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Distant Socializing: How to Fight the Loneliness Epidemic

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

“Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. If you have lots of people around you—perhaps even a husband or wife, or a family, or a busy workplace—but you don’t share anything that matters with them, then you’ll still be lonely.”

Johann Hari

Authors and researchers like Johann Hari have been warning us of social isolation and the loneliness epidemic for years. We had been collectively living our lives, surrounded by people physically but shut in emotionally, and we did it on purpose.

I am writing this on March 24, 2020 amid the Coronavirus pandemic and the mass social isolation necessary to fight it. I want to point out that policies and suggestions could change after I write this so it's important to maintain up to date with our health authority's recommendations.

While I agree with the drastic measures needed to flatten the curve of this deadly virus we also need to be aware that loneliness, particularly when paired with extreme stress and uncertainty will also be deadly.

Many of us are heading into this isolation drastically ill equipped. We are the first human beings to have dismantled our tribes. We used to be much more community and family oriented which meant that in times of crisis we would have numbers of people to call on. When Americans were asked how many people they could call upon in an emergency late at night the most common answer was ‘0’. Some people relied on the social interaction at work or leisure as the only human contact they would have at all and for now those opportunities are not available.

Now we have a more urgent desire to build community connections but we are unable to do so by conventional means. The good news is that while we do not have a cure for COVID-19 we do have a good idea how to remedy loneliness.

The antidote to systemic depression is mutual aid and protection. The sense that we are in it together. But how are we to do this while continuing our battle against the virus?

“Find someone who is alone and convince them they are not alone.” - Mother Theresa

Luckily for us, the term social distancing spread faster than the Coronavirus itself which is why most of us find ourselves in our homes even though we don’t have any symptoms. This is an incredible act of solidarity as we sacrifice for the greater good but in hindsight perhaps the term we should have been using from the beginning was distant socializing. We can and should still be connecting with others, just from a healthy distance. Here are a few ways that I’ve thought of that could help us stay emotionally and socially connected without jeopardizing our collective efforts to reduce the spread and overwhelm our healthcare system.

1) Physically meet up with neighbours/friends/ family while keeping a 6 foot distance

My wife met up with her friend in our driveway and they both stayed in their vehicles so that they could see each other while talking. I set up a driveway meeting with my father-in-law so we could plan for the coming weeks. My parents and I went for a walk keeping our distance from each other. 6 feet is the recommended distance because that’s how far a droplet can reach from a cough or sneeze. Otherwise, with proper distance and hygiene there’s not reason why you couldn’t still meet up with your loved ones and talk.

2) Make intentional phone calls

In our age of constant connectivity we don’t see the reason to actually call someone or even write them a specific email, because we assume we could just text or polo at any given moment. We’ve lost the intentionality of our communication. It was so special to get a letter or phone call from someone because it meant that they were specifically wanting to communicate for a period of time with just you. Don’t assume that just because you’ve posted a million times about what your family has been up to that everyone in your social circles knows what your family has been up to. Use this time of social isolation as an excuse to specifically and intentionally call some people that maybe you haven’t had contact with in a long time. These types of calls send a message to people that you are specifically thinking about them.

3) Ask for help

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.” Benjamin Franklin

We are often looking for people to help in times like these, which is great but actually a better way to improve connection with your neighbours is to ask them for a favour first. It sends the message that you have a relationship in which asking favours is encouraged and acceptable. It makes others feel important and needed. Maybe you know your neighbour is going to the grocery store and you ask if they could pick you up some milk so that an unnecessary trip into public is avoided. Maybe you know someone that makes really good banana bread and you call and ask for directions. By asking for helpi you are increasing the social capital in the same way that spending money in your community contributes to the economy.

4) Distress L/ Text 4Hope

In an absolute bind we have options for reaching out. In Alberta we have a specific distress line that we can access by texting COVID19HOPE to 393939. There is also a kids Help Phone and the National Suicide Prevention line to name a few (found below). Perhaps you would be interested in volunteering for such an organization during the pandemic. I had a crazy idea of gathering phone numbers and just letting people randomly call each other but I’ve been talked out of that idea. The gist is, there are some lonely people and somebody needs to be there to talk to them. We could save lives just by being available occasionally for a phone call from someone who is vulnerable.

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

The National Suicide 1-833-456-4566

5) Use our shared fear/care to bridge the gap with the “other”

Social psychology has known for decades now that the best way for diverse or even competing factions to come together is through “superordinate goals”. Basically, if we have a common enemy or common goal, we will be able to overcome our differences and benefit from a sense of community. Instead, over the last decade or so we have done the opposite, hunkering down in our trenches as we formed ideological based tribes to war one with another. Much like 9/11, this experience is going to, and has already forged a greater sense of solidarity among us which, if we foster it and cherish it, will benefit us for years to come. I’m all for healthy criticism of leaders and establishments. Our governments haven’t responded perfectly to this crisis. But how amazing is it that the majority of us have sacrificed for the greater good. In today’s climate I didn’t think this was possible. But put all the left-right, theist/atheist, Flames/Oilers bull aside. Right now we are one people and we are working together to save our world. Reach out to someone with whom you usually disagree and express gratitude to them for doing their part. David Brooks in his book “The Second Mountain” said that tribalism is about mutual hatred and the sense of scarcity. Community is about mutual affection and a sense of shared humanity. Let’s build the latter.

6) Maybe now is the time to seek professional help

You have lots of time and lots of worry. Many of you still have benefits from that job you are now doing from home. Perhaps now is a good time to talk to someone about some of your fears that you worry your loved ones aren’t capable of hearing. Maybe you feel like you’ve had to be strong for your kids and need an outlet to express your concerns. Maybe your kids are struggling and you don’t know how to help them. Whatever reason you have, it wouldn’t hurt to make a call to that therapist that you researched and think will be a good match for you. If you have benefits it will cost you very little if anything at all and you are still contributing to the economy! I happen to know a few excellent practitioners with great cameras and microphones so that online counselling can be as close to in person as possible.

Do you have more ideas about how you can continue to socialize from a safe distance? Comment and share and maybe we can reduce the loneliness epidemic as well.

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