We’re All About to Get a Lot More Lonely

How to deal with COVID-19-induced social distancing without getting too… socially distanced

Photo: MoMo Productions/Getty Images

“S“Social distancing” has abruptly become a buzzword. In an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, public officials are telling us to stay away from group gatherings, work from home if possible, avoid any unnecessary travel, and generally limit our comings and goings.

All this solitude is a big adjustment if you’re used to riding a packed bus to get to the bustling office, and then heading to a crowded gym for a workout before meeting up with friends at a busy restaurant. Overnight, we’ve gone from a world in which a jam-packed calendar is a status symbol, to one in which it’s fashionable to have a six-foot personal buffer zone. The less you see of your fellow humans right now, the better — even if it flies in the face of decades of research telling us that social connection is essential to our community, mental, and even physical health.

Loneliness carries its own emotional and health risks — risks that are comparable to smoking, obesity, or air pollution, according to one 2010 study. “We’re isolating the virus,” says Ali Khan, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and the dean of its College of Public Health. “Let’s try not to isolate the people.”

Yet it’s hard to avoid some degree of isolation when you suddenly remove so many of our usual sources of human contact. From the office water cooler to the conference room to the power lunch, our working lives are full of human interactions that foster a day-to-day sense of social connection. And then there are the gathering places that are neither work nor home: the so-called third places like coffee shops, gyms, and libraries, “locations where people gather and often talk about things that are important to them,” as one study put it. Tell people to stay away from these spaces, and you’re confining them to relative isolation — particularly if they live completely alone. For the elderly, the immunocompromised, and other groups most threatened by COVID-19, taking the necessary extra precautions can make that isolation particularly acute.

But it’s possible to approach this time as a challenge, not a sentence — an exercise in creatively maintaining or even deepening social connections. We just need to do it in a way that is safe for our oldest and most vulnerable community members. Here are a few ideas:

Be smarter about social media

The better we get at meeting our social needs online, the less we will feel tempted to give in to cabin fever, leave the house, and run to the nearest crowded bar (if you can find one that’s still crowded).

But we can’t find real social satisfaction by just turning on a computer or picking up a phone. Creating an online existence that can patch the holes left by all this social distancing takes planning.

Start by looking for ways to weave social interaction into the fabric of your day. This may feel counterintuitive — particularly if you’ve set up habits or technologies to keep social media “distractions” at bay throughout the workday. But office life is full of brief social interruptions, like when you head to the office kitchen for a fresh cup of coffee, run into a colleague, and end up talking about last night’s episode of 9–1–1: Lone Star. These are the tiny interactions that keep us feeling like part of a community.

Now that you are home, it is even more important to find short, low-stakes conversations that keep you connected to other humans. Tie your mental breaks to your social needs: A comment or two in a 9–1–1 Facebook group, for example, is worth infinitely more in this context than taking five minutes to read the latest show news online. The point is to find interactions that are self-contained, and that help you maintain a sense of connection to the outside world.

Winnow the feeds

Stay informed of important updates by following official health organizations and your local offices of emergency management, but don’t go overboard. (I built my own list of epidemiologists on Twitter so that I can pay attention to people who actually know what they’re talking about.) Your discretionary social interactions — from who you exchange tweets with to whose Instagram you follow — need to point you towards the people who make you feel replenished and fulfilled, and away from the people who don’t. That means unfollowing or muting anyone whose posts regularly make you feel envious or frustrated, without judging yourself for doing it. Create lists of people whose feeds relax you, pique your interest, or just make you happy, and then only look at those people when you check in on Facebook or Twitter. (Yes, it will be an echo chamber for now, but you can go back to engaging with a wider swathe of humanity when you’re no longer relying on social media for most of your human interaction.)

Get on a video call

Think of those little social-media interactions as social snacks: They can only tide you over if your day also includes satisfying, full-meal-sized conversations.

That begins with how you stay in touch with colleagues: Slack and email may be efficient, but you’ll feel more connected if you make time for phone calls, or even better, videoconferencing. Set up your workstation in a spot in your home where it’s effortless (and soundproof) to take a web call, hang a jacket on the back of the chair, and put an extra lipstick on the table: If it’s easy to get camera ready, you’ll do more video calls, and feel less isolated.

The same principle applies to non-work interaction. If you’ve fallen into the habit of staying in touch via text, Facebook, or Instagram, now is the time to revive an ancient social custom: placing an unscheduled phone call. I know, it feels rude to just dial a phone number without first sending a calendar invitation or even a quick text message. But there is something incredibly human and immediate about picking up the phone and calling a friend without warning (unless you think it will give her a heart attack).

And this goes both ways: One of the advantages of working from home is that you can actually pick up the phone when a friend calls, even though it’s the middle of the work day. Put on your headphones and step outside and talk for a long, long time while you go for a walk (staying six feet away from any passersby), and you’ll hang up feeling nourished.

Call your mom

Those phone calls will help keep other people healthy, too. If you’re worried about someone, call them.

“Call your mother every day,” Khan advises. “These aren’t usual times, so change your behavior to reflect these times.” While you’re calling, maybe offer to pick up some groceries — because keeping people well-supplied is another way to help keep the whole community safe. “We don’t want people to break quarantine because they don’t have food,” Khan notes.

Nor is actual face-to-face interaction beyond the realm of possibility, as long as you’re healthy. “You should definitely see friends, but do it outside if possible,” to avoid spreading germs, says Eli Perencevich, MD, a professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. “Go for a walk, but stay three to six feet apart. Or sit on a park bench, but sit at the ends of the park bench.”

This combination of judicious (ideally outdoor) social interaction and copious, tech-enabled connection may give us just enough human contact to get us through this trial. But make no mistake: Social distancing will be hard — so just remember that the alternative may be even harder. As Khan notes, “The consequences of letting coronavirus run rampant are as bad or worse as the consequences of isolation.”

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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