One issue I’d like to help resolve in the next act of my career is the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. The number of people who report feeling depressed or lonely has increased dramatically over the past decade. And medical studies show clear health risks to experiencing a lack of social contact and connection.
As the world shuts down to limit the spread of the corona virus epidemic, more people will experience the effects of social isolation. While this mandatory physical separation may be beneficial for physical health, the lack of connection and interaction may negatively impact people’s mental and emotional health – which under the circumstances is likely already strained for many of us.
I’ve been working on a book about my experience as a mentor and surrogate dad to a teenager (now a young man) living in a South African settlement. Given the struggles of his daily life and our being separated by 8,000 miles, I quickly learned to interpret his emotional state from the tone of his texts or his WhatsApp status lines. I got really good at it. But there was one status update that required no interpretation: “Don’t trust my smile. I don’t have an easy life.”
Recently I’ve attended some events designed to help strangers engage in more personal, substantive conversations. It’s fascinating how quickly two people who’ve never met can feel a sense of connection when they talk about something meaningful for 15 minutes. To start the event, the facilitator instructs people to ask their partner, “How are you doing? ... No, how are you really doing?”
Usually when someone asks how we’re doing, our response is “Fine” or “Okay” or something pleasantly benign... no matter how we’re really feeling inside. Normally a perfunctory response is acceptable; the question is a greeting more than an invitation to vent. But these are not normal times.
With “social distancing” in vogue and in some places the law of the land, we need to protect against real social isolation. We need to reach out to people to see how they’re handling life in this surreal horror movie. And not with a “How are things going?” or “Hang in there” text and a happy face emoji. This unprecedented experience requires real connection: the voice-to-voice of a phone call or, even better, the face-to-face of a video chat. The more we can feel connected to our fellow humans, the better for our collective mental and emotional health.
So don’t take someone’s polite smile at face value; they might be struggling inside. Don’t settle for a quick “I’m fine” when you check in with someone. Ask how they’re really feeling – and then listen. That’s all most people really want, is to be seen and heard, to know they’re not alone in this strange time...or any time.
While paper masks may be useful against this virus, emotional masks can be detrimental. So take some time to connect with folks you know. Really connect. Focusing on our shared humanity, and sharing our feelings both good and bad, will help get us through this challenge... together.