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Social Distancing Should Not Equal Social Isolation

Preventing one public health crisis should not create another one.

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In a time when most countries around the world have endorsed social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, it’s important to note that the name of this practice is a bit of a misnomer. A more accurate term might be “geographical distancing.” This is because the current measures entail only being apart from other people, not being socially isolated from them.

This is a key difference because social isolation has well-known and severe health consequences. To understand their magnitude, take research done by psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad and others: Social isolation seems to pose a larger danger for mortality than many known risk factors. For example, people who drink six or more alcoholic drinks per day have a lower risk of mortality than people who feel that they are socially isolated. The same is true for obesity, air pollution, and lack of physical exercise. Social isolation is associated with depression and general maladjustment.

By the same token, social connection in its various forms is associated with many well-being measures. One study finds that the difference between happy and unhappy people is not so much that good things happen to the former group, but rather that happy people have stronger social connection to others.

People are also happier when they can do something for others as opposed to doing something for themselves. One study done across countries, for example, finds that spending money to benefit other people leads to greater happiness than spending money to benefit oneself. Another study finds that volunteering and spending money to help others increase the sense that life is meaningful. In general, social connection gives meaning to life: I venture to say that if you look at the meaningful things in your life, you will find that they are directly or indirectly related to other people in your life. Social connection is a fundamental human need; it is central to our health and well-being, no matter where we are or where we were born and raised.

The important takeaway is that slowing the spread of COVID-19 to prevent one public health crisis should not increase social isolation and thereby create another public health problem. Being apart from others does not have to mean that we are also disconnected from them. Although we cannot physically be with others, we can communicate meaningfully through phone, email, Hangouts, or Skype. We can maintain regular connection with current friends, reconnect with old friends, send words of encouragement or gratitude, or just check in. We can even watch the same (online) musical performances, yoga classes, or academic classes. Simply having a shared experience can increase social connection.

Yes, it requires more effort and intentionality to connect with others in these times of geographical distancing. But research—and common sense—suggest that maintaining social connection is well worth it.


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