Reframing: Social Interaction is a Need

As I scroll through social media posts and hear stories of various emotional responses to the Covid-19 Quarantine, I have been surprised to be confronted with an aspect of isolation I had not considered. It never occurred to me that limiting social contact would have a profound effect on so many. Even with the presence of technology, there are a lot of threads quarantine is tugging at, threatening to unravel garments. 

The duty of social distancing is tough

I see a hundred humorous memes posted each day describing the way quarantine and isolation drives us to drink alcohol, I hear of people hiding in their closets for personal space, the bitter argument over what constitutes an essential business continues, and I see women pulling their hair out trying to homeschool. Many are juggling the added responsibility that accompanies 24/7 childcare with work-from-home dynamics. Restaurants are closed and everyone is cooking three meals a day causing an influx of “what the __ do I make for dinner”, “where can I buy ____”, and “when is unemployment coming” posts. Many sites are brimming with the honest posts of those struggling without therapist interaction, access to activity venues, or other typical escape routes.

My first response to all this was: This is how elderly and disabled people live constantly, with no end in sight, what’s the big deal? Quarantine will end, the pandemic will eventually come to a grinding halt, life will resume for most people. But those that are elderly and disabled will continue on, dwelling in the isolation they have known long before this outbreak. Elderly and disabled often have limited mobility, causing social interaction to be at the mercy of technology or the good graces of those that choose to make an effort. This has become a way of life that many elderly and disabled have had to adapt to over the years, often begrudgingly.  After all, what choice have we had?

For me, this pandemic has highlighted an aspect of disability and elder care that hasn’t garned attention in times past. As I observe the mental health impact this quarantine bequests on people that are otherwise completely healthy and have no disability or mental health concerns. If being stuck at home and under stress has this much of an impact on people of full capability, sending many into a state of chaos, anxiety, and depression, how much more would limited interaction affect a person that in addition to long-term endurance of quarantine-like conditions also struggles with some sort of physical or mental health issue? 

God created us as social beings and this is not only displayed in scripture but reinforced as science addresses mental well-being. The smallest social interaction has an enormous impact on well-being, even when we do not think we need it. I listened to an interview with Nicholas Epley recently, social psychologist and author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. (Epley, N. (2014). Mindwise: how we understand what others think, believe, feel and want. London: Penguin Books.) In various studies Epley found that when our intuition is for solitude, it is often incorrect. In each controlled study they discovered even when people thought they preferred solitude and silence on public transportation systems they rated the satisfaction of their experience much higher if they socialized. The type of conversation didn’t matter, whether the person was a stranger didn’t matter. In the interview with Laurie Santos, Yale University Professor, Epley described another situation where a railroad corporation surveyed customers and found customers claimed to desire solitude and silence during commute times. But when a rail-car was opened for social hour it had to be shut down due to overcrowding! A fact that had Epley place his hands on his head, shaking it. Another clear example of ways that our intuition can be often incorrect.

In the first lecture of Yale University course Science of Well-Being, Professor Laurie Santos addresses what she calls the “G.I. Joe Fallacy”.  (Science of Well-Being is the most popular class in the three century history of Yale, and as of March 2020 during Quarantine more than 600,000 students have signed up to take this online free course.) (Santos, L. (2018). Coursera. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being.; Hathaway, B. (Mar. 25, 2020) YaleNews. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from https://news.yale.edu/2020/03/25/housebound-world-finds-solace-yales-science-well-being-course.) Santos describes the G.I. Joe cartoons from the 1980’s that ended with a moral lesson for children such as street safety. These blips always ended with G.I. Joe reminding us that, “knowing is half the battle”. It turns out, however, knowing is not half the battle, and that is the fallacy. In our minds we often know that we want to be alone, or that we won’t feel better being around people. Science has proven otherwise. Now on the flip side of this coin knowing that we must be socially involved doesn’t help unless we actually implement socialization even when we don’t want to. This may mean smiling on the subway and talking to the person across from us. It may mean making small chat with someone in the locker room, a cashier, or putting our phones away during dinner. Whatever it takes to increase social connection can be done to increase community well-being and personal happiness.

Empty shelves weeks after Covid19 Quarantine

How does this apply to elderly or disabled people spending an inordinate amount of time alone? Put simply, social connection is that much more important for them. There may not be studies on this available yet, but the existing data certainly contains implications. The truth is, disabled and elderly people are often thought of in terms of ‘need’. If there is a need for food, water, transportation, medicine, it will be met. It may not even occur to a healthy person to ask if their disabled or elderly friend or neighbor needs a social call. Likewise, it may not occur to someone that is disabled or elderly that a social call would be considered a need. After all, don’t they feel like they bother friends and family enough with other needs?

The thing that amazes me about science and behavioral health is the way new data reinforces biblical principles in place for thousands of years. For example, there is a Jewish custom, Havruta (fellowship), where study and learning must occur in pairs, never alone. (Schulz, R G. (n.d.) Havruta: Learning in Paris. Myjewishlearning.com. (last visited: May 4, 2020).) The idea here is that iron sharpens iron; the enrichment of education is through interaction with peers. (Proverbs 27:17.) Bryson Katele also makes a great point when he describes the togetherness of Christians to be not a luxury or a devotional, but a necessity. (Katele, B. M. (2003). Fellowship: Its Meaning and Its Demand. Ministry. June 2013. Retrieved from https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2003/06/fellowship-its-meaning-and-its-demand.html.)

Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, […] but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25.) Social connection is a key element of who we are created to be. There are so many differences in the world –  differences in abilities, opinions, beliefs, habits, interests, careers, etc. But right now, we have one thing in common: Quarantine. We all share together and stand together in this, but when this is over what will bring us together then? 

I’ll tell you: We are humans that need social connection. This unity isn’t applicable only to times of quarantine or crisis. When life goes back to revolving around four spinning wheels and busyness, let’s remember how isolation impacted us and the people around us. Let’s remember how isolation sent the most stable of us into a state of chaos and how the most vulnerable seemed so steady. Let’s remember the sacrifice of millions of healthcare workers putting their lives at risk, realizing lives were depending on their social connection. Yes, when things return to a new normal let’s take a few moments to pause for a visit with an elderly or disabled person near us. They need it, and, it turns out, so do we.

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