What Burning Man Can Teach the Surgeon General About Curing Loneliness

People want to connect … Burning Man provides nothing but opportunities for connection, and has cultural practices which make it easy… The larger world gives people so few opportunities to do what they love that we’re still surprised by the impact it can have when people feel that they have permission to follow their bliss… As we consider how to alleviate loneliness in the broader world, Burning Man’s success should offer lessons to consider.”

The Surgeon General has declared that loneliness and isolation are an epic health crisis and must be addressed. According to The New York Times:

More than half of Americans are lonely, according to a 2021 poll, which also found that young adults are almost twice as likely to report feeling lonely as those over age 65.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the Surgeon General, has often spoken about the decline in social connection and wrote a book about the subject, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” which was published in 2020. In the new advisory, he calls on the nation to strengthen its social fabric and to prioritize meaningful relationships.

The Surgeon General says this is a crisis because loneliness is a co-morbidity factor for death and illness: it makes everything worse. It increases the risk of heart disease by 29%, dementia by 50%, and strokes by 32%. Being lonely is compared to the health risk of smoking daily, or being obese. 

I’m sure that’s all true, but I think it’s far from the real crisis in the world caused (at least in large part) by loneliness and a lack of meaningful social connection. 

Here’s the bigger problem: high doses of loneliness lead to resentful narcissism. And resentful narcissists destroy what they touch.

That’s one of the research conclusions that Tom Nichols came to in his ongoing examinations of “lost boys,” his term for the (almost exclusively male) spree killers who go on lethal rampages out of a sense of personal grievance. 

“Their actions,” he writes, “are not driven by criminal gain, but instead are meant to shock us, to make us grieve, and finally, to force us to acknowledge the miserable existence of the young men behind the triggers.”

I grant you that when Nichols calls them “deadly misfits” I think “that sounds like a band I want to sing in!” — and that often non-conformists are painted as targets by conventional thinkers just for being unconventional. But leave questions of legitimate non-conformity aside for a moment. Loneliness and narcissism, and the connection between them, comes up over and over again in accounts of tragic violence.

“Frustrated by their own social awkwardness, they are so often described as “loners” that the trope has been around from as early as the 1980s,” Nichols writes, “and they are, above all, staggeringly narcissistic.” They are the only killers who feel compelled to write manifestos about why they did it, in some ways just to prove that they existed.

“Performative mass killings and large-scale terrorism are mostly post-1970s phenomena, and we can likely trace at least some of the Lost Boy problem to the rapid emergence in the past 40 years or so of a hypersexualized and yet lonelier, more atomized society.”

Seen at the extremes, loneliness and narcissism go hand in hand. And it’s certainly true in my less extreme experience — and I imagine that it’s true in yours — that the times in which I have been most lonely have also been the times in which I was most narcissistic. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s hard to understand, let alone focus on, the needs of others when you feel like you’re alone in the world. People who are starving for attention, affection, and regard understandably have very little of it to offer for others… even if the act of offering it, of giving to others what you don’t have yourself, is in fact the road to salvation.

Loneliness leads to narcissism, and the two of them together can lead to explosive, tragic, and otherwise senseless violence of a kind that is becoming numbingly common. Just as bad: a group of lonely narcissists are utterly incapable of banding together to solve common problems. That, far more than a greater chance of heart disease, is what’s really at stake here. And it is an existential threat.

The issue with modern loneliness, then, is not a chill that we have to put a sweater on if we want to avoid a heart attack — it looks much more like this account of a therapist who specializes in “hyper-masculine men.” It is an iceberg crushing people under its weight, and it’s not just that they can’t stand the pressure: they don’t know what to do about it. The nature of their affliction blocks the road out of it.

That’s the particular condition of contemporary mass loneliness: it’s not that there aren’t people to connect too — this is an era when we’re drowning in swipes and “friend” requests! It’s that loneliness makes us narcissistic, and narcissists don’t know how to connect. When we’re given a chance, we don’t know what to do with it. 

You Can’t Fight Loneliness by Yourself

That makes the Surgeon General’s most actionable recommendations feel… well, take a look. Here are some of them, once again from The New York Times:

  • Take 15 minutes each day to contact a friend or a relative. Put a reminder in your calendar, if needed, so that it remains a priority. 
  • For more satisfying quality time, put the devices down and give your full attention to the people you’re talking to.
  • Pick up the phone when people call, rather than letting it go to voicemail and waiting for a more convenient text.
  • Donate your time to an organization in your community, or offer to help your family, co-workers or friends.
  • Get help. Speak with a professional. Admit that you’re lonely to your friends and family.

All right, be honest — does that feel radically insufficient to you? Because damn, it feels like the loneliness equivalent of an abstinence only sex-ed class to me. Sure, abstinence theoretically works but… is that all you’ve got? Really?

