January 14, 2023 08:57
Communities can be incredibly resilient after experiencing trauma. Londoners showed a great spirit of unity during the German bombing raids of World War II and later rebuilt the city together. When I visited the Thai island of Phuket six months after the 2004 tsunami, which left thousands dead and many more displaced, I witnessed a miraculous recovery. In many places there was almost no trace of the recent tragedy. It was a touching experience.
Transitioning from survival to newfound prosperity is critical to healing and growing after a disaster, and scholars have shown that it can be a fairly common experience. Often the worst conditions bring out the best in people, prompting them to work together to help themselves and others.
Unfortunately covid-19 seems to escape this dynamic. The most significant social aspect to emerge during the pandemic has been how the virus has forced people to isolate themselves. Those lucky enough not to have lost a family member or loved one still faced the trauma of loneliness. Apparently, instead of feeling united in difficulties, we are still trapped in a solitude that has become habitual and in which relationships have been interrupted and never restored. Many people continue to live alone, without the company of friends or loved ones to help them rebuild their lives. Maybe you too who read this could be in these conditions.
If your life hasn’t returned to “normal” before 2020, keep in mind that this is true for many other people. In a March 2022 survey conducted by the Kaiser family foundation, 59 percent of respondents said they had not fully resumed their pre-pandemic activities.
Another dangerous aspect is that today people focus on sociability much less than in the past
One of the dynamics that continue to be altered compared to the past is certainly that of work, which for millions of Americans has been transformed from a social experience to a reality made up of isolation in which one is forced to remain seated in front of a computer screen miles away from others. Work activity will probably never return to normal, especially in offices. According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of people who work from home tripled between 2019 and 2022. Today, remote working is no longer a health need, yet in 2022, 59 percent of people whose work can be done remotely continue to do it from home, all the time or at least a good part of it. Nearly everyone does it by choice, despite 60 percent saying they feel less connected to colleagues than they did before 2020.
An even more dangerous aspect for people’s well-being derives from the fact that today people focus on sociability much less than in the past. Some friends I recently met for the first time since 2020 confessed to me that they never go to parties or other people’s houses, while before the pandemic they went out very often. In a survey conducted by the Pew research center in May 2022, 21 percent of respondents said that sociality had become more important to them since the advent of the pandemic, but 35 percent gave the opposite answer, revealing that they give less importance to sociability than in the past.
Anecdotal evidence and confirmed data
Some people are likely to meet their loved ones less often due to fear of illness. Yet when I pressed my friends to provide an explanation for their isolation, they replied that they had simply “lost the habit” of seeing others. This anecdotal evidence is backed up by the data: The majority of respondents to a spring 2022 survey of some adult Americans said they had more difficulty forming relationships. Only 9 percent felt afraid of being physically close to others, while the main source of anxiety (29 percent of those interviewed) was the fact of “not knowing what to say or how to interact”. Most of us have essentially forgotten how to cultivate friendships.
This increasingly widespread habitual loneliness represents a health crisis. Over the years, research has confirmed that isolation is linked to depression and anxiety. Furthermore, this condition increases the risk of premature death, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, hormonal alterations and sleep disturbances.
Those born during the pandemic have missed a crucial window of socialising
Damages are not distributed equally. Researchers at the Institute for Family Studies have found that in the United States the rate of unhappiness has undergone a general increase in the period between the years before the pandemic (2012-2018) and the phase immediately following the health emergency (2021). Specifically, two groups experienced a more significant increase in the rate of unhappiness: single people and those who do not regularly attend religious ceremonies. Those in these groups likely have fewer planned social interactions than the others.
Even children can be very vulnerable. Those born during the pandemic have missed a crucial window of socialising. A study conducted on Dublin children and published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that the subjects, on average, exhibited a communication deficit. Compared with those born between 2008 and 2011, the children studied were less likely to say a full word, point or wave before they were 12 months old. Most of these children have had fewer interactions with a variety of people than they would have in the absence of the pandemic. We have no idea what the long-term consequences of this phenomenon will be.
But if habitual loneliness is causing so much suffering, why aren’t the people who suffer from it doing something to fight back? Why don’t they ask to work in the office? Why don’t they reconnect with friends? One plausible answer is that, as some research shows, loneliness inhibits our executive functions, which are essential for dealing with our anxieties correctly. Think of a time in your life when you felt very alone and instead of doing what you should have – calling someone, going out, socializing – you holed up on the sofa without seeing anyone.
Loneliness, like poverty or homelessness, tends to be self-perpetuating. Just as it is difficult to recover when you find yourself without a place to sleep, a shower, an address or a telephone number, in the same way social isolation produces behaviors that lead to further isolation. If you have chosen to work from home rather than in the office for convenience, if you have preferred solitary activities to group ones out of embarrassment or if you have decided not to re-establish old friendships out of sheer laziness, the risk is that you will find yourself trapped in a vicious circle of solitude.
To interrupt this mechanism it could be useful to adopt a sort of “self-opposition strategy”. Passivity probably makes you think that getting dressed and going to work will be a chore or that inviting someone over will be awkward, but in reality you should do precisely what your instincts lead you to avoid. Imagine having to start training again after a long period of sedentary lifestyle (another common problem related to covid): initially your body will complain, but if you have the strength to persist you will soon realize that you can train (socialize) without problems, because it is become a routine and because you feel how good it is for your life.
There is no law of nature that if we wait long enough we are guaranteed to be happy again. We must intervene to change our environment: insist on working together with others, become a point of reference for meetings between friends. If the circumstances in which we live make covid a still present threat (for example for those who are immunosuppressed) it is very important to take the initiative and make plans that can coincide with our needs. I have friends who lead a busy social life in their own homes but test all guests due to their particular state of health. This way they accept a little annoyance to keep up their “friendship fix”.
Covid-19 has instilled a streak of loneliness in the lives of some of us. Doing what seems comfortable and convenient in the workplace and in friendship only widens this vein, complicating the future exit from isolation. If we can instead remember the warmth and happiness of our old social life and make some useful changes, 2023 can be a year of renewal.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)
This article was published in the US monthly The Atlantic.