Seven essential steps for thriving in our new world of social distance

While sheltering in place, “The Happiness Lab” podcast host Dr. Laurie Santos tells Amanpour how to cushion the mental impact of social distancing

If, like me, you’ve been receiving emails from most every organization you’re involved with saying that classes, lectures, services, and other planned events are now being conducted online amid the coronavirus crisis, you’ve almost certainly noticed a trend.

With so many of us already connecting with our communities through social media and smartphones, we have already taken big steps away from physical proximity as the core of our human intimacy. What we are now witnessing is a quantum leap toward the virtualization of our lives.

Over the coming weeks we’ll see more of this. It won’t just be the Vatican Easter services and US presidential debates being held without large audiences.

As the virus spreads across populations, it is also likely that an increasing number of health professionals will be infected and need to be quarantined. With the number of patients rising rapidly and the available healthcare professionals declining, we’ll be forced to rely on telemedicine and artificial intelligence diagnostics to get through this.

Companies like Amazon have been experimenting with cashier-less stores, but with human cashiers either not able to make it to work or concerned about touching goods handled by others, this trend will speed up.

Welcome to our disembodied future.

Our move away from physical connectivity since the days of the telegraph has extended the breadth of our networks and helped bring people together in new and meaningful ways — but it has also come at a cost. There’s a reason why studies show that infants who don’t receive enough physical attention often have social and emotional problems later in life, and why we think of solitary confinement as a punishment rather than a cosmic Buddhist reward.

Our deep human need for intimate, physical connectivity with others is coded into our DNA. That deep social interconnectivity was central to our ancestors’ competitive success.

Today, however, an estimated 28% of all American homes are single-person households, according to a 2018 report from the US Census Bureau. Nearly 5% of the US population lives in retirement homes. More than 2 million Americans are incarcerated, according to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This physical isolation translates into high rates of depression. A 2018 US national survey found that nearly half of American adults sometimes or always feel alone. Research at Brigham Young University found that social isolation had the equivalent negative health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

We need to promote social distancing, quarantine and self-isolation to save lives. And we should restrict visits to places like our nursing homes and prisons to stanch the spread of the coronavirus. But one consequence of this is that people will be pushed toward even greater levels of social isolation.

Just like the artificial intelligence revolution is forcing us to assess what work is most appropriate for humans, this sudden virtualization revolution will force us to redefine the foundations of our connectivity with others. We need to ask ourselves whether our core need for physical human connectivity can be at least partly met in other ways. As we wisely adopt physical social distancing we must simultaneously embrace virtual emotional closening.

Here are my seven essential steps that we can take to do so:

1. Find ourselves: The core of connectivity with others is peace with ourselves. As tempting as it may be to sit in front of our televisions watching the crisis loop in 30-minute intervals, we must re-center ourselves to safeguard our well-being today and prepare for what’s heading our way tomorrow. For some, this might mean mediation, for others it might mean writing in a journal, exercising, or knitting. If we are at home anyway, why not make it feel more like a Buddhist retreat and less like solitary confinement?

2. Skill up: Ever want to learn tango dancing, African drumming, or Talmud? Now you have the time to learn it all at home. You can use the thousands of free YouTube videos covering any skill you want to acquire. Or, if you are financially able to, hire experts to train you virtually. Those teachers are also sitting at home looking for meaningful things to do. Not set up for it? Baloney. Even the technologically inexperienced can call a teacher (and anyone can be a teacher), set up a FaceTime session, then mail a check, if necessary, after the virtual class.

3. Connect with your mini physical community: If you are home with a few people, why not invest in deepening your relationships with them? Have a brewing family drama separating you for years, why not fix it now? The centrifugal momentum of our previous lives often interfered with our ability to connect with the people physically closest to us. Now we have a chance to experience what life used to be like when our radius of physical movement was so much smaller.

4. Invest in virtual communities: In the villages most of our ancestors left, we kept tabs on each other — for better and for worse. At this moment of increasing social isolation, we must embrace the better. Everyone should make a list of all the people in our lives who need a little extra attention, particularly those who are isolated in one way or another, and get in the habit of reaching out meaningfully and repeatedly.

5. Strengthen the infrastructure of virtual connectivity: Technology companies have already built the infrastructure of virtual community with tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams that make it easier for people to meet meaningfully and intimately from afar. Now we must go a step further by setting up simple interfaces to help every place of worship, community center, book club, or other group keep our essential communities together when meeting in person is not possible.

6. Open our universities: We must turn our universities inside out so that our greatest thinkers can lead inclusive virtual conversations about the most interesting, exciting and important issues of our time. Because even people stuck at home will not want to watch boring lectures, we’ll need to make this exciting and scintillating entertainment. Our universities can make it easy for every person at home to develop a personalized learning plan so we can gain new skills and knowledge while we have this precious time.

7. Recruit our elders: In our villages, respected elders played a critical role passing wisdom and knowledge to future generations. All too often, our socially isolated modern societies have exiled them to retirement homes and golf courses. Now we need those essential people back at the center of our communities where they belong. If we are virtualizing our lives, why not make it easy for our elders to do the same? There are lots of retirees with expertise that could be a great source of remote learning for students who are also stuck at home.

We all hope this crisis is just temporary and our lives will swing right back in a few months. This is certainly one possibility, but there is a real chance that the crisis could last considerably longer.

Even if a vaccine can be developed and deployed by the end of next year, it is doubtful our lives will ever go back to exactly how they were before this crisis began. What we recently called normal was just the new normal for people older than us. Our new normal of virtualized life will likely become just the normal of future generations.

We humans will always have a deep, biological need for physical connectivity with each other. That will not go away. Our new world of virtual communion will certainly come with a cost, but it also has the potential to bring us new gifts we might never otherwise have imagined.

Given that we don’t — for now at least — have much of a choice, let’s make the most of this opportunity.

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