By Grace Segers

April 17, 2023

U.S. senators hold one of the most influential positions in the country, with the power to shape policy and confirm nominations that may remake the judicial and executive branches. But that authority only goes so far. Not every issue can be easily solved through legislative means, and some challenges are so nebulous that they must first be identified before they can be addressed.

Senator Chris Murphy believes that one such problem concerns the American psyche. It is a condition that divides and isolates people, yet has serious repercussions for collective society: loneliness.

“People need meaning, they need identity, and they can find that in healthy places or very unhealthy places,” Murphy told me in an interview last week. “We’ve stripped away access to positive connections: Churches are disappearing, social clubs are vanishing, local communities are less healthy, our downtowns have all given way to the Amazon economies.”

Without access to those focal points of community, people become isolated and unhappy, which can threaten not only their own health but that of the larger society, Murphy contends. Studies have shown that prolonged social isolation is associated with a greater likelihood of early mortality, and can have equivalent health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

[…] Loneliness is also at the root of some of the nation’s larger struggles, as people put increased faith in demagogic figures who argue they can cure societal ills through authoritarian means. Although loneliness is an abstract concept, its effects are concrete. Social isolation can result in disillusionment with institutions and the strictures of society, which in turn can lead to radicalization. “The demagogic movements and those hate-filled identities—they’re always there. But they are gaining more traction today because people have less means of identifying themselves in healthier ways,” Murphy argued.

[…] Murphy believes that social media can breed discontent in another manner as well: by making people lose faith in the efficacy of democracy. “People know that social media is a corrupting influence. It’s in front of their face every day. People know that social media is driving their kids into cultures of envy and lives of isolation. And then they see government do nothing about it,” Murphy said. “So they wonder, ‘What’s the point of democracy, if paving a road through my neighborhood is heavily regulated but the [site] that my kids spend five hours a day on has no regulation?’”

[…] “We’ve made some intentional public policy choices in the last 30 to 40 years that have driven up people’s sense of disconnectedness and isolation,” Murphy told me. “And I think that there’s a pretty straight line between the way that people are feeling in this country right now—increasingly isolated, fractured—and the policy choices we’ve made in the last 40 years to gut local communities at the expense of a global market and to throw technologies onto our culture before we’ve thought through the possible significant downsides of those innovations.”

[…] It’s a daunting task to convince Americans on both sides of the aisle that loneliness is a national problem—and that politicians can and should do something about it. But Murphy sees it as his duty to try. “The mission is to go out and build that right-to-left consensus around an agenda of connectedness,” he said, “and then bring that consensus to Washington.”


Last week, Murphy authored an op-ed in TIME with Richard Weissbourd, a Senior Lecturer and the faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on how America’s obsession with individual success has come at the expense of our sense of community and the collective good. Murphy also wrote an op-ed for The Bulwark on the epidemic of loneliness, why it should matter to policymakers, and policy solutions Congress should pursue, and a piece for The Atlantic on the failures of neoliberalism.