An epidemic of loneliness is shortening lives
Laura Putnam | Motion Infusion
BY PETER BOWES | MAY 29, 2023
Loneliness kills. Just like cigarettes. Social isolation is such a problem that it is shortening lives and US health officials have declared it to be an epidemic.
Earlier this month, the US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy said: “It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.”
We are publishing this interview on memorial Day in the US – a public holiday which for many people is a day of socialization, family gatherings and fun events away from work. But what if you’re alone today? What are you thinking?
Laura Putnam is the founder of Motion Infusion – a company with a mission to bring movement to the workplace. She’s also an advocate for measures to combat the loneliness and isolation that many people feel through a lack of social connections.
In this interview we cover:
- What if you could ward off the killer diseases of old age by simply strengthening your social connections
- Laura delves into the vital importance of love and connection for happiness and longevity and shares her mission to leverage workplaces to promote better health and well-being.
- We reveal the surprising link between social isolation and life-threatening diseases.
- Why poor health and well-being are taking a toll on communities and populations and what can we do to change the situation?
- The moral case for workplace health improvement
- Laura debunks the myth of fear-based motivation, and discussed how to use everyday language to engage people and guide them towards making significant lifestyle changes.
- We bridge the gap between recognizing the value of health and actually taking action to ensure our well-being.
- The importance of community building
- How to mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- How to discover the benefits of getting out into nature and connecting with people in our neighborhoods.
- The power of pet ownership, and the idea of creating communities around common interests.
- We also touch on the practice of positivity resonance, reminding us of the good things that happen in our lives.
“Unless we collectively do something about this tidal wave of poor health and well being, it is likely that our children will have a shorter life expectancy than we do by as much as five years.”Laura Putnam
Read a transcript
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Laura Putnam: What is it that makes us happy, what is it that contributes to longevity as well as having a high quality of life? And the number one factor that they found hands down is love and connection.
Peter Bowes: An epidemic of loneliness could be shortening our lives. Isolation, to some extent because of the pandemic, has been cited as a cause of deteriorating mental and physical health and possibly early death. So what can we do about it? Hello again and welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. I’m Peter Bowes.k This is where we explore the science and stories behind human longevity. Laura Putnam is the founder of Motion Infusion, a company with a mission to bring movement to the workplace. She’s also an advocate for measures to combat the isolation that many people feel through a lack of social connections. We’re publishing this interview on Memorial Day in the US, a public holiday which, for many people, is a day of socialisation, family gatherings and fun events away from work. But what if you’re alone today? What are you thinking? Laura Putnam, welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast.
Laura Putnam: Thank you, Peter, it’s great to be with you.
Peter Bowes: Really good to talk to you. How serious a problem is this?
Laura Putnam: Well, it’s serious enough that the Surgeon General has released a report that was issued on May 1st, calling this out as perhaps the top epidemic that we are facing today as Americans. And it’s also what we might characterize as part of the second act of the pandemic. So while the pandemic impacted all of us on a physical level, obviously it also impacted us on a mental level, And the impacts on our mental well-being, including loneliness, continue to this day And in fact, if anything, they’re getting worse. So take, for example, rates of suicide. Rates of suicide actually went down during the pandemic. Now they’re spiking upward again.
Peter Bowes: It is a very serious issue. And I want to delve into the reasons for it and perhaps some of the solutions in terms of what we can do for ourselves to help us falling into this. I guess for many people it feels like a dark hole that’s very difficult to climb out of. But before we do that, maybe just so I could ask you about your career history and what’s brought you to this point and aroused your interest in this subject area.
Laura Putnam: Well, I’m a career of many. I am what I characterize as a former professional dancer, former competitive gymnast, former urban public high school teacher, former community organizer, former public policy worker turned movement builder in the world of health and well-being, and my work is really around leveraging every workplace, and particularly every team within every workplace, to promote better health and well-being for all Americans.
Peter Bowes: This seems to me to be a very overlooked area, and I think at least I suspect that people think of going to work as something that we all do, we have to do. Traditionally It’s been in the office and that socialization is actually part of that situation. But so much has changed, hasn’t it in the last three years, that it has emerged as this issue, but I think perhaps highlighted it as an issue previously that it’s actually been a problem for many people for a long time.
Laura Putnam: Yeah, it really has been. I mean just, there have been some massive structural changes in our society. For example, there’s been a precipitous decline in the number of community-based kinds of institutions like the church or the synagogue. Far fewer people are participating in these. Moreover, people move more, they change jobs more frequently, And so we’ve really set up systems that generate an increase in the likelihood of being lonely and feeling socially isolated.
