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How the pandemic’s lack of connection affected our ability to think positively

Our brains crave relationships, while social isolation triggers a pain response.

How the pandemic’s lack of connection affected our ability to think positively
[Photo: Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images]
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It’s no secret as humans, we need our people (and you’ve likely been missing friends, family, and colleagues through the pandemic), but there is some surprising new research on just how much we you may be craving relationships.

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Our fulfillment and our happiness are significantly affected by the extent to which we establish strong bonds with others. But in addition to knowing how important connections are, science can guide us in how we can create, nurture, and sustain relationships going forward.

Over the past year, many have experienced the deterioration of relationships. While they are our lifeblood, they’ve been harder to maintain through the isolation over the past year. A Columbia University study of 226,638 people across North America, Europe, and Asia found depression and anxiety are rife, and they are linked with the deterioration of relationships and the distancing we’ve had to endure during the pandemic.

Part of the reason we’re struggling is our need for people is hardwired.


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Part of the reason we’re struggling is our need for people is hardwired. According to an MIT study, we crave interactions in the same region of our brains where we crave food. A related study showed we experience social exclusion in the same region of our brain where we experience physical pain. And in research by the University of New South Wales, after periods of social isolation, the introduction of social interaction had the effect of reducing cravings for food and nicotine. We need each other, not just for overall well-being, but for our brain health as well.

There are some important ways to stay connected and leverage relationships for good health—and these are based on some interesting new science. Consider the following tactics to reap the benefit social connection.

Reach out through voice

From social media to direct messaging to email to zoom chats, the options for communicate are far and wide.

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However, recent research from the University of Texas at Austin shows phone calls may be much more effective at helping people feel connected and supported. Phone calls allow for more immediacy, and being able to ask and answer questions without the delay of typing or sending. In addition, phone calls allow for more cues—allowing participants to tune into each other more thoroughly. Tone of voice, speed of speech, pausing, and inflection all provide clues about emotions and circumstances—and these help build relationships. In order to foster friendship, consider dialing someone up rather than choosing other methods of connection.

Lean into strong friendships

When friendships inspire activity and variety, it can also have a positive effect on well-being. New research from the University of Miami shows when we marinade in negativity, it can have far-reaching impacts on our health. Previous research has shown how negative thinking can have deleterious results, but this new research shows that the length of time we spend in undesirable thoughts matters, as well. The findings demonstrate the longer our brains maintain these thoughts, the harder it is on our mental condition.

Relationships provide an antidote to this pattern. When we engage in activities with friends, we are more likely to get distracted and disrupt the pattern of thinking—in a way that helps get us away from the less positive mental experience. Whether it’s having coffee together, grabbing a quick lunch during the work day, or meeting with the pooch at the dog park, these kinds of activities can be important diversions from adverse mental processes.

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Another way to leverage your relationships for your health is through finding a variety of ways to get active. Another team of researchers at the University of Basel found well-being was enhanced through movement, but the real key to the highest levels of well-being was through a variety of activity. Friends can help infuse more and different kinds of activities. When you’re with friends, chances are you’ll want to ensure some diversity in what you do.

Perhaps you can take a safe kick-boxing class with one friend on Monday, and do a precaution-taking yoga session with another later in the week. Or as you are getting back to the office, you can walk around your campus during a break and then meet a neighbor for some hiking after you get off work.

This kind of variety is good for your relationships, but it is also good for your physical, emotional, and cognitive health. The brain craves stimulation and when it becomes bored, mental health can suffer. Friends can help introduce and ensure the necessary assortment of activities.

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Grow and learn with confidantes

Another way you can leverage friendships for your health is by seeking out new experiences and engaging activities to do together. Research from Carnegie Mellon University finds we learn more deeply when we are more completely engaged in a process. Find opportunities with friends to do new things—rock climbing, axe throwing or cooking classes all qualify if they’re new to you. Perhaps you and a work colleague can learn a new language or build your skills in coding. The novelty effect and the process of doing things together can help you learn and cement new knowledge—and this growth and development is good for well-being.

Study after study shows getting together with friends and colleagues is good for your health. While this may seem terribly straightforward, in reality, there’s some terrific new science that can drive not just whether you connect, but how you connect and the types of activities and events that can bring you the most happiness and fulfillment.


Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work.