As an ambivert, I’m usually perfectly content spending time alone. I adore my friends and family, but I don’t need constant social interaction to feel fulfilled. But like so many people during the pandemic, I felt myself craving human interaction with someone other than my parents and younger sister (no offense to them; I’m sure they were sick of me too). As much as I thought I loved my alone time, I missed grabbing a drink with friends, chatting with a co-worker on the way to the office kitchen and even telling the barista at Starbucks how cool her earrings are.
So, as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted and vaccines have become readily available (thanks, science!), I’ve made a concerted effort to get back out there. The result? A huge improvement in my mental health. And that’s no surprise; humans are social beings, and countless studies have shown the tremendous effect human contact can have on one’s mental health—particularly on how happy they feel.
I also found a book, Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing by Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, watching over patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. One of the top five regrets of the dying, she found, was not staying in touch with friends and family. She writes, “Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people who had more social interactions were happier on average than those who interacted less. In the study, researchers examined 256 participants, assessing the quantity of social interactions using an unobtrusive electronically activated voice recorder and self-reports of social interaction, happiness and social connectedness. They found that the more time people spent interacting socially during a particular hour, the happier they felt. In other words, someone who spoke to others for 40 minutes was happier during the hour than someone who spoke for only 10 minutes during that 60-minute period.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has only highlighted the adverse effects of isolation on society's collective mental health. One study of more than 1,400 adults by researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health found that the prevalence of depression symptoms in the U.S. was more than 3-fold higher during COVID-19 compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic. (It's important to note, as this study does, that individuals with lower social resources, lower economic resources and greater exposure to stressors—like job loss—reported an even greater burden of depression symptoms.)
Knowing that I do still need a good amount of alone time, I strategically planned ways to socialize that varied in terms of how emotionally draining they’d be. If I knew my Friday and Saturday would be spent bopping from bar to bar with a larger group of friends, I’d decide to take Sunday off and allow myself time to recharge. When I was feeling burnt out from in-person interaction, I opted to call an out-of-town friend for a quick FaceTime catch-up. (Not the same, for sure, but still fulfilling.) After more than a year of near solitude, feeling connected to my friends and family has me feeling happier than I have in a while, and I know I’m not alone. Measuring your own happiness can be a tricky thing to do, but I've been feeling lighter and less burdened when I wake up, getting really excited for the weekend to come and generally feeling less blah...you know?
Despite my passion for long solo walks and going to the movies alone (seriously, try it sometime), the past 15 months have taught me how invaluable time with loved ones is. Even if I have to counter a weekend of three-hour brunches and an ill-advised karaoke session (ill-advised on the part of those listening to my friends and I) with a quiet day featuring a new book, a YouTube yoga class and some meditation.