I grant you that in the actual Surgeon General’s advisory, it does have section headings on things like “strengthening social infrastructures in local communities” and “enacting pro-connection public policies,” which sounds good. But when you look at what’s actually recommended under those headings it gets… really vague, saying things like: 

“Prioritizing social connection in policy agendas and leveraging a “Connection-in-All-Policies” approach requires establishing cross-departmental leadership to develop and oversee an overarching social connection strategy,” and “strengthening social infrastructure that promotes social connection is critical to advancing key aspects of community health, resilience, safety, and prosperity.” 

Statements like that aren’t what you say when you’re promoting a real public policy — they’re what you say when you acknowledge that there should be a public policy but don’t actually have one to propose.

The Surgeon General’s recommendations are things that might — might — work with a more antique form of loneliness, but not with the kind we’re actually experiencing now. We have to do better — but honestly I don’t think the Surgeon General knows how. But we do. Because we don’t just build cities and throw events… we build a common culture in an atomizing world. 

Burning Man Has Found Ways to Connect People in a Post-industrial, Late-stage Capitalism, Digital World

It wasn’t something I did on purpose, but over the years I came to see much of the work I was doing with Burning Man and in underground art scenes as developing new ways to have meaningful community in atomizing times. And what I’ve discovered, each and every time, is that a “speed dating” approach to connection, in which you just try to introduce people and hope they click, is insufficient: individual friendships are much more likely to blossom when they are nurtured by vibrant communities. Trying to weave individual friendships out of a disintegrating social fabric requires ones to have already mastered intimacy… and even then is wrestling an angel. Expecting people who haven’t already mastered intimacy to make intimate connections without a vibrant community to support them is like trying to bake bread without heat. 

We’re not going to fundamentally change the landscape of loneliness by asking “what can I do?”  That’s a question that tries to use the tools of oppressors to fight oppression. The right question is: “What can we do?” Do not struggle against isolation in isolation. 

“Building a temporary city together in the middle of the desert” is more the scale of what it takes. “Creating art together and then burning it in a ceremony” is more the kind of activity it takes. “Creating a theme camp together” is a better approach to fighting loneliness. 

So what is it we do? And how do we do it?

Do What You’d Love If There’s No “Winning”

As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the most vital dynamics of Burning Man cultural spaces is that they encourage — even demand — that people within them do the things that they’re intrinsically motivated to do. By existing largely outside of commerce (yes, yes, I know — it costs money to camp and to get there, etc., no argument here. But within the spaces themselves, commerce is largely and deliberately set aside), and asking people to entertain themselves rather than follow a pre-set program of events, Burning Man cultural spaces short circuit the question of what one “should” do. There is no singular moral high ground, there is no way one can “win,” and many of the traditional status markers have been removed. Instead one is confronted with the question: if I can do anything I want, and there’s no way to win… what do I actually want to do? 

Burning Man confronts people in a real and very pragmatic way with the question “what do I really want to do?” because to no small extent, they actually can do it. It’s a surprisingly challenging moment, or series of moments, for many people.

I call this dynamic “applied existentialism,” and it’s absolutely central to the experience of Burning Man. But more than that — Burning Man (to a limited extent institutionally and a much greater extent culturally) is supportive of people who are pursuing their intrinsic, often weird and idiosyncratic and even inexplicable, desires. That support creates a feedback loop: people discover what they want through Burning Man, and get to do it at Burning Man (and in Burning Man cultural spaces), and are supported by the Burning Man community. When people are supported in their intrinsically motivated passions by a community, they become attached to that community and support it… thus the community supports the individual, the individual supports the community, and incredibly strong social ties develop.

Even more than that, however, two other simple but profoundly powerful dynamics are at play.

The first is that when people have the opportunity to do almost anything they want… eventually they form communities. 

People want to connect, and given the opportunities, they find ways that work for them. This is less a celebration of Burning Man culture than it is a condemnation of the broader culture, which now provides so few opportunities for connection and makes them so difficult. Burning Man provides nothing but opportunities for connection, and has cultural practices (like Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Inclusion, and Participation) which make it easy.

The second is that by following their intrinsic motivations, people learn to do what they love. And the more people do what they love, the better they get at loving. 

It’s really not complicated — but the larger world gives people so few opportunities to do what they love that we’re still surprised by the impact it can have when people feel that they have permission to follow their bliss.

As we consider how to alleviate loneliness in the broader world, Burning Man’s success should offer lessons to consider. It’s not enough to tell people to reach out and try harder and do more … but it can be enough to give people the opportunities to do what they love, and support them in it. 

Given that, and some encouragement, often they’ll take care of the rest themselves. 

You Are Not a Brand, This Is Not a Competition

Where we tend to get tripped up about this is the fact that many of the things people most want — the things they intrinsically, unconditionally, love, and want to dedicate themselves to — are utterly impractical. 

