09/16/2022 – You brought your computer home from work “for 2 weeks” in March 2020 and stayed at home for 2 years. Schools went virtual. Club meetings have been cancelled. Gyms closed.
Friends and family became taboo. Do you remember to avoid other people on the street?
Things have gotten better since the outbreak, but we have remained in relative isolation for much longer than expected. And that’s a bit sad – and bad for us. It turns out that avoiding a virus can be bad for your health, because togetherness and connection are the foundation of our well-being.
“Humans are designed by evolution to crave contact with other people,” says Richard B. Slatcher, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. “This has been called the ‘need to belong,’ and it’s up there as a basic need with food and water.”
Makes sense: Primitive humans who socialized with others were more likely to find food, protect each other, and survive to pass on their genes, he says.
When we were suddenly forced into isolation in 2020, social ties were already crumbling. The book bowling alone came out 2 decades earlier. Author Robert D. Putnam lamented the decline in “social capital,” the value we derive from connections, and our sense of community support. The Atlantic published a story titled “Why You’ll Never See Your Friends Again” months before either of us heard about COVID-19.
The pandemic accelerated these feelings of isolation. Even after being vaccinated and boosted, many of us feel like we are not connecting in the way we would like. And for some, politics has deepened that divide.
Should we care? Yes, say the experts. Social relationships are strongly linked to health and longevity. A famous study published in 2010 PLOS medicine concluded that social contact is as important for health as not smoking and more effective than exercise.
This review, which drew on data from 148 studies, found that people with stronger social connections, by comparison, were 50% more likely to survive the 7.5-year follow-up (ie not die from causes such as cancer or heart disease die). to those with weaker ties.
More and more evidence is being added. The American Heart Association released a statement this August saying social isolation and loneliness are linked to a 30% increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
“Given the prevalence of social segregation in the United States, the public health implications are quite significant,” said Crystal Wiley Cené, MD, chair of the group that authored the statement, in a news release.
The organization said the data supports our suspicion: Isolation and loneliness have increased during the pandemic, particularly among adults ages 18 to 25, older adults, women and those on low incomes.
Your shrinking circle
In the first year of the pandemic, there was a slight increase in loneliness and mental distress and a slight decline in life satisfaction, according to a 2022 study Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
For about 1 in 4 people, study author Emily Long, PhD, says social circles shrank “even after lockdown restrictions were eased.”
As your circle shrinks, you tend to hold on to those closest to you — the people who are likely to be most like you. You lose the variety of opinions and viewpoints you might get when chatting with someone in your pickleball league, or even a stranger.
“Our exposure to different people, lifestyles, and opinions has decreased significantly,” says Long. Many of us have seen relationships with others weakened or severed altogether due to disagreements over COVID restrictions and vaccinations.
This has happened to acquaintances, once close friends or family members, as their views on burning issues have come to the fore – issues we may have avoided in the past to keep the peace.
Some of those relationships may not be rebuilt, Long says, although it’s too early to say.
How to make better connections online
Many of us have gone online for our social interaction. Did Zoom and Instagram and Facebook help us connect?
Sure, in a way.
“It might be harder at times, but people can form meaningful relationships without being physically close,” says John Caughlin, PhD, director of the communications department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who studies “computer-mediated communications.”
It all depends on how you use it. Late-night “Doom Scrolling” is not relational. But you can form new or stronger connections through social media if you “treat each other like people,” he says.
Here’s one way: Don’t tap a lazy “like” on a post, instead leave a thoughtful comment that will elevate the conversation. Perhaps you can share your experiences or offer words of support. Make a restaurant recommendation when they’re out.
But remember, social media has become a minefield during the pandemic, says Caughlin. People have blown up their views on staying home, vaccinations and masks. You quickly learned who shared your views and reconsidered your relationship with others.
It’s tempting to think of social media as a scourge. But that might just be our inherent panic reaction to new technology, Caughlin says. Surprisingly, the general research – and there has been a lot – has shown that social media has little impact on well-being, he says.
A recent Stanford University meta-analysis of 226 studies from 2006 to 2018 looked for an association between social media use and well-being. What they found: zero. While some studies show a link between social media and anxiety and depression, that may be because those suffering from depression or anxiety are more likely to spend more time on social media to distract themselves.
Make someone happy, including you
Does that sound familiar to you? They tend to keep in touch with friends as a social media voyeur, rather than calling, texting, or meeting in person, for example. If this sounds like you, you are not alone.
But if you reverse course and reconnect, chances are both you and the other person will benefit. New research from the American Psychological Association of nearly 6,000 people shows that we really appreciate it when someone reaches out to us—even if it’s a short message. The study wasn’t just about the pandemic, but researchers say the findings could help people rebuild relationships, especially if they’re unsure about trying.
At the same time, Slatcher, the Georgia professor, notes that more screen time is “not a solution” to loneliness or separation.
“All the work out there has shown that using social media isn’t associated with people being happier or less depressed,” he says.
According to Slatcher, the two most important parts of building and maintaining relationships are:
These always take place in person. On social, not so much.
“Both men and women feel happier when they feel emotionally close to another person, and that’s harder online,” says Slatcher.
It turns out that the strongest connections—the best for your well-being—are made when you put the phone down.
A surprising bright spot related to pandemics
We’ve felt more divided than ever during the pandemic, which Pew research has backed up. By some standards, Americans have the lowest levels of social trust since World War II, says Frederick J. Riley, executive director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute. If neighbors within a community do not trust each other, they cannot trust society as a whole.
But it’s not all bad news.
Researchers have found that connections within communities grew stronger during the pandemic, Riley says. These are the people who run errands for elderly neighbors, donate supplies and clothing, organize family-friendly gatherings, plant community gardens, and more.
The “we’re all in this together” mindset emerged early in the pandemic, Long and his colleagues noted. A meta-analysis 2022 in Psychological Bulletin found that there is more cooperation between strangers. This may be due to increased urbanization or living alone – the distance from our tight-knit crew forces some to cooperate with others when they otherwise would not.
That’s healthy, too: A sense of belonging in your community, or “neighborhood cohesion,” as a 2020 study by Canadian researchers points out, has been linked to a lower risk of stroke, heart attack, and early death. It also helps with mental health.
You can take advantage of this by, for example, volunteering at your child’s school, attending church services, joining a fitness group, or going to festivals in your city. These provide a sense of identity, higher self-esteem, and can reduce stress and make you feel less lonely, the study authors say. It also fosters a sense that we can make meaningful change in our cities.
Surely we’ve all had a lot of arguments these days – gun control, abortion, politics. Riley says that deeper issues, like feeling safe in the community and creating a better place for children to grow up, help us overcome these thorny issues.
Sharing goals brings people together, he says, and that’s fueled by that innate drive for connection and togetherness.
“I’m very optimistic about what the future will bring,” he says. “We were in this place [of social distrust] and it’s the people in the local communities that show that everyone can stand up and make a difference in the place they live.”