Dr. Vivek Murthy — Former Surgeon General on Combating COVID-19, Loneliness, and More (#417)

“All of us, regardless of what stage of life we’re at, we’ve got three basic needs: we all want to know that we matter, we want to be seen for who we are, and we want to know that we’re loved.”

Dr. Vivek Murthy

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy (@vivek_murthy, vivekmurthy.com) served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States between 2014 and 2017. As the Vice Admiral of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, he commanded a uniformed service of 6,600 public health officers globally. During his tenure, Dr. Murthy launched the Turn the Tide campaign, catalyzing a movement among health professionals to address the nation’s opioid crisis. He also issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, calling for expanded access to prevention and treatment and for addiction to be recognized as a chronic illness, not a character flaw.

In 2017, Dr. Murthy focused his attention on chronic stress and loneliness as prevalent problems that have profound implications for health, productivity, and happiness. He has co-founded a number of organizations: VISIONS, an HIV/AIDS education program in India; Swasthya, a community health partnership in rural India training women as health providers and educators; software company TrialNetworks; and the grassroots physicians organization Doctors for America.

Since leaving government service, Dr. Murthy has continued to focus on loneliness and social connection. His book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World will be published this spring by Harper Collins.

Please enjoy! 

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform. 

This podcast is brought to you by NutriBullet and Trello. More on both below. 

#417: Dr. Vivek Murthy — Former Surgeon General on Combatting COVID-19, Loneliness, and More

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear an episode with someone else who knows a thing or two about loneliness? — Listen to my recent conversation with Adam Grant, in which we discussed challenge networks, failure resumes, inbox infinity, blind spots vs. bright spots, and much more. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#399: Adam Grant — The Man Who Does Everything


  • Connect with Dr. Vivek H. Murthy:

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram


  • How Vivek trains people to pronounce his name.
  • Did Vivek write a book on loneliness purely to address a widescale public health issue, or was it prompted by something more personal?
  • How has loneliness played out in Vivek’s adult life?
  • As an internal medicine specialist who wasn’t formally trained to help his patients cope with loneliness, Vivek encountered it often, nonetheless. What did he do to comfort these patients?
  • How does Vivek relate to mortality?
  • What does the job of Surgeon General entail, and how did Vivek find his way to the office? Who answers to the office, and where might they be found?
  • After battling the Ebola virus during the Obama administration, what are the similarities and differences Vivek has observed about our current COVID-19 crisis? What are we getting right, and what are we getting wrong?
  • If Vivek were the benevolent dictator of the United States at this point in time, how would he direct his team for maximum effect against COVID-19, and what three principles would guide him? What interventions — whether statewide or nationwide — would he consider implementing?
  • Is the United States too culturally different and too politically divided to follow the stricter virus containment measures of countries like China and South Korea?
  • How can we agree on a course of decisive action as a nation when we’re so polarized? Could COVID-19 become a catalyzing call for unity?
  • What tools or advice would Vivek suggest to a CEO or company leader for counterbalancing the effects of loneliness among his or her staff during this time of intense isolation?
  • How did Vivek determine there was a chronic loneliness problem in the workplace, and in what way does his inside scoop exercise help workmates form a closer, more familial connection with one another?
  • Polls and questions that can help check the pulse of your team members at work and their level of connection.
  • What does Vivek mean when he says “Remember your anchors,” and what does he consider his own anchors?
  • During what period of time did Vivek feel especially lost, lonely, and “probably depressed?”
  • What made Vivek’s transition out of his role as Surgeon General so traumatic, what did the aftermath look like, and what has helped him get past it?
  • How many of us look at emotions as a source of weakness versus a source of power?
  • How did the book Vivek wound up writing differ from the book he thought he was going to write?
  • Parting thoughts.


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16 Replies to “Dr. Vivek Murthy — Former Surgeon General on Combating COVID-19, Loneliness, and More (#417)”

  1. and also we will all need psilocybin mushroom to fight depression and fear. seems like it will be everywhere quite soon.

