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The Need to Socialize Is Healthy, but How Can We Do It Safely?

News about another Omicron sub-variant has some rethinking recent changes.

Key points

  • We need social contact and social experiences for our psychological health.
  • Sometimes excitement over social engagement can overpower our personal inhibitions and values.
  • Planning ahead and being deliberate in our choices can help us have meaningful, fun social engagements that are also safe.
 rawpixel/123RF
Source: rawpixel/123RF

“I am so tired of this,” said Jason*, a young man who has just come down with COVID. “We thought we were free and clear. I went to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration and had a great time. And now I’ve got the damned virus. And I don’t care what they say. I’m miserable. This isn’t a mild case.”

Two weeks ago, we were celebrating the downturn of COVID cases. This week, students have stopped wearing masks in class at many schools and universities around the country. We were feeling free. We were ready to celebrate. Big parties, sports events, concerts, and Broadway shows suddenly felt safe again.

And now people like Jason, who finally felt free to let loose and socialize, are getting hit by what Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., called in the New York Times on March 23, 2022, the “next wave of the pandemic”—the BA.2 Omicron sub-variant of the Coronavirus. As has happened throughout the past two years, reports of how much we need to worry about this new development have been contradictory. For instance, on March 22, 2022, Reuters reported that the sub-variant is extremely contagious, but that “U.S. health experts say a major wave of new infections here appears unlikely.” And then, in the very next sentence, the article says that “a resurgence in parts of Asia and Europe have raised concerns that one will follow in the United States given previous patterns during the two years of the pandemic.”

We need to be able to socialize, to experience what the author Adam Grant described in July 2021 in the New York Times as collective effervescence, that “synchrony you feel when you slide into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, cousins at a religious service or teammates on a soccer field.” Grant further noted that “during this pandemic,” the emotional joy of connecting in the physical presence of other people has “been largely absent from our lives.” How much more valid that statement is after this year of limited, cautious social contact!

We humans are social creatures.

Research has shown that we function better on every level when we are in contact with others. Hence collective effervescence provides us with a sense of well-being and pleasure that we cannot often achieve in solitude. Grant writes that even introverts have begun to show signs of the stress of not having enough social interaction during the last two years.

Yet, there’s a rub to this perspective. Healthy behaviors develop within the context of a healthy social setting. And collective effervescence can blur into social or group contagion, which is what happens when behaviors, attitudes, and feelings can spread through a crowd or other types of groups from one member to another. A perfect example of collective effervescence blurring into group contagion was reported by several news outlets in early January 2022.

A New York Times article states that videos taken by passengers on a flight from Canada to Mexico show them “dancing and jumping in the aisles, yelling without masks on and passing around bottles of alcohol. One woman can be seen vaping in the cabin.” The dangers of social contagion include a diminished awareness of limitations and boundaries, leading an individual to engage in behaviors they would not participate in on their own. In other words, during social or group contagion, individuals may let go of some of their personal values in order to maintain a connection to a particular group. This phenomenon can lead to consuming more alcohol, drugs, or engaging in sexual activities that one would not normally engage in, for instance. It can also lead to acts of physical violence that one would not commit on one’s own.

Research reminds us of something we are all too aware of in these times of COVID: Such behaviors can also lead to the transmission of illness across a group.

But what do we do?

We need social contact desperately. We need to know that we can be connected physically and emotionally to other human beings. We are tired of this.

There are, sadly, no clear answers to this question. I have several friends who are physicians, and I asked them for their opinions—off the record. Some tell me that they are returning pretty much to normal activity but still wearing masks and washing hands when they see patients. Others are being much more cautious, returning to some activities but not all. Students in some schools and universities are no longer being required to wear masks, but according to a recent article in YaleMedicine, the pros and cons of masks in schools are complex and often confusing.

Eugene Shapiro, M.D., a Yale Medicine pediatric infectious diseases specialist, told YaleMedicine, “I will be wearing a mask for a long time—for as long as the virus is with us.” He told the interviewer, “It’s not unreasonable to wear a mask, but a mandate is something different, with all the legalese involved.”

The concerns on college campuses reflect the greater concerns of our society. Gerri Taylor, the co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force, talked to an interviewer for InsideHigherEd about some concerns about the lifting of mask restrictions in colleges and universities. She worries about “threats posed to high-risk individuals on campus as well as the possible emergence of new coronavirus variants that could produce an unexpected spike, as Omicron did.” But many educators feel that the benefits of being able to socialize and interact without masks outweigh some of these risks.

Psychologically conflicting desires are seldom simple to manage, and the issues related to COVID are both psychological and physical. Yet perhaps Gerri Taylor’s advice to college administrators can be useful for each of us as we struggle to resolve these conflicts and make our own personal decisions about socializing:

  • Be thoughtful and intentional about lifting your personal restrictions.
  • Have a very clear plan on what to do if cases and hospitalizations begin to increase.
  • And finally, “have a really strong plan in place that deals with contingencies and be able to pivot quickly” if you need to.

As Dr. Frieden puts it, we need to be ready to take action and to act flexibly.

The pull for collective effervescence and the desire to be self-protective are both real needs. The truth is that we can never meet all of our needs all of the time. The goal for each of us is to find ways to set realistic limits on our behavior so that we can take care of ourselves and others at the same time.

*names and identifying info changed for privacy

copyright @fdbarth 2022

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