Peter Bowes: Now this is a podcast about human longevity Living as long as we can with good health. We talk about health span, getting to a certain age and still being able to do what we want physically and mentally do what we want. Now I know and you’ve given me an outline of your past history in terms of your interest. I know you’re not a medical doctor, so maybe the question I’m about to ask delves a little into the science and the medicine of the situation. But, as you understand it, what is the connection between social isolation being by yourself for an extended period of time and those killer diseases of old age traditionally of old age like heart disease, diabetes, possibility of having a stroke that have been cited by experts, including the surgeon general, as a possible consequence of isolation? Could you join the dots? How do we get from being lonely to possibly a life threatening condition?
Laura Putnam: Well, what the research is increasingly showing is both. Loneliness is really bad for our health. So one study found, for example, that if we are experiencing loneliness which studies show that one in two Americans are experiencing loneliness right now that this can be equivalent to the detrimental effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, so it’s really bad for us. On the flip side, social connection is really really good for us, and, in fact, one of the longest standing studies to date it’s a study out of Harvard. It’s been running for nearly 85 years And they’ve been looking at what is it that makes us happy, what is it that contributes to longevity as well as having a high quality of life? And the number one factor that they found, hands down, is love and connection. And in fact, they found that those people who are most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 are the most likely to be healthy at the age of 80. And so the question we all need to be asking ourselves is a two part question, which is am I loved. And am I loving?
Peter Bowes: well, and presumably it is the stress side of being isolated, perhaps stress sometimes without knowing it, not realising that you’re feeling that stress of being by yourself and all the issues that perhaps living alone or having a job that forces you to work at home, or maybe you choose to work at home and don’t realise the effect that it’s having you on you. It’s the cumulative effect of stress that can then manifest itself in physical conditions.
Laura Putnam: Yeah, I mean, for example, even things like dementia. We have a greater chance of developing dementia if we are socially isolated. And to your point about what’s happening in our workplace, now that we’re transitioning more and more to remote and hybrid kind of work environments, not only are we spending more time alone, but the time that we are connected with others is in a virtual format, and what the research overwhelmingly suggests is that, while that’s better than being completely socially isolated, it does not replace in-person connections. There are just things that happen when we’re together in-person, not only in terms of how we interact. So, for example, we’re able to read each other’s body language. When we’re together in-person, we’re able to hear tone of voice more, we’re able to really feel that physical connection. But it’s also that we miss out on incidental interactions, and it’s really those incidental interactions like, for example, what happens before the meeting starts or what happens right after the team meeting. That is really what serves as the social cohesion or the glue that binds us together when we’re at work.
Peter Bowes: The water cooler moments.
Laura Putnam: Yeah, and in fact there are even organizations like Pixar. They actually explicitly designed the workplace to foster more of these kind of what they characterize as accidental collisions. So there was kind of this atrium area that you were forced to walk through to get to point A to point B And that would increase the chances that you would run into colleagues and have some of these kind of accidental conversations. And it was out of these accidental conversations they believe that creativity would spark or that there’d be greater teamwork as a result of them.
Peter Bowes: So that situation that you described? it really creates a dilemma, doesn’t it? for employers and employees, given the current situation that we’re all in and all highlighted by the pandemic of being forced to isolate for a couple of years, and I guess what you and I are doing right now, talking remotely from our homes I assume you’re at home at the moment. I’m definitely at home. And we’ve created an environment, because I’m a broadcaster and journalist created a studio environment where it’s possible to make a podcast. The first 100 episodes of this podcast were all recorded in person. I made a point of trying to visit the guest, but then things changed And clearly it’s become easier because it’s more acceptable for people to do this kind of thing. And it’s actually opened doors for me because I’m talking to people around the world much easier than clearly would have been possible with a physical appearance in their office or their home. So there’s an advantage there, doing what I do, and there’s an advantage for a lot of people to stay at home for other reasons as well, and that’s the dilemma I refer to trying to balance the advantages of home working, which is a positive for some people, and the very clear disadvantages which I suspect some people won’t realize going into it.
