasingly taking note of the problem of loneliness too. Axios Pro's Victoria Knight reports that the "Improving Measurements for Loneliness and Isolation" Act is a new bipartisan effort…it directs the Department of Health and Human Services to create a working group to provide recommendations on how to define and measure loneliness and isolation. There's a link to Victoria's piece in our show notes.

One last thing before we go. As we consider how to foster more social connection in our lives, let's take a moment to think about intergenerational friendships. Data suggest they're not common…but that the potential perks are real. I asked Axios' Erica Pandey why these kinds of relationships matter.

ERICA PANDEY:  So most of us have friends that are pretty much right around our age. In fact, only about one in three Americans say they have a friend who is at least 15 years younger or older than them. That's according to AARP. But the people who do say they have intergenerational friendships say they get a lot out of them.

Younger people say their older friends inspire them and act as role models, and it goes the other way, too. Older people with younger friends say that those friends boost their energy, make them feel valued, and keep them up on trends. People are most likely to meet their friends from other generations at work, so that's about 26 percent of people meet their friends there, or at church or a temple.

And people also say that these friendships are likely to stand the test of time. Most of the people who say they have intergenerational friendships say they've lasted over a decade. We actually asked readers of my newsletter, Axios Finish Line, if they have friends from other generations, and if so, what they've gotten out of those friendships over the years.

We got so many responses, and people said that older friends acted as second parents to them when they moved to new cities. People said that younger friends showed them new spots in their own city that they hadn't heard of, and helped them connect with their kids. And then people said that older friends helped them navigate really difficult phases of life, like dealing with a child with depression, or dealing with divorce, because they had already walk those paths.

So the bottom line is these friendships may not be that common, but when you do stumble upon one, it'll probably be precious.

NIALA: That's reporter Erica Pandey. She writes the Axios Finish Line newsletter.

And that's all for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing. You can always send feedback by texting me at 202 918 4893 - or emailing podcasts @

The 1 Big Thing team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Alex Suigura, who also composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Next week, I'll be bringing you the show from the UN Climate Conference, COP 28, in Dubai. There will also be tons of other great conversations coming out of our Axios House events. We'll put a link in our show notes where you can find out more.

Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll be back with you here next Thursday.

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