You might have noticed recently that a long conversation with a good friend (whether via phone, FaceTime, Zoom or Skype) left you feeling relaxed and happy. It’s not a coincidence: developing and strengthening genuine connections with others is essential to our physical and mental well-being.
Studies have found that children who don’t have established connections can experience decreased intellect and development, and adults without close relationships are more likely to have depression and physiological problems.
“We need close bonds to sustain ourselves,” says Jay Weiss, MA, LLP, an employee assistance program therapist at Henry Ford Health. “They energize us, elevate our mood, encourage activity, boost the immune system, increase longevity. Our physical and mental health are intertwined--when one goes down, it affects the other. The more stressed we are, the more our immune system is depressed, and the more likely we are to get illnesses and diseases.”
Strong social connections are also linked to an increase in empathy. “Do we have stronger connections because we are more empathetic or do we develop more empathy by having stronger connections?” Weiss says. “I think people who are more empathetic tend to form deeper relationships. When you don’t have close relationships in life, it’s harder to have that emotional connection with others.”
Bonding With Loved Ones From A Distance
This doesn’t mean we need to attend huge social gatherings or have a wide circle of friends to reap the mental and physical benefits—just a few genuine relationships is all it takes. Here are ways to grow emotionally closer with others while social distancing.
- Have a virtual game night. A good old-fashioned telephone call works like a charm (even better is screen-to-screen via FaceTime or Skype) but if you want to switch it up, having a virtual game night is quite possibly just as fun as having a game night in person. There are several apps and websites you can use to gather a group of friends together. Try Psych, Codewords or Euchre.
- Celebrate birthdays. Whether you participate in drive-by birthday parades, Zoom calls, or both, some have said that birthdays in quarantine have been their most memorable yet. “People want to connect so much to others, so every little gesture seems so meaningful and important right now,” Weiss says. “Our desire to connect is enhancing our relationships.”
- Cook out with your neighbors. You can share a meal with friends while maintaining plenty of social distancing space—Weiss did just that. “My neighbors and I grilled food and sat on our respective patios and had dinner together,” Weiss says. “Social distancing doesn’t mean we have to be locked in our rooms.” Hosting a video chat while cooking or eating together with family or friends is another option.
- Talk to passersby (from a safe distance) while on a walk. Friendly interactions with strangers has been shown to raise spirits. “Connecting at any level makes you feel good,” Weiss says. “To the degree you can connect, the reward is that much greater. So if you’re walking by yourself and see another person walking by, you’ll get some benefit from that. If you see someone you know, the satisfaction will be greater. And if you see your best friend, the benefit is elevated even more. As the quality of your relationship increases, so does the fulfillment.”
- And one thing not to do? Don’t rely on static forms of social media. Playing virtual games is one thing but posting photos on Instagram and waiting for likes is quite another—the latter won’t increase your happiness. “When someone posts a video or photo on Instagram, there’s no real interaction. You don’t feel connected to it,” Weiss says. “That’s why you’ll hear actors talk about the difference in their energy levels when they’re acting on stage versus filming a movie. Being with a live audience is so much more enjoyable. It’s like listening to your favorite musician on Spotify versus seeing them in concert. You’re listening to the same song, but the effect is different.”
There is one aspect of connection we are not getting as much of while social distancing: physical touch. It’s been shown that babies who receive little physical contact can develop health ailments, and adults can develop depression and anxiety.
“If you live with people, hug each other often,” Weiss says. “If you live alone, I recommend self care. Do something that will give you a sense of comfort: take a hot bath, snuggle in a blanket, hold a stuffed animal, get a pet. I have about six clients now who have adopted or are fostering pets because they want that connection, and animals are a great source.”
Jay Weiss, MA, LLP, is a certified health and wellness coach and an employee assistance program therapist at Henry Ford Health.