The Antidote to Loneliness Is Good Social Nutrition

Humans need a balanced social diet of a few meaningful conversations and many casual interactions

Photo: Bewakoof.com Official/Unsplash

Balance is a celebrated, yet elusive, concept. In work, relationships, hobbies, and even what we choose to put into our bodies, we strive to strike the right proportion of give and take that leaves us feeling fulfilled and not overextended. The idea of balance also applies to social interactions.

In 2019, Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas likened human social networks to nutrition. A healthy social diet, he found in a study, consists of both a variety of interactions — from close friends and family to acquaintances — and time spent alone. People tend to be less lonely when they have a couple of high-quality conversations a day with their closest connections (like a deep heart-to-heart or a jovial laugh-filled gab) in addition to a variety of more surface-level chats with strangers or people seen out and about. Voluntary alone time is also crucial to well-being. Making space to reflect and recharge is essential.

Maintaining a nutritious social diet has proven difficult this past year. Those who live with family or roommates likely strengthened these already sturdy bonds. Close connections continued to keep in touch while fringe friends fell to the wayside. Solo dwellers who previously did all their socializing outside of the house — at work, at the gym, at the bar, volunteering — saw their networks constrict to those close enough to warrant a phone call or distanced get together. The social variety so essential to our happiness has become bland, nearly out of reach.

Still, as people are vaccinated and slowly reemerge into new patterns, there are ways to restore that diversity, even while masked and at a distance.

Prioritize close ties

The first component of the social equation is meaningful interaction with close connections. Regardless of how well (or not) you maintained those relationships over the last year, take a concentrated effort to make plans with those you’re closest to, Hall says. “Now that the weather has improved in most of North America, make plans to go outside and catch up with people again,” he says.

Have more conversations

Not only are quality discussions critical to well-being, so too are a decent quantity of surface-level conversations. “You don't have to begin by having a deep, meaningful conversation with the barista or to reestablish the network of connections with your kid’s soccer team and coach,” Hall says. “The simple act of receiving other people in a public space: smiling, greeting them, saying hello, a normal back in forth in places where it makes sense to do so, that’s a big step.” Chatting with someone in line at a grocery store or your server at a beer garden are low-stakes and socially approved ways of diversifying your social network and providing variety to the subjects you discuss.

Go slow

In order to avoid exhausting yourself (by interacting with anyone and everyone) and your communities — through approaching people who may not be ready to mingle with strangers again — proceed with caution. “An immediate return to the openness and the friendliness of strangers is still a ways off,” Hall says. Don’t expect strangers will be as enthusiastic to interact; they may still be anxious, unvaccinated, or feel socially out of practice. It’s best to restrict these brief conversations to contexts where chatting with strangers makes sense, like with a fellow parent picking up a kid from school.

And if you feel depleted after all this socializing, it’s completely normal. Just as the adjustment to stay-at-home orders was difficult and tiring, so will the transition out of relative social isolation. But the feeling of fatigue after socializing will wear off, Hall says.

“You feel like you’re staring at people, you feel like you’re overwhelmed by the amount of conversation,” he says. “It’s not that our [social] skills are bad. We’re so accustomed with having to do with less: less eye contact, less social interaction, less time just chatting, especially in person.” All of these stimuli are bound to make you tired and feel rusty in the social department.

So ease into your renewed social nutrition plan and don’t feel discouraged if it doesn’t come as easily as it once did. You’ll get there.

Writes about lifestyle, trends, and pop psychology for The Atlantic, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Washington Post, and more.

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