Published - 2 April 2020
People living in New Zealand, along with 3 billion humans around the world, are in lockdown to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak. Schools, offices, gyms, cafés, public gatherings and services that are deemed as non-essential services are shut for a number of weeks. PM Jacinda Arden highlighted in her press briefing, success will depend on how we look out for each other behind closed doors. There is a sense of social disconnect that many New Zealanders are challenged with, and this feeling of loneliness may be amplified during a lockdown. We dive into understanding why we feel loneliness, the impact of social connectivity on our wellbeing and insights to improve wellbeing in a lockdown.
Much like hunger is a biological drive that motivates us to seek out food, loneliness is a biological drive that motivates us to seek out others. From an evolutionary perspective, being around others gives us protection from predators and other elements of uncertainty. Loneliness, as explained in the Freakonomics podcast on the loneliness epidemic, is a cue for us to get out in the world and participate in social life.
Social connectedness expert Julianne Holt-Lunstad highlights - “Someone can be lonely but not isolated, or isolated but not lonely.” When someone is isolated, they may take pleasure in that solitude. Conversely, someone may have many people around them and still feel extremely lonely.
A widely cited research paper, highlights that people with social ties are less vulnerable to premature deaths and more likely to survive fatal illnesses.
“People who struggle with loneliness end up living shorter lives, and they also are at an increased risk for heart disease, depression, dementia, anxiety, and a host of other conditions.” - Vivek Murthy, former United States Surgeon General
In a meta-analysis covering 300,000 subjects, researchers investigated the overall effect of being socially connected, or lacking social connections, on overall risk for premature mortality. It turns out social connection is a strong predictor of early death, maybe as much as alcoholism and smoking 15 cigarettes.
Insight - In the famous chocolate experiment, researchers found participants that were asked to rate a chocolate, gave it a higher rating when there was someone else doing the same task. Even more surprising was that participants reported a much better taste profile for the chocolate across many dimensions, compared to the condition when there was no one else doing the task at the same time. Being with someone seems to increase subjective experience of events.
Application - To increase social connection while distancing, this research article suggests four ways to create richer online experiences. This includes using video and phone calls with equipment like headphones that gives better access to nonverbal cues, engaging on social media channels with comments instead of simply ‘liking’, setting limits for how long you read the news to reduce anxiety and using this opportunity to create new ties and strengthen existing connections.
Insight - A study evaluating kindness, required participants to perform five random acts of kindness. Participants found that their own happiness significantly improved when they performed these acts of kindness in a single day compared to when they did nothing at all. Simple acts of kindness bring us happiness.
Application - While the boundaries for random acts of kindness are limited in a lockdown, there are always opportunities to be kind with others. You can be kind to your fellow shoppers, express gratitude to staff members at the supermarket and front-line services, join your local volunteer group and check-in with your neighbours either online or offline as demonstrated below.
Insight - The hedonic treadmill is the tendency we have to return to a baseline level of happiness despite major positive or negative life events. In the face of the lockdown, a strategy that we can adopt to quickly return to our baseline happiness and further boost wellbeing is practicing the art of savouring.
“Savoring is the act of stepping outside of an experience to review and appreciate it. Often we fail to stay in the moment and really enjoy what we’re experiencing.” - Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University
Application - Pick new experiences that you have adopted following the lockdown and truly savour it. This could be your home cooked lunch, a run around the neighbourhood or even just a hot water shower. Each day, practice the art of savouring through (1) Taking a photo or notes of your experience, (2) Think about how lucky you are to experience this and (3) Share your immersive experience with someone.
While this lockdown has imposed enormous stress, particularly on our most vulnerable population, it has presented some of us with an unexpected opportunity to reset and rediscover what is most important to us - the wellbeing of our people.
Vishal George is the Chief Behavioural Scientist at Behavioural by Design and hosts the Wellington and Auckland Behavioural Economics Network.