Laura Putnam: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean, there are some clear upsides to what happens with remote and hybrid working environments, which is that we have increased flexibility, and certainly during the Great Resignation, that was one thing that people really communicated loudly and clearly, which is, people want flexibility in terms of how they work, when they work and where they work, and, in fact, that lack of flexibility or a lack of autonomy over how we manage our day-to-day is one of the most important aspects to our levels of stress, and if we feel like we have a lack of autonomy or flexibility, that’s one of the biggest drivers of stress. So clearly there’s an upside, and if we have children, for example, or elderly parents that we’re caring for, having that flexibility is so important. Now, on the other side, the downside of this is that it is clearly having a negative impact on our social connections, and there’s even evidence to suggest that one would think that if we’re spending most of our working day being socially isolated, that we would make an added effort to connect more outside of work, but actually what seems to be happening is that we’re getting out of the habit of connecting with others, so we are actually becoming less connected outside of work as well.
Peter Bowes: And I think if an example is needed as to and you’ve explained it beautifully, but just to sort of throw in my two cents as well In terms of how social connections help us interviewing some very, very old people for this podcast, clearly, old age and longevity and good health and healthspan are related to a number of different factors our diet, our exercise regime, how much we move during the day. But it became apparent to me very obviously through talking to very old people how social connections, later in life especially, are so valuable to the point that it clearly keeps people going And there’s something to look forward to. That element of who I’m seeing tomorrow. It’s someone I haven’t spoken to for a month, but we’re going to sit round a coffee table and catch up. That is hugely beneficial, I think, obviously for older people, But I suspect for younger generations as well. And not always Realizing it. And i think i guess that is the challenge for for what you do to try to get that message across as to how important it is.
Laura Putnam: Yeah, you know i would say that the my challenge, because i’m primarily focused on the workplace is to help leaders to understand that well-being at work, in particular social connections at work, are vital not only for people for their individual well-being, but also for the bottom line and for building a high performing team. So, for example, those employees who have not just a good friend at work but a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be highly engaged in their work. Those employees who are not just surviving at work but fully thriving, which means that they feel that sense of social connection at work, they’re eighty one percent less likely to leave the organization. And even with life and death kinds of matters like safety on the job, those people who feel disconnected, particularly to their direct supervisor, are, in fact, three and a half times more likely to have an accident on the job.
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Peter Bowes: This is the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. Our guest is Laura Putnam, the founder of Motion Infusion and an expert in workplace socialization. How receptive do you find employers are to the argument that social isolation, being away from the office, is potentially damaging to our physical health and possibly our lifespan, that it could be that serious in terms of health, causing diseases as we get older, as opposed to the negative impact of not being around in the office the productivity side that you talk about. Clearly, employers are focused on the numbers and how their business is doing, but are they also interested, or is it Easy or difficult for you to persuade them that there’s a greater health issue at stake here as well?
Laura Putnam: The way I often frame it is that well being at work and the idea of leveraging every workplace, every team, to promote better health and well being is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do. So it’s, you know, you give me any metric that matters to your organization or to your team, and whether it’s profitability, whether it’s retention, whether it’s safety on the job, whether it’s teamwork, whether it’s creativity, you name it and I will show you how it ties to well being, in particular, social well being, the right thing to do or the moral imperative around well being, including social connections. That I have found, unfortunately for many leaders, is more of a stretch. There’s so much more focused on what are the bottom line results and how is it in the best business case as opposed to the best case for people’s health and well being. And I, and you know, frankly, i think for most people, the idea of better health and longevity just feels like it’s far off in the future. It doesn’t feel like it’s here and now. What feels like it’s more here and now are things like how do I get my team to be as productive as possible right now so that they can meet the. You know, meet these metrics that are being measured on a regular basis by our scorecard.
Peter Bowes: And what you’ve just said is deeply depressing to me, doing what I do that the thought of longevity or people applying themselves to thinking about their health, not only today, but tomorrow, next year, a decade’s time and the very long term that that isn’t uppermost in people’s minds, and I get it. I can see why. people have issues with the cost of living crisis, with getting the children to school, dealing with the mortgage, all those everyday problems, and sadly and this is quite an old story, but sadly our personal health often comes fairly low down the list. So my question to you is what do you think and hopefully you acknowledge with me that, ideally, that situation will change, that we need to improve the health of communities and populations around the world. What needs to happen to change that situation?
