The surprising ways little social interactions affect your health

2020-08-12

AT THE beginning of the UK lockdown, I woke each morning with a feeling of impending doom. I was scared about covid-19, of course, but also worried about isolation. How would I cope without seeing friends and family? How could I perform my job as a journalist if I couldn’t meet people?

These weren’t baseless fears. In recent decades, a raft of research has shown that individuals with richer social worlds tend to have better mental well-being and lower stress, and to perform better at work. Missing out on our interactions with friends, colleagues and even shopkeepers can have a surprisingly powerful impact on our health.

WhatsApp conversations and Zoom “parties” have helped me to maintain a sense of connection, but these tools can’t replace aspects of interaction – like social touches and impromptu chats by the water cooler – that can boost mood and strengthen relationships.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella suggested as much in a recent interview with The New York Times. Although he felt the shift to digital interactions was going relatively smoothly, he wondered if we were burning through the “social capital” built up over years. He suspected that social bonds might start to evaporate. “What I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after,” he said.

“A wealth of studies have shown that high ‘social capital’ enhances our quality of life”

As many of us continue to work remotely, the long-term effects of social distancing could be serious. What can science tell us about social capital and its resilience? And how can we mitigate any ill effects?

First, some definitions. When people like Nadella talk about social capital, they are describing “the various connections that an individual might have that provide them with some kind of resource”, says Vanessa Parks at the University of Mississippi. For sociologists and psychologists, this can include emotional support, important information learned through the grapevine or practical help, such as a lift to the hospital or cooperation at work. Having high social capital isn’t just a matter of being popular and well-liked, though. As well as having a dense web of connections that includes close friends and more distant acquaintances, people with more social capital tend to be more engaged in building their community.

There are various ways to measure social capital. Scientists may ask people to estimate the number and strength of the links in their social network, count their direct participation in community events or use questionnaires that examine their general feeling of trust in the people around them.

Over the past 20 years, a wealth of studies have confirmed that social capital makes a huge difference to our quality of life. People with high social capital may both perform better at work and find it easier to land a new job, for instance, thanks to the greater possibility of constructive collaborations.

Social capital can also soothe our stresses and help us live more healthily, leading to a lower risk of mental illness and physical disease, and a longer lifespan. One famous meta-analysis, by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University in Utah, found that a lack of social connection presents as large a risk to our health as obesity or smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

“Seeing even just vague acquaintances can have a surprisingly big impact on our happiness”

There is no doubt that technology has helped to preserve some of these essential links amid the pandemic. “It’s not like our social bonds have disappeared because of covid-19,” says Parks. But a close look at the psychological literature suggests there may be three distinct ways that our social capital is nevertheless leaking away.

The first is the loss of “shared experience”. Although straightforward one-on-one conversations may be our primary means of maintaining a friendship, much of our time is also spent in joint activities such as cooking and eating, playing football or golf. The act of doing the same things at the same time appears to create a bond that is independent of the words spoken.

Samuel Roberts at Liverpool John Moores University and Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, both in the UK, followed a group of students during their final year of school and first year of university, and questioned them about their feelings of emotional closeness to different members of their social network throughout this period. They found that the frequency of communication – either face-to-face conversations or phone calls and email – was more important for keeping female friendships alive. But for men, it was the continuation of shared activities that better predicted feelings of emotional closeness during the transition. Many of our current interactions – Zoom and Skype calls – are relatively weak shared experiences, and may fail to preserve a profound sense of connection in the long- term. Given Roberts and Dunbar’s findings, it is possible that men will find it especially hard to maintain their social relationships during lockdowns.

The second element to consider is our non-verbal communication, such as physical touch. Various studies have found that non-sexual physical touch – rubbing someone’s arm if they are sad, say – triggers profound neurological and physiological changes, including the release of endorphins. These painkilling compounds can produce a natural high that helps create a sense of bonhomie and goodwill. Social touch also appears to buffer our responses to stress, reducing the release of the hormone cortisol and calming our heart rate following an unpleasant experience like public speaking.

Interestingly, we don’t seem to get these benefits from other types of support. People hearing kind, encouraging words, for example, recover from stress more slowly than those who get a hug from their partners, suggesting that the sense of physical closeness may be one of the most important ways that social capital benefits health. Ongoing research at University College London and Royal Holloway, University of London, shows that many people are now missing this vital source of comfort. “The deprivation of intimate touch during covid-19 is associated with worse psychological well-being, including feelings of loneliness, anxiety, less emotional tolerance for social isolation and poorer mental health in general,” says Mariana von Mohr, who is working on this research.

Are you there?

Most of our relationships aren’t touchy-feely, of course. But due to the delays, interruptions and slight awkwardness of remote conversations, we may also be lacking spontaneous laughter, which, like touch, is a kind of social grooming known to trigger endorphins and encourage bonding. “My hypothