Even in these unprecedented times, one thing that remains constant is human nature.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, our built-in need to connect with others is manifesting itself in countless acts of kindness and altruism - and it also explains why the idea of social distancing fills so many of us with dread.
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We are sequestered in our houses to protect our and others' physical health, but our attempts to contain the spread of this virus are posing risks to our mental health, too. Research has linked social isolation to everything from high blood pressure and heart disease to a weakened immune system and cognitive decline. Human connection protects individuals against anxiety and uncertainty. In the company of loved ones, threats become challenges and painful shocks hurt less. Loneliness, by contrast, is psychologically poisonous: it worsens sleep, deepens depression and predicts increased mortality rates among older adults.
But we are lucky - in one sense, at least. Modern technology means there’s no reason why social distancing should mean distancing ourselves socially. Social media, online communities, virtual meeting apps and even the good old telephone allow us to recreate online the physical spaces we can no longer access.
It may even be the case that social distancing might push us closer together. As the author and technologist Jaron Lanier has put it: “There might be some good things [about social isolation]. It could reintroduce people to their families. It might make people a little more grounded. It helps you reappreciate the wealth we have in a place like a home. It’s kind of a revelation that we have the good fortune to even be able to do this.”
Here are five ways to stay connected in self-isolation.
1. To stay connected, you're going to need a good internet connection. While ISPs say they can handle the spikes in internet usage as millions begin to work from home or turn to online gaming and streaming services to pass the time, broadband speeds in general might be affected. To make sure yours is as fast as possible, practice good router hygiene. Make sure your router's firmware is up to date, and try to locate it somewhere central and high up in your home rather than hidden away in a corner or next to a wall. If you can, the best way to ensure maximum speed is to plug your devices directly into your router using an ethernet cable.
We can all be more responsible internet users, too. Just as Netflix and Youtube are reducing the quality of their streams in Europe to free up bandwidth, we can help to spread the load by reducing the amount of bandwidth we use - especially when streaming or broadcasting video.
2. Reach out. Now is a perfect time to phone the family members you keep meaning to call, or to reconnect with old friends. We may be physically isolated, but we are all going through a shared experience. Many of us are scared and anxious; this is an opportunity to open ourselves up, to be vulnerable, and to forge closer relationships as a result.
As Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, put it recently in The Washington Post: “You might be holed up in your apartment, but so are your colleagues, neighbours and third-grade classmates. You might feel confused, lonely, bored and scared, and they probably do, too. Through our suffering, billions of us probably have more in common than usual."
3. Bring the office home with you. Working from home can be especially tough for those of us who enjoy the social aspects of office life - but there are a few ways to keep those going. Colleagues can join in the videoconference to 'work together' for an hour a day, and take time out for virtual coffee breaks. There's no reason not to enjoy the traditional Friday post-work drink via webcam, either.
4. Play. The demand for online gaming services has surged since the start of the outbreak, with both Microsoft and Nintendo reporting outages caused by this spike in player numbers. Video games are a great way to hang out with friends online - particularly now so many schools have closed down - but online board games are also available through sites such as Board Game Arena, which has also reported a sharp rise in the number of users.
5. Join an online community. In the UK, musician James Sills has started a choir called the Sofa Singers that has brought almost 500 people together from across the world. In China, meanwhile, ‘cloud clubbing’ - where people watch and interact with live DJ sets through social media apps - has become increasingly popular. Book clubs, dieting groups, even virtual dinner parties: whatever your interest, there is an online group out there for you somewhere.
6. Volunteer. Crises like this can bring out the worst in humanity, but it also shows us at our best. Acts of kindness and compassion can mean a great deal to someone feeling vulnerable - and they are beneficial for the giver’s mental health and sense of connectedness, too. As Zaki puts it: “Altruism helps [the] helpers. By doing for others, they assert community and find a sense of purpose in uncertain times.”
In Ireland, a former BBC executive named Helen O’Rahilly has set up a website to help match those who are self-isolating and in need of assistance with neighbours who are willing to help. In the UK, what started as a local Facebook campaign with the hashtag #viralkindness has spawned more than 1,500 local groups of volunteers offering help to those who are vulnerable and on their own. We are all in this together, after all.
7. Exercise. The benefits of regular exercise include strengthening our immune systems and reducing stress and anxiety, which have both assumed a rather increased level of importance recently. But with gyms closing and team sports off the agenda, the social aspects of keeping fit will be missed by many. Luckily technology is again riding to the rescue. Several gym chains are now offering live-streamed classes for free, as are some yoga studios.
We are fortunate to live in an age in which technology allows us to be together when we are on opposite sides of the world, even if we haven’t always embraced this potential. And so while we might be physically apart from our friends and loved ones for the foreseeable future, there’s no reason why this experience shouldn’t, in the end, bring us closer together.