We’re All About to Get a Lot More Lonely
How to deal with COVID-19-induced social distancing without getting too… socially distanced
“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…