Contemporary culture values consumption, and therefore tends to only value things that are compatible with consumption: efficiency, productivity, and commodification are the standards we tend to judge behavior by. These days every hobby has to be a side-hustle. The question “how do you monetize this?” hangs over every pursuit. If it can’t be monetized, can it at least be quantified? Can we build a wearable to measure it? Data or it never happened, and you can’t enjoy it.

As a result, we give social approval — and support, and time, and funding — to efforts to address loneliness that are overtly productive or seem like quantifiable acts of self-help. Notice the Surgeon General’s emphasis on taking 15 minutes a day to call someone — anyone, it doesn’t matter who, it doesn’t matter what the particulars are. Can you get those 15 minutes in? How about 10,000 steps?

It may be better than nothing, but most people are not made happy — let alone less lonely — by the pursuit of metrics. 

Instead, people are made happy by things that we want to do for their own sake… however idiosyncratic, often inexplicable, that may be, and whether it makes sense to anyone else or not. We are made happy by the things that, even if we had all of our needs in the world met and had everything that we could ask for, we’d still want to do anyway. Things that have everything to do with our souls and our deep selves and our unconditional connections to other people. 

And these are exactly the kind of thing that contemporary society doesn’t support; that contemporary society, in fact, looks down on and tries to stamp out. Asking a student who has found a subject they love “when are you going to use that in real life?” separates that person from their capacity to love for its own sake. It’s going to bring them joy! That’s how they’ll use it in real life! Asking someone who has a hobby or art practice they love if they can turn it into a side hustle or a “real job” insists that love only has value if it can compete in the marketplace. Our culture tends to disregard relationships that aren’t “going somewhere,” as if crossing a finish line is more important than the joy we bring each other.

The belief that everybody is “their own brand” is a rallying cry for alienation. A way we are taught to dehumanize ourselves.

Turning yourself into a brand is the opposite of doing what you love … and separates you from your authentic engagement with the world. 

Do not look to the market for permission to feel connected. That’s true whether the market measures itself in dollars, or clicks, or likes.

It is when we support people doing what they love, especially the things that have no clear reward or extrinsic value, that we help them reach outside of themselves and learn how to love. Especially because, by supporting them in their authenticity, we are already connecting with them in an important way.

The 10 Principles are meant to be unconditional values (that was Larry’s term): things we don’t sacrifice for another goal, because even if all our needs are met, we’d still want Gifting and Radical Self-Expression and Participation and all the rest in our lives. Because they’re valuable for their own sake.

Similarly, in my exploration of psychomagic — a kind of art experience that San Francisco’s art underground developed and that Burning Man emerged out of — it seem clear that creating the kinds of “transformational experiences” that lead people to feel more open and connected, comes out of creating circumstances that cannot be optimized, cannot be gamed, cannot be won. Transformative experiences of this kind do not come from striving to win, but from making meaningful decisions about how you want to live in situations where there’s no such thing as winning. Play and honesty and authenticity for their own sake, outside of commerce, create the mindsets that allow us to experience a deeper connection. 

When we do these things together, we become less lonely. Doing what we love works far better in this atomized and commodifying world, than a self-help style crusade to beat loneliness, because life has far more in common with an art project than it does a competition.

Burning Man has been a 37 year experiment in making the world less lonely. The Surgeon General, and anyone else interested in that cause, should study the results.

Cover image of Black Rock City sunset over “LOVE” by Laura Kimpton, 2019 (Photo by Eleanor Preger)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

3 Comments on “What Burning Man Can Teach the Surgeon General About Curing Loneliness

  • LadyBee says:

    Hear, hear! So well written, Caveat. Larry was greatly influenced by a book called Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, which is about the decline of social clubs in America, like the Elks, the Shriners, etc., and how it’s become so difficult to belong to a group. There’s a film about this in the SF Doc Fest: Join or Die, at the Roxie and streaming online in early June. https://sfdocfest2023.eventive.org/films/64378c55a102a7006cb9594c. I’ve always believed that the success and popularity of Burning Man is because it provides instant community, which so many lack. That’s why we have over 100 regional events on 6 continents. We all need community.

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  • Jim Foster says:

    Perhaps one of the most warming things about the Burn are the hugs. This can transform a moment into something special even when done by or to a total stranger. Makes one realize that others around you do care and want to share the experience and you are really not alone.

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  • This is a beautiful article, Caveat. I was with the Surgeon General at the last US Mayors conference, discussing the importance of lifelong experiments such as Burning Man. We are launching the program Cities of Happiness worldwide, and Black Rock City is the benchmark. So proud to contribute to realizing a world with less loneliness and more freedom, consciousness, and happiness for all…from BM.

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