  2. Really enjoyed the episode. Thoughtful questions and wise responses — grounding in times like these, so thank you both 🙏🏼

    The discussion around fostering workplace culture brought to mind Know Your Team. Initially made by the team behind Basecamp (of DHH and Jason Fried), it’s a software service that helps not only manage teams, but build the type of connection you talked to in the show.

    They’ve put a lot of thought into how to build trust and connection amongst a team, providing useful questions and frameworks to guide everything from getting feedback to exercises like Vivek’s “inside scoop exercise”. I’d recommend giving it a look: https://knowyourteam.com/m/features

    Just wanted to say, thanks Tim, for your amazing response to the pandemic. Pragmatic as ever, and most of all inspiring. Hope you’re doing well amidst it all 💪🏼

  3. Firstly, this was a great interview; thank you Tim and Vivek. I couldn’t help but feel that this was a very personal discussion, that captured not only the challenges that are before us as a society, but also how we each can relate to these challenges as individuals. There is a lot to unpack, however, so please forgive me.

    Covid19 – An excellent introduction to the issues at hand. The information forthcoming has been generally sporadic, with respect to (1) severity, and (2) how one should act. Increasingly, I am beginning to see this framed as a choice between health and well-being on the one hand, and performance of the economy on the other. Simply put, it is a moral test; are people willing to do the “right” thing, at the cost of their wallet?

    Personal responsibility – the above-mentioned challenges rest firmly on us as individuals. Our systems have been developed to value liberty of the individual (i.e. a free society) above all else. The longevity of such a system relies on us to get together (as individuals) and work towards a solution. This means that each person has a responsibility for his own actions, and to his common man. If we fail here, does the experiment fail? (Australia is not doing a good job at this point).

    Taking a hard look at ourselves – I think the result of events such as this will involve looking at how we behave, and taking some account of whether this stacks up in the long run. I’d take a punt and suggest there is a lot that doesn’t. This includes but is not limited to; (1) the fragility of an economy built on debt, (2) inability to delay gratification, (3) not prioritizing the things that are “true” in life, (4) the role of the state in liberal democracies (often mislabeled as social democracies). There will be many lessons to learn, and we probably won’t enjoy those lessons as they go against conventional wisdom of the day.

    Science – Or rephrased, the limitations of scientific knowledge. Most people go about their lives and do not give a flying f about “science”. While we certainly rely on scientific knowledge to understand the universe a little better, science cannot show you how to live a good life. Ask a man to “take one” for society, and science offers him nothing. This answer lives in a realm outside of what science can capture. And not only that, there are severe limitations on what science can capture. (See: all the folks out there trying to [incorrectly/randomly] model virus performance – they are effectively poking around in the dark.

    To be loved and be lovely – In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith suggests that man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely. Fewer true words have been written. We all wish to be respected and valued for our contribution and have our conscious satisfied that we are perusing our highest ideal. I think that it is fair to say that there are a few blokes out there scratching their heads as how to accomplish this. If things head south economically, this is going to be a priority (Hint: the answers lie in the past, not the future).

    Climate change – I want to knock this right on the head. There is no link between a virus pandemic and climate change. In fact, contrary to common belief, climate change is a complex issue. Consider this. Is there climate change? Can we measure it? Ok. Is there human contribution to climate change? Can we measure it? Can we influence the human impact on climate change? Have we considered the consequences of making sudden changes to factors which contribute to human induced climate change? If yes to all these things, then; (1) what is the cost, (2) is it affordable (by you the individual, as well as “society”), (3) what steps have you as an individual made to reduce your impact to climate change [if nothing, reconsider your ability to reorganize society to align with your cloud-in-the-sky ideology]. Now you’re this far, are you prepared to wear: (1) the deaths/misfortunes that arise from pricing that participants in the market cannot maintain? e.g. little old ladies with no aircon in summer/poor people in society, (2) the reduction in wealth that cannot be generated by developing regions which rely on cheap, reliable (however polluted), power sources that western nations have had access to for generations. Long story short, this is a complex issue; and not appropriate for dropping into your next podcast appearance because it sounds cool.

