What a wonderful day! No one in the village doing anything. – Shiki
Following a deceptively slow and un-concerning start, the COVID-19 virus has since gone on to turn the lives of many upside down. A third of the world’s population is currently under lockdown in their own homes as part of physical distancing measures to slow the spread of the disease, and experienced drastic limitations to their interactions with the social world.
As demonstrated in research and intuitively known, human beings are inherently social creatures with an innate need to associate with other members of our own species. Without such connections, human beings fail to thrive. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that a sense of loss and confusion represent some of the most common reactions to COVID-19 and its accompanying social consequences.
Such reactions are however, in part driven by erroneously equating increased physical aloneness with loneliness. One can be physically alone without necessarily feeling socially disconnected, or surrounded by people and yet feel lonely. With this distinction drawn, the following questioned may then be ventured: Is it possible that social distancing measures have brought about positive consequences at all? The following points provide support in the affirmative.
1. Selectivity in when we interact with people.
In our day to day lives, we are often thrown into social situations we are unprepared for. Some mornings we are ambushed by over-enthusiastic colleagues before the crucial first coffee on the day. Other times we wish for solitude while taking a walk in the park, but inevitably bump into people we know. The good news is, you are now mandated by law to keep them at arms-length, and they to get a move on with their business.
2. Quality over quantity.
More crucially, we get to pick and select who we interact with. Being thrown into social situations we’d rather not be in entails small talk, more often than not. Both of you leave the situation not having learned anything new about each other, or anything about the weather you could not have figured out yourself.
On the topic of loneliness, the meaninglessness of small talk can create barriers and add distance between people, leaving you feeling lonely when you were not prior to the encounter. You are now free to invest your social resources as you wish, and spend it wisely to create and/or sustain the deeper connections which add meaning to your life.
3. Relearning the meaning of words.
Words are the primary form of communication for humans, although we often rely on non-verbal gestures to facilitate the transmission of some important messages. For example, when you hug someone, it releases “happy” neurotransmitters in their brain — effectively transmitting love, warmth, and sincerity. Now that we are not squandering our words on small talk, it frees up the extra resources required to transmit important messages of the same sort solely through carefully selected words.
In a digital era where the meaning of words have been downplayed, enhanced verbal and oral communication skills are valuable traits to re-enter a post-COVID-19 world with.
4. Being able to hear yourself think.
For most of us, who we are and the decisions we make are profoundly influenced by the people around us. Without any pause in the noise between one day and the next, many of us do not get the space to figure out whether the values we hold are of external or internal origin. With social distancing measures in place and a decrease in our social activities, we can now look internally to figure out the intentions, hopes, and views that are really ours. It can be daunting at first, but also presents an opportunity to recognize the aspects of our thinking that are narrow and repetitive, and the habits shaped by our history which have not helped us to grow. When the external noise resumes its normal volume in time, we might be better equipped to rule over it.
5. Strengthening your friendship with yourself.
While people come and go in the natural course of life, the one person we are stuck with for the entirety of our time on earth is ourselves. Now that we are trapped with this person under unusually intimate conditions, we now have the opportunity to befriend them in the same way we would cultivate relationships with others: by being enriching, supportive, truthful and unfailingly — accepting.