Who Are We When We’re Not Going Out?

Without the aspiration of living our best life all the time, there are harder questions left to answer

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Stay home. Avoid large gatherings. Don’t travel. Skip seeing even small groups of friends. As coronavirus spreads around the globe, abiding by these rules has, temporarily at least, made my embarrassingly incessant FOMO disappear.

Like many millennials, my social life has lived online for about as long as I’ve had a social life. And yet suddenly, I no longer have a nagging feeling that I should go out every Friday night or spend every long weekend on a super-special and photogenic getaway. Gone is the worry that I’m wasting a day spent doing nothing in particular. I can pause the self-sabotaging cycle of checking Instagram and wondering how my life stacks up with everyone else’s. Now I’m free from my own toxically high expectations of living my best life all the time. I’m just relieved to be okay and in good health each day that’s true.

Now that social distancing has prohibited IRL hangouts, plenty of extroverts can connect with their friends through a Zoom happy hour. But I suspect there’s a broader collective problem of people not knowing what they like to do or who they are when the Instagram-heightened pressure to go out is removed.

Considering how much has been written about the negative effects of social media on mental health, I’m surely not alone in feeling this one tiny tinge of groundedness during an unprecedented global crisis. Instagram Stories have been emptied of tropical island selfies and bar crawls. All the things people would normally do to show off on social media — party with large groups of friends, eat at a coveted brunch spot, travel to three cities in one trip — would get them shamed now.

So, what does this mean for those of us who have felt for so long that these are the models of a good life and evidence that our own lives are somehow lacking? What do we actually like when nobody’s watching?

The benefits of being stuck at home

There are, it seems, some good things about being stuck at home. “I definitely feel less guilty [for not going out] now, and it’s nice that we can all find mutuality in the fact that we have to stay inside,” says Brooke, 28, who has spent her spare time cooking, writing, and checking in on the people in her life.

On a financial level, Goali Saedi Bocci, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Millennial Mental Health Toolbox, also notes that some of us might be heartened to remind ourselves that social distancing means we’re saving money on entertainment. Cheap activities like reading a book or baking bread have replaced overspending on craft cocktails and last-minute “discount” flights. And for those of us who are fortunate to still have an income during this period of uncertainty, that extra cash can go a long way toward helping the less fortunate members of our community.

Mostly, though, our priorities have shifted. I know I’ve found that my focus has changed from coordinating multiple group hangs in one day to making sure my grandparents are finding safe ways to get groceries.

And as many of us face down an indefinite (for now) future of staying at home, we can no longer scratch our itch for social connection with after-work happy hours or weekend parties. “You have to intentionally and actively seek out social interaction—that’s super important,” says Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.

Headlee emphasizes how crucial it is to actually call or, better yet, FaceTime someone every day. “There is a wealth of neurological and clinical research that shows that talking with others on the phone lowers your stress levels, cortisol levels, and heart rate and improves your cognitive abilities,” she says. These are essential perks for emotional well-being, especially at a time when every news update is somehow bleaker than the last.

To get through this, it’s on us to reach out to our friends and family to ask them what they need and to navigate talking about the growing pandemic with a similar degree of care as we would use in moments of bereavement. And in this process, we can learn new tools for building bonds.

“I think that this [crisis] can challenge people to think beyond convenience friendships,” Saedi Bocci says. “Even in a lot of my professional emails, everyone is acknowledging what’s going on, and I think that, globally, the level of empathy has gone up a lot.” It’s time to reach out in personal, private channels — the way we used to.

Beware digital burnout

So far, one of the downsides of relying so heavily on digital communication to maintain social ties is the implication that we’re all available 24/7. Andie, 29, still feels as overwhelmed with plans as ever — only now they’re all virtual.

“[Now, it’s] like, ‘Let’s have a happy hour!’ ‘Let’s do a puzzle!’ ‘Let’s have a Netflix party!’” Andie says. “Which are all awesome ideas that I love, but I have to schedule them in my Google Calendar if I want to keep track.” She’s finding herself so overbooked that she started penciling in appointments for her own solo TV-watching time—something she’s definitely never had to do before.

In the same way that texting can trick our brains into expecting immediate responses from our partners or friends, knowing we’re all at home can quickly morph into a new standard—that we have no excuse not to be online. And just like that, the collective burnout we feel from always having back-to-back plans might be replicated by our new virtual hangouts if we’re not careful.

As we remain housebound, digital burnout poses a major risk factor for our mental health. Throughout this time, we’ll all have to learn to balance our desire for space with our need for human connection — and to respect those boundaries in others.

A reconnection with ourselves

I hope this virus will be contained soon so we can all resume our lives and not live in grim uncertainty every single day. But it would also be great to get one permanent change from all this: a recentering around what really matters to us. For many years, I’ve felt disconnected with myself, often consumed by worries I know are superficial and incapable of bringing me real joy. I’ve felt a fluctuating, clawing need to fit in ever since I started using social media as a self-conscious teen, and it has never really gone away.

If there’s any silver lining in this scary and uncertain time, it’s that it’s forcing each of us to slow down and reevaluate what really matters. As I take it day by day, I call my family more. I feel a deeper sense of appreciation for my friends, who keep finding creative ways to stay connected, and my partner, who responsibly stocked up on food for us, and the part-time job that I’m very thankful to still have.

I’m not alone in this transformation. Bocci says some of her clients have, so far, reported positive post-confinement changes that range from feeling better rested to experiencing improved relationships with their parents. Headlee, meanwhile, sees this period of in-between time as a chance for people to find simple joys for the pure sake of enjoyment: “I would love to see people take up some hobbies—hobbies that are not Instagrammable, hobbies that don’t make money, that don’t qualify as a side business. That would be wonderful for people’s well-being and mental health.”

There’s no telling when this pandemic will end or how the world will shift afterward. But I hope I come out of it freed, once and for all, from the deeply privileged fixation on living an Instagram-approved life.

freelance writer with work in VICE, BuzzFeed News, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Insider, and more.

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