    “We” and its use with respect to corporate entities – the company or organisation you work for is not your family. This is important so I am going to repeat it: Your workplace is not your family. If, as in this podcast, there are suggestions that your workplace should become an extension of your family this is a red flag that you should run. Organisations, for-profit/non-profit/government or otherwise exist for one reason; to benefit its “shareholders”. If you work for Tim’s company, the beneficiary is Tim. If it’s the government, the beneficiary is the people (controlled by a bureaucrat). Neither “shareholder” has your interests at heart – as all people are self-interested (unchanged throughout time). Of course, they want “productivity” – i.e. machines. I do not wish to be misunderstood on this point. Yes, we should be useful to each other and expect fair payment for our services. Yes, it is better to work a job that you like over one that you don’t. Yes, it is better to have respected relationships over ones that are not respected. But even Jesus, the perfect man as such, was shafted by his peers. No, the organisation you work for is not your family. Ladies, take note.

    Values – It would seem to me that the most successful societies have shared values. To be honest, I haven’t been involved in enough to confirm this with certainty, but I can confidently state this: “all successful teams share common values”. I am aware that there is fragmentation among our societies, and they are becoming polarised. I’ll give you’re a quick story. My grandparents immigrated to Australia from Germany in search of work, after having a rough time. They took pride in fitting in with the rest, working hard, getting paid, and looking after their family. Nowadays, work isn’t just the means, it’s the ends. And that corporation you’re working for doesn’t just serve its shareholders, it has an opinion on everything and is the idol you must obey if you wish to go to heaven. Is multiculturalism really a thing, or is it just a facade for being multi-raced but thinking the same?

    Kindness and compassion – This is it. The secret sauce of humanity. Leaders should aim to strike a balance between performance and compassion. It takes a special type to do this. Unfortunately, anyone with a heart is likely to be corrupted by bureaucratic systems by the time they make it (if in fact they last that long). Small is better, it preserves the personal touch in relationships. It’s not where things are headed, but this may change given current developments.

    The funny thing about all the “scientific” talk at the start of the podcast, that the conversation spends most of its time in areas where science is really no use. How to spend a life? What’s important? Does a job title define you? If it did, do you want it to? How does one become a man/woman? (Hint: steal the key from your mothers pillow and find a new king). How does one build themselves to becoming robust to the challenges of life. Do you take responsibility for your own circumstances, or do you rely on some abstract concept of “government”? Personally, I’ve never met “the government”. Wouldn’t even know their name of phone number.

    Emotion – It was interesting to hear Vivek speak about emotion. No doubt emotion has its place in life. However, I would suggest that emotion plays too much a part in current discourse. A man (in particular) should be rational in thought, but not so much as to discount emotion, which is there to guide his decision making not command it. And of course, many (but not all) women are somewhat more emotional than the common man. Is there a synergy here? How interesting. One should of course strive to love your neighbour as yourself, but not be misguides by the ebbs and flows of pathos, over and above logos.

  4. Loving this Tim. Your podcast has been my weekly source of mind food for three years now and you’re doing the best work of your life right now with interviews like these at a time like this. What a lovely, interesting and thoughtful man Vivek is. Thanks

  5. Hey Tim Ferriss Team,

    I’d like to volunteer my time/mind to help out your cause during these COVID-19 times.

    Here’s my snip-it bio:
    I’m a pipeline engineer that specializes in streamlining processes of upwards of 1200%, and a scientific/mathematics-based professional youth soccer coach. I’ve conjoined the two jobs to mitigate the weaknesses of each profession: engineers are terrible communicators and soccer coaches are purely communicators, soccer coaches are terrible at being detail oriented and engineers are excellent at being detail oriented.

