Across the country, people are practicing social distancing.
People are staying in their homes, colleagues are connecting remotely via screens, children aren’t playing with friends at the playground and neighbours aren’t dropping in for dinner.
Health authorities have emphasised the importance of social distancing to keep the community safe from COVID19, but for some, the social isolation can be challenging.
But new research from the University of Buffalo suggests that there are other ways of fulfilling social needs without being physically close to others.
“Social needs are vital. We need food, water, and shelter. We need to connect with others and feel like we belong, too! If we don't, we see worse mental and physical health outcomes. But we can't always connect with others in traditional ways (like meeting a friend for lunch or spending time in person with family). And sometimes we don't want to pursue those routes (like after a long day of work). What do we do then? We can utilize symbolic social bonds (aka social surrogates) to fill our social needs quite effectively,” Elaine Paravati Harrigan, PhD, co-author of the research and a UB graduate told Theravive.
“In this study, we found that (even before social distancing guidelines) people tend to use a combination of traditional and non-traditional strategies often to feel connected and fulfilled. So we know people feel connected through many different strategies- that means people in isolation currently can use a variety of things to help them feel connected, despite their inability to pursue traditional routes.”
Some of the non-traditional ways that can help people feel connected include rereading books, re-watching favourite TV shows and eating comfort foods.
Paravati argues people shouldn’t feel guilty for seeking a sense of connection through non-traditional means. She says watching a favourite TV show can be just as effective at fulfilling social needs as catching up with a friend in person.
“There is probably a bit of a stigma around people who choose non-traditional strategies to fill their social needs because people often think of them as a Plan B, or an option that is only used by people who don't have the social skills to pursue traditional strategies, like going on a date or spending time in person with friends. But what we see over and over again with our research is that these non-traditional strategies aren't lesser choices, or worse at filling social needs, or only used by people who are unsuccessful in "normal" social interactions- they are helpful for many people and can lead to positive mental health outcomes, like improved mood, a better sense of connection to others, and feeling like your life has more meaning to it,” she told Theravive.
In undertaking the research, Paravati and colleagues enlisted 173 participants and asked them questions about their social connection and well-being.
They found the participants fulfilled their social needs in as many as 17 different ways, using both a combination of traditional and non-traditional social strategies.
Thanks to the social distancing rules currently in place, many are searching for answers surrounding how to stay connected and not feel isolated. Pavarti says it’s important to remember that non-traditional social strategies can still be fulfilling and provide meaning, whilst also keeping the community safe during a global pandemic.
“Just because you may be limited in what you normally can do socially during this time (such as being unable to meet up with friends or family in person due to social distancing guidelines) doesn't mean you are doomed to negative mental health outcomes,” she told Theravive.
“You can still have your need to belong met by using non-traditional strategies. Read a magazine about your favorite celebrity, watch a television show, eat comforting foods, listen to a band you love- there are all sorts of ways you can stay feeling connected and still socially and psychologically thrive, even during these challenging times.”
When it comes to feeling connected, she says one strategy isn’t necessarily better than another.
“Some may wonder, are traditional strategies better than non-traditional? Our work says no! People who used more traditional strategies didn't have greater well-being than people who used more non-traditional. In fact, a combination of both seemed to predict the best outcomes, and only non-traditional predicted feeling more meaning in life,” she said.
“Social needs can be filled in all sorts of ways, and they can all be effective. In other words, what's important is getting that sense of connection- not so much what you do to get it.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.