Laura Putnam: You know, the thing that I really think about doing when I have the opportunity to engage with leaders and managers, which is quite frequently I’ve worked now with over 20,000 managers and leaders around the world is that I really make an effort to speak to their minds and their hearts. And as much as leaders would like to think that their bottom line driven, the truth of the matter is that every single one of us responds to things on a heart level. So when I’m trying to really make the case for well being at work from a moral perspective, i often bring it down to getting leaders to think about the impact of what I characterize as a tidal wave of poor health and well being that is overrunning our country and, increasingly, our global community is the impact that it’s having on our children. So I asked him think about that. Think about the fact that, for our children, already one in five of them are obese. Think about the fact that it’s estimated that one in four of our children will likely develop diabetes at some point in their lifetime. And think about the fact that, unless we collectively do something about this tidal wave of poor health and well being, it is likely that our children will have a shorter life expectancy than we do by as much as five years And in fact, that reversal in life expectancy even before the pandemic is already happening.
Peter Bowes: The question I often ask people is what is the most important thing in life to you and to your family? Most people will say my health and the health of my family, but then the thought will often stop there and they’ll go on, eat some bad food or they’ll put themselves into a stressful situation or they’ll do everything that basically counters that initial thought that my health is the most important thing. And it’s kind of bridging that gap, isn’t it to getting people to acknowledge their first thought that, yes, my health is the most important thing to me And, yes, the worst times in my life and my family’s life are usually caused by poor health and potentially death. We’re all going to die at some point, but we don’t necessarily need to die early in life. Tragically, that’s what’s happening with a lot of people, that actually lifespan is falling, which is a startling fact, but over the last few years, average lifespan in the Western world has fallen.
Laura Putnam: Yeah, and it’s interesting around kind of helping people, to quote, get it. On the one hand, you want to be real with people and share with them these kinds of actually frightening statistics And at the same time, you don’t want to frighten them so much that you alienate them, and in fact, there’s some really interesting research showing that fear based motivation actually doesn’t work for most of us. So, for example, well intended cardiologists will say post cardiac surgery to their patient Now that you’ve had this triple bypass surgery, you need to be sure to go out there and start eating better and getting more exercise and managing your stress better, or, if you don’t, you will die. You would think that most would make significant lifestyle changes afterwards, but in fact, only one in 10 do So. What the research by teams like Dean Ornish’s team have discovered is that if they spin it in a more positive way saying things like instead of fear death, instead embrace life that people are actually much more likely to adopt those healthy behavior changes. And in fact, their research shows that after three years, 80% of their participants are still engaging in these lifestyle changes.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, I think it’s about speaking in a language that resonates with people’s real lives, everyday lives. There’s always a danger when talking about you use the word longevity. I use the word longevity a lot, but it is still seen by some people as a bit science fiction, a little woohoo. It’s about trying to live forever, which is never something that I aspire to. But it is that everyday language, as I think you absolutely accurately say. That ultimately is, I think, going to stand more of a chance of resonating with people. I mentioned at the beginning the introduction that this is Memorial Day. When we’re publishing this, at least here in the United States, There may well be many people, there will be many people around the world, not just in the US, who are by themselves today, who are isolated. Perhaps some listening to this and these thoughts resonate. What would you say to those people I mentioned? it can feel like being in a dark hole, a black hole that just gets deeper and deeper. How do you climb out of that?
Laura Putnam: It’s so hard. I just want to acknowledge I’ve been there. I think we’ve all been there, and the irony is that the more we need it, the harder it is to take measures to mitigate it. So I just want to start with that. But I think one of the most effective things that we can do is to literally walk out our front door and just get outside and just get out into our community. Obviously, getting out into nature can be great, particularly parks where there are other people. But I have to tell you, one of the things that I am now personally experiencing is the magic of having a puppy, having a dog. You know, you have this kind of ready-made device where people suddenly feel safe talking with you. So I feel like I’m seeing this neighborhood that I’ve been in for over 15 years through fresh eyes, where suddenly everyone wants to connect with me. So I go out by myself, but now with my puppy, and I am meeting, i would say, at least 20 times more people than I was before that. So there’s also kind of simple devices that we can do like that, And then, I think
Peter Bowes: Before you go on to the next thought then let me just talk about puppies, because you’re talking my language here. I’ve got two dogs. Two dogs which are very demanding, athletic sort of dogs, Border Collars. They demand the physical attention of the long walks at several points during the day. So it gets me out in the morning, gets me out in the sunlight, which is clearly good for my physical health, and often that is before a long day working at home all by myself, but the dogs are always there needing attention, getting me out again. My other bit of advice will be go to a puppy training class. If you’re not necessarily meeting people in the streets on your walk, you will definitely meet people, like-minded people, at a puppy training class and that really opens new doors as well. There’s the human-to-human contact, but there’s also the extra element of your puppies and your dogs as well, and it creates an entirely new community. So I think pet ownership more generally is hugely important. If you can’t have a dog, if you’re physically not able to have a dog, get a cat, get something that is alive in your home with you, and I think people can benefit hugely.
Laura Putnam: Yeah, and I think also what you’re speaking about is that you start to feel like that you’re part of a community And what fascinates me is the number of kind of subcultures or communities within communities that there are, and most of these communities are built around common interests. So at the outset of our conversation we were talking about how a lot of these institutions that have historically been in place, that form that community for us have diminished and so we can start to create other types of communities. So, for example, my fiance is part of a swimming community that’s an open water swimming community here in the San Francisco Bay And that is, you know, it’s people share a love of swimming in freezing cold water with no wetsuit. They share that common interest and it really can serve as a really bonding force.
Peter Bowes: This is the Live, long and Master Aging podcast. Our guest is Laura Putnam, the founder of Motion Infusion and an expert in workplace socialization.
Peter Bowes: In terms of people at home alone, acknowledging that they’re in this situation for the long term. do they look at their work situation? Do they think about having a conversation with an employer, that kind of thing, and maybe how to approach that conversation?
Laura Putnam: Yeah, i think that the other thing. You know there are a couple of things that you can do. One is to just kind of take stock. Who are the people in my life that I feel like you know I could call at 3 am in the morning, for example. Who are those people who I turn to when I have a question around? you know how do I get my laptop to work, for example? Or who are those people that I interact with on more of a kind of day-to-day basis, like when I go to the grocery store I run into that same cashier on a regular basis. So just starting to notice those can make a huge difference. And in fact there’s research coming out of University of North Carolina. This is actually research conducted by Barbara Fredrickson and team about the power of so-called positivity resonance is the term that she uses, which is positivity in the context of others. So on an individual level, we can implement a practice of positivity by just starting to notice those good things that are happening in our lives, literally stopping to smell the roses. Like you know, I woke up this morning, i had a delicious cup of coffee, I had a really good meeting today and I got all my work done. Those are three good things that happened. But we can also notice the interactions that we did have and we can start to call those out, and so those can start to remind us of how we are already interacting with others. And then the next piece, beyond that, then we can think about after we’ve taken stock of the connections that we already have and those social engagements that we’re already having, then we can start to think about well, how do I deepen those? How do I become a super friend for the people in my life? How do I pay attention just a little bit more to those social cues of the people that I’m engaging with? How do I listen just a little bit better? So when I become a better friend to others, then of course they become a better friend to me.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, i think that’s great advice. So this is, as I mentioned, a podcast about human longevity. It’s about looking to the future. More generally. I’m always curious people I speak to in terms of how much you think about your own longevity and how much you apply especially in your case the knowledge that you’ve gleaned through during the kind of work that you do, that you apply to yourself every day to live a longer, better life.
Laura Putnam: I just want to say that I, like everyone else, with few exceptions that I also suffer from the knowing and doing gap. I know what to do, but it’s really hard to put it into practice. And in fact, when it comes to just the three basics don’t smoke, eat healthy, get active every American knows that and yet less than 3% of Americans do those three basic things every day. So this is a pretty widespread phenomenon, this knowing and doing gap. So I think the first step is just you know, i acknowledge it. Okay, I’m experiencing the knowing and doing gap right now. And then I think more about how do I integrate well-being practices into what I’m already doing, how might I do what I’m doing right now a little bit differently? And so, for example, when it comes to social well-being, how might I, when I’m doing my errands, say hello to people as I’m walking by them on the street? How do I catch someone’s eye and smile at them? In other words, how do I do the same thing differently to enhance my well-being?
Peter Bowes: Yeah, i think that’s really good advice. So just in closing, if anyone listening to this would like to find out a little bit more, dive a little deeper into your work, where can they find you?
Laura Putnam: The website is motioninfusioncom, and my personal website for my speaking and my work as an author and also as a media consultant, is lauraputnam.com. I’m also active on all the major social media networks platforms, so LinkedIn, Twitter, as well as Instagram.
Peter Bowes: And I shall put all of those details into the show notes page for this particular episode on all the various platforms that we’re on. Laura, this has been really interesting. I wish you all the best with your work. Thank you very much.
Laura Putnam: Thank you so much, Peter.
The Live Long and Master Aging podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor. The information contained within this interview is for educational and entertainment purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice or attention of health care professionals.