    Please reach out if you’d like to utilize my offer!

    Very Best,

  6. Dr. Murthy,

    Thank you for the incredible insight and personal vulnerability you demonstrated in this podcast Dr. Murthy. I have been so overwhelmed with the concerns and deadlines of major life changes over the past few weeks, I hadn’t yet taken the time to experience my feelings. Listening to this podcast, I experienced such sadness and empathy for you, it opened up all the things I’d been holding inside for myself, for my country, for my world.

    A dear friend of mine recently told me, “We hold our emotions like holding our breath.”

    I have so much gratitude for the personal work you must have done to interact with the world as you do. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for reminding me to let my emotions breathe.

    Mr. Ferriss,

    I am out here, in the collective consciousness, spending a moment of stillness every day because of your recent podcast with Jack Kornfield. My mantra, “I surrender to this moment. My body is calm.”

    It recently occurred to me that the spread of viral pathogens provides a wonderful analogy for the way people spread positivity when they interact in authentic ways. The intellectual stimulation you spark in me with your way of thinking, the knowledge, the insight, and the challenge has made my life infinitely better. In turn, every person I interact with, whether my children, my partner, my healthcare patients, or my coworkers, is receiving the benefit of what I integrate from you.

    Thank you for adding to the collective conversation. I look forward to every single episode.

  7. This episode has had such an enormous impact on me. Today. In this moment. With exactly where I am at and what I am working through – both personally and in my workplace.

    I want to thank you, both Tim and Dr. Vivek, for your vulnerability, authenticity, and genuine love and care for people.

    Thank you.

  8. Really enjoyed this episode. Dr. Murthy’s warm, calm, vulnerable demeanor is just beautiful. I agree that he would be fantastic as a podcast host

  9. Such a kind, intelligent, sensitive person. No wonder he was chosen as Surgeon General by Obama. I miss those days when our government had people like this in office.

  10. Tim, loved your podcast with Dr. Vivek Murthy. Loneliness is such an important topic and Dr. Murthy’s approach to raising the awareness is tremendous. Thanks for the shout out to our Givitas platform (www.Givitas.com). Our company was co-founded by Adam Grant (Prof at Wharton, author of Give and Take) and Wayne Baker (Prof at Michigan, author of All You Have To Do Is Ask) and helping people overcome loneliness and isolation is an important part of approach, where we strive to create an environment of generosity. During these very trying times, it has never been more important as our social distancing is increasing our feelings of loneliness. Would be great to launch a Givitas platform for your listeners!

  11. Hi Tim,
    I will be really happy if you read this. I have question to you specifically regarding being an introvert and always focused person and missing the social life. I am extreme introvert I like enjoying reading, working on myself. But this means I have no social life and I have been reflecting on this a lot. I don’t enjoy doing something that is not improving myself and others that means a lot less people that I feel connected to. This is leaving me really worried about my social life. Everyone just comments about why I am like this but I know that is what makes me happy. How do you come about this if you ever faced this.
    Thanks a lot

  12. Thank you Tim Ferriss for giving us a heads up about the coronavirus on your 5 Bullet Friday post on March 6! If I did not follow you, I would have continued to ignore the growing hysteria about coronavirus in the San Francisco Bay Area and I would Not have protected myself, my family or my clients until March 16 when the Shelter in Place order was implemented. Because of you I was able to begin safety protocols 10 days early at my office and purchase needed supplies. 10 days early might not seem like a lot but it’s an eternity in a pandemic and it could mean the difference between life and death. THANK YOU again!!! PS thank you for recommending the Nebula projector. My 7 year old finally has an amazing way to watch movies. Before he was the weirdest boy in the neighborhood because we don’t have a TV or any large screens. Now he is the coolest boy in the neighborhood with a movie theater size screen!!

  13. An timely and informative interview. Loneliness among employees is an important issue to address, especially in these times of mandated quarantine and isolation.