How are you?
It seems like such a simple question. One that is asked and answered thousands of times in a life. And yet, such a common question has taken on much more meaning in the last 10 months.
How often when asked, “how are you” do you reply without giving it thought? I am good, or I am fine and the conversation just moves on without real connection or reflection on how you are truly doing.
Now, as we enter into the last few days of the turbulent year that has been 2020, asking “how are you” whether over video chats or phone calls, through masks and social distance, the question feels weightier. Humans are social creatures, who crave and need contact with others for our overall well-being. In the best of times we require some amount of social support to thrive but the reality right now is that we are living in a time where social distancing is necessary in order to keep those that you love safe and healthy.
Physically apart, socially connected
Social distancing is a very unfortunate name for this concept because even though it is imperative that people are physically apart to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it is equally key to maintain our social connections. True social distancing can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and pose an even greater risk to our mental and physical health. Interactions with others is important because having social contact helps us cope with stress and major life changes. Knowing that we are cared for by others is an important psychological factor that helps to negate the more negative aspects of life and it helps us to feel more positively about the environment around us.
Loneliness is natural and it is a universal emotion that we all experience from time to time. It is unique to each person, and while it doesn’t have a single cause, it was understood to be a public health problem even prior to the pandemic. Loneliness is a feeling that a person is alone, and over a prolonged period of time, that feeling of isolation can cause significant psychological damage. A chronic feeling of loneliness can actually be used to predict mortality to the same degree that heavy drinking, smoking, obesity or high blood pressure can. Coupled with that natural state of loneliness, this global health crisis demands that we maintain our distance from others, so it is no wonder why people may be feeling more isolation and loneliness in their lives than ever before.
People who feel more socially connected tend to have a stronger sense of meaning in life, are happier and have greater motivation to achieve than people who feel less so. Social distancing will be with us for some time to come, so here are a few ways to stay socially close even when you are not able to be close physically.
Do something for someone else
Helping others has been shown to encourage social connection and well-being. Doing small acts of kindness such as volunteering or donating money to causes that you care about promotes both connection and happiness. There are so many non-profits that are struggling to survive during the pandemic, so reach out to a favorite arts organization, social service organization or pet rescue center and ask how you can help. Maybe they need active board members, someone to phone bank for donations or someone to foster an animal that they can’t house in the shelters in the old ways.
The act of thinking about someone else increases your sense of connection to that person and it doesn’t require you to be physically close to them. So think about the people in your life and reach out. Can you call an elderly person in your life to check in and see if they need anything like grocery shopping or a conversation. Leave a note in your neighbor’s mailbox with a favorite quote or one thing that you appreciate about them. Something simple can make someone’s day and that connection can make yours.
Also, if you are out for a distanced walk or hike, try smiling with your eyes and waving at those who cross your path. Saying hello lets them know that you see them and it connects you to another person who is coping the best that they can, too.
Engage in activities in synchrony with others
Since being with others outside those who make up your pod is not yet possible, try doing an activity in synchrony or in parallel with friends or family. One of my favorite pandemic experiences so far has been taking an online class to make mala necklaces via Zoom with five friends. Try offering to teach friends or family a skill that you have or ask to learn something new from one of them. You can also try yoga, dance or other online fitness classes in community with other fitness minded people. If you miss going out to dinner with friends, offer to host a virtual dinner party or happy hour as a way to catch up with those that you miss.
Pursue joint goals with others
Are there habits that you have wanted to create in your life? Do you have a goal that you have wanted to achieve? Now can be a good time to find an accountability partner to support one another as you work toward your goals. I have wanted to have a consistent meditation practice and so I joined an online 21 day meditation class that met for 15 minutes every morning. It was the perfect way for me to make time in my day to sit and it was encouraging to see the same people on Zoom each morning. Perhaps you could offer to host your own meditation sit, or morning pages journal writing or daily creative time. In community you can develop whatever habit you want more of in your life.
Adopt a mindset of gratitude
Scientific studies have shown that gratitude is important for how good we feel psychologically and socially. It increases how much positive emotion we feel and decreases negative emotion. It raises our overall satisfaction with life and helps us have an overall positive outlook. It has also been shown to reduce health complaints and help us cope with difficulties.
Why does it work? We have a natural focus on what goes wrong in our daily lives, often going over and over those things in our head. We are quick to notice even the smallest of problems, yet we rarely spend any time at all dwelling on the good things. Things that brought us a quick smile or felt good are all too often forgotten or perhaps not even noticed in the first place.
Adopting a mindset of gratitude is simple and incredibly powerful. One of my favorite ways to end a day is by listing three good things that happened that day. It’s about taking the time to notice the good things whether they are big or small. If you want to spread your gratitude to others, each day you can write and send a piece of mail to someone that you are grateful for. Think about how wonderful it will be when they open their mailbox to see something unexpected from you letting them know that you miss them.
Ask for help
These are four things that can help to combat that feeling of loneliness when you notice it lingering in your day. You can keep it simple and reach out to friends to ask “how are you” and then really listen to their reply. That is a way to create connection with others, but don’t forget to check in with yourself as well. If you find that you are still struggling and are dealing with feelings that don’t seem to shift then ask for help and find yourself a deeper level of support through online resources that can help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available around the clock to help you when you’re in crisis. Hotline: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).
Daily Strength is an online site that connects people with common issues for mutual support.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a confidential Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator and a 24/7 hotline: 800-662-HELP (800-662-4357).