Canceling the Social Recession: How to Guard Against Loneliness in a Time of Social Distancing

By Erin Peavey

We are finally coming to grips with how toxic loneliness is, not just to our minds but to our bodies. Research shows how loneliness and social isolation can reduce life expectancy and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression and anxiety, among many other conditions. Global health guidelines have noted that loneliness and social isolation can be worse for your health than a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit. And yet we are being asked to protect ourselves and others from the novel coronavirus by adhering to social distancing, the act of increasing the physical distance between us and other people. While this practice is key to slowing down the spread of a contagious disease, there is concern that it could lead to greater numbers of people who feel lonely or isolated — a “social recession” that former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy describes as “the fraying of social bonds that unravel the longer we go without human interaction.” That’s why we must find new ways to stay connected, even when we can’t physically be near one another.

During the past two years, I’ve been working with colleagues from across disciplines to understand how our built environments can work with policies and programming to foster social health and reduce loneliness. I prepared a report that dissects the design qualities of “third places” – the informal, public spaces between home and work such as coffee shops, parks and libraries – that promote meaningful social connections.

Just weeks ago, I sat down with psychology professor and loneliness expert Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, public health expert and artist Dr. Jeremy Nobel, and Curbed senior reporter Patrick Sisson to put the final touches on our SXSW panel presentation about combating loneliness. We wondered out loud if the COVID-19 outbreak would shift our plans. Soon after, SXSW was canceled, and we were suddenly in the throes of a public health crisis that has doctors and others urging people to stay home. But now more than ever we must remember that social connections are essential to our health and that we can still create those connections, even 6 feet apart or through a computer screen. In this time of social distancing, here are some suggestions on how to stay well and stay connected.

At the individual level:

  • Don’t spend all day on the couch. Physical activity can help relieve stress, and the hormones that our bodies release when we exercise boost our mood. Surrounding ourselves with greenery and sunlight is especially effective at improving our mental state because of our innate inclination to feel comfort in nature.
  • Heap on the foods that improve immunity and health, including vegetables, and especially leafy greens. This extended time at home can be a great time to cook with the family or to start a vegetable garden with the kids.
  • Take a moment daily or hourly This is good for our mental health, reduces anxiety and depression, and allows us to give our full attention to others.

At the relationship level:

  • Call and text often, and use video when possible. Reaching out to friends and family makes them feel good and helps our own wellbeing. In a time where we cannot be physically present, adding video to your calls is another way of sharing your space and making people feel connected to you.
  • Don’t rely on social media to be your sole source of connection. Although social media can instantaneously connect us to a large network, it is limited in the ways it can provide meaningful emotional support, and it can also stoke panic instead of preserving calm.
  • Check in with your colleagues. For the millions of workers who have the option of working remotely, there might be a growing sense of detachment from work teams that anchor our daily routines. Now it’s especially important to check in on your colleagues as people – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who all have lives outside of work that are likely going through a major transition. This can be a great opportunity to lean on one another and create new bonds.

At the community level:

  • Look for driveway or balcony happy hours, or start one yourself. Wherever you live, there are often ways to turn the space right outside your home into a place for gathering (everyone 6 feet apart, of course). Many neighbors across the U.S., Italy and the world have found ways to create connection, either through BYOB (and chair) gatherings at the end of drives, balcony serenades, or activities for kids that allow them to interact
  • Offer help to strangers nearby. People are turning to NextDoor to offer services such as grocery shopping and errand-running for neighborhood residents who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Because it’s important that you keep your distance, this might mean leaving supplies on the doorstep rather than ringing the bell, but your help will be appreciated. For older neighbors who might not be online, consider leaving cards with your cell phone and an offer to help. Just wash your hands before writing the note.
  • Study the people in your neighborhood. Disaster preparedness plans have long recommended taking inventory of your neighbors, but many of us have yet to do this. Now is a great time to reach out virtually and find who are your local teachers, doctors and IT professionals who can offer help in a bind.
  • Gather outside. Your local park might be deserted, or you might see lots of people who’ve found ways to play, walk and be with one another while keeping a safe distance.

At the society level:

  • For instance, consider participating in a letter-writing campaign for seniors who are no longer able to have visitors.
  • Simply say hello. Anyone who has nodded at a stranger on the street or at the grocery store and received a blank stare knows what it feels like to be looked through rather than looked at. Take comfort in knowing that your smile, wave or a simple nod to others has been demonstrated by researchers to have a measurable positive impact on the level of connection others feel in the world.

What we do proactively to prevent depression, anxiety and loneliness will blunt the harmful effects of our extended physical isolation, which could drag on for weeks if not months. This difficult time has given many of us a chance to slow down and appreciate the relationships and connections that we sometimes take for granted. I hope it’s also an opportunity to reflect on how we can improve our everyday spaces to connect with others once we emerge from this necessary isolation.

Erin Peavey

Erin Peavey is an Architect and Design Researcher at HKS. She bridges the gap between research and practice, with a focus on design for health and wellbeing. Erin has been named a Rising Star by Healthcare Design Magazine and Healthcare Design's Best Under 40 by the AIA-AAH.