In one of its more insidious side effects, the pandemic forced social isolation on the world.
And the world grew anxious.
People pined for the day when they could return to restaurants. They longed to go to movie theaters and church. They wanted to turn off Zoom and see co-workers in person. When things slowly began to re-open, many people wasted no time making an airline reservation or heading to a nearby sports bar.
Nearly everyone has friends, family, neighbors or co-workers who said they hate being home alone all the time. You might wonder why. Why is being alone so unsettling if not debilitating for people? After all, work in the office was hardly that rosy all the time. And neighbors and friends all-to-often create conflict or challenges to test the relationships.
One reason people seek the company of others despite the potential for quarrelsome interactions is that humans are herd animals. The way humans survived as a species over millennia was by forming groups where they socialized, hunted, farmed and in many other ways shared their lives.
That tendency toward socialization is still baked in our psyches, even in this technological era of virtual meetings, virtual playdates and delivery services dropping off food and other necessities we ordered via the internet.
Research shows that for businesses during the pandemic “the deterioration of worker well-being, increased anxiety and isolation, and the loss of a sense of belonging have been recurring themes,” according to a report from Deloitte.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that one of the most severe punishments for prison inmates is solitary confinement, or that people who live by themselves with little or no social interaction over time find it difficult to communicate with others and often struggle with depression.
Meanwhile those who eat together at least three times a week and talk together have lower depression rates than those who are alone.
Research is very compelling that humans need others and need to belong to groups where they can claim a meaningful identity—be they a clan, a tribe, a religious cult, a business organization, a church or whatever captures their identities.
The research on children is particularly interesting. As we watch children develop, their attachment goes beyond their immediate caregiver to those with whom they connect, count upon, and share significant emotional and logical relationships. They want to sit in a circle with others like themselves and know they are safe and belong.
Unfortunately, the world’s emergence from the pandemic is playing out slowly, intermixed with occasional setbacks. As people try to fulfill their socialization needs, it could be that technology does have some things to offer in helping us find a sense of connection with others.
Watch how adults or kids engage in video games. With total strangers they become part of a community sharing a common culture, experience and space. Watch how newfound friends gather on Zoom for monthly or weekly talk time, as I do with two sets of thought leaders, and learn why these strangers, now friends, can offer a sense of being and belonging that takes me past my home, my husband and family and into something bigger.
The virtual world is not perfect, but as we are seeing, the virtual is often a very easy and effective ‘reality’ during this period of challenging in-person reality. In fact, the futurists are pointing us in a new direction, where virtuality may be actually as good if not better than ‘reality’ for living and belonging.
— Andi Simon, Ph.D., is an author and international leader in the field of corporate anthropology and is the founder and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants.