By Lucinda D. Gardner
“I used to think the worst thing in life is to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.” ~Robin Williams
Let your mind wander to a volleyball that bobs over foamy cresting waves in the vast Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, you hear Tom Hanks’ woeful cry float over the salt water swells, “Wiiiillllsssooonnn!!!” As we watch Hanks’ raft drift farther and farther away from Wilson, our eyes fill with tears, and our throats tighten as we are overwhelmed by the devastating loss of his “friend” Wilson.
Humans are hardwired for social interaction. Connecting with people is so crucial to our survival that we empathize completely with Hanks’ character who anthropomorphizes a volleyball into his silent, steadfast friend while stranded on a deserted island. Our brains and bodies effervesce with neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin that are part of the complex neuro-chemistry triggered by the hug of a dear friend, giggling with a child or cheering with other football fans as the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl. Given our powerful need for positive social connection, why do we find ourselves in the middle of a global loneliness epidemic?
In November 2017, former United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy authored a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Work and The Loneliness Epidemic.” In the article, he describes loneliness and social isolation as a growing worldwide epidemic. How bad is it? It is toxic. “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity….” Loneliness shortens life spans, increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol—which leads to higher levels of inflammation, diabetes, joint disease, and is associated with increased levels of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. When our brains and bodies are perpetually flooded with stress hormones, it impairs our ability to function effectively at work. Chronic high levels of cortisol dramatically decrease our ability to perform tasks, think creatively and engage in effective executive functions such as reasoning and decision-making. Loneliness also increases risk for cognitive decline, dementia, obesity, recurrent strokes, elevated blood pressure, increased vascular resistance, decreased sleep salubrity, and decreased immunity.
What does loneliness have to do with lawyers? We are superb at juggling work-life balance; we take care of ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually; and we seek help when we need it. Not exactly. Lawyers face high levels of loneliness and may be the loneliest professionals. In February 2018, the American Bar Association adopted the August 2017 report by the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well Being “The Path To Lawyer Well Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.” Here’s what the task force found: The legal profession is already struggling. Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers. We are at a crossroads. To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to...