As we near the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, an important question is, “How will we emerge from it?” In other words, how will we be different, if at all, from when we entered this protracted period of quarantine and fear of contracting a deadly, intractable virus?
It’s not looking very good. Here are five changes in our lives that have become ubiquitous over the past year.
We’ve become lonelier.
Just before the pandemic began in January of last year, Cigna raised a siren bell about a global loneliness epidemic that had been brewing for a number of years. Over three of every five Americans, according to the Cigna study, were lonely.
The “epidemic” designation is global, it turns out. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May even appointed a Minister for Loneliness in 2018. May made this decision on the heels of a study that found that British children spend less time outside than prison inmates. During the social isolation of the pandemic, this loneliness has only compounded.
We’ve become more anxious.
During isolation, emotions expand and magnify. For this reason, among others, anxiety levels are, on average, three times higher than they were a year ago. Anxiety has been described by Berkeley psychologist Richard Lazarus as an “existential emotion” because it is produced by threats to our existence that we have trouble identifying. It is due to the ambiguous yet disturbing nature of these perceived threats that anxiety elicits so much arousal and hypervigilance.
This high level of activation or intensity associated with anxiety, as another Berkeley psychologist, Dacher Keltner, has found, can lead to untenable levels of stress that cause immune system failure through the over-release of proinflammatory cytokine. Over the past year, common daily decisions such as whether to see a good friend or go to the supermarket have offered multitudinous opportunities for us to worry about our fate and our anxiety to surge.
We’ve become more depressed.
Depression is different from loneliness and also from anxiety. The psychological scripts that induce loneliness center on one common theme: I wish my social relationships were more meaningful than they are. The psychological scripts that underlie depression are very different: I wish my life were more meaningful than it is—and then a second, even more toxic script—and I feel unworthy and incapable of changing it.
The pandemic offers numerous daily opportunities to feel unworthy of bringing meaning and a feeling of self-efficacy into our lives, which is why it has induced a surge in mental health issues, including suicidal thinking.
We’ve become more polarized.
Political divisions have torn the US and many other countries apart and sown a level of mutual distrust as pandemic as the pandemic. Our separation from each other and our cognitive association with an ingroup we haven’t been able to connect with in-person has accentuated already surging levels of anxiety, loneliness, depression, and stress.
The common ingredient in this perfect storm of mental health issues? The lack of the closest thing we have to a panacea to solving our societal ills, the absence of which is not only lacking in lonely people but is one of the primary means of reducing anxiety and stress: Social connection. One of the only widely-agreed upon findings in happiness research, in fact, is that one of the most significant contributors to our well-being is the social connections we share and the time we spend with family, friends, and people in our community.
This is not a good state of the union. Now, what if all four of the above psychological malaises were rooted in one overarching behavioral change—a new habit that would bring about what we all most need: to connect with each other meaningfully? This is precisely the case. Here it is:
Stop seeking social connection online.
As I highlight in Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, we go online seeking social connection, but end up with only social information. While social connection is a buffer against loneliness, depression, anxiety, trauma, stress, ingroup-outgroup polarization—again, it is the closest we have to a panacea to turn our lives and society around—social information is not.
If a friend were to sit down across the table from you at a restaurant and open with “Hello. I have been doing great! We had such a wonderful vacation. My kids are so cute. My oldest son won an award at school. We are building a treehouse together,” would you desire to have another lunch again ever in this millennium with said friend? This is how we present ourselves on social media in the greatest game of collective self-presentation and impression management ever invented. It should be no surprise that the most frequently reported emotion on Facebook is envy.
To understand the effects of technology on our well-being, consider the teen suicide rate which, for the first time in US history, is higher than the teen homicide rate. Now for the clincher: This statistic was recorded after the release of the first iPhone—and 24-7 access to digital communication—sent suicide rates surging before the pandemic. We touched our phones, on average, over 2,500 times per day before we went into quarantine; anecdotal data suggests our heads-down habits have only worsened.
To better understand why our digital habits do not augur well for a flourishing life, consider the “displacement effect” of technology: More time online equals less time with family and friends. For this reason, a study by cancer researcher Paula Klemm found 92 percent of the women who participated in an online breast cancer support group were depressed as compared to none of the women in face-to-face support groups.
So what can we do as we emerge from the worst public health crisis—read: both physical and mental health—of our lifetimes? There are many strategies for social connection in a pandemic. Here I will share only the simplest and perhaps the most important: Stop texting and call. Then, once you are ready—perhaps initially with masks and social distancing (not to be confused with emotional distancing) as the world prepares to reopen—parlay the relationships you’ve been building up by phone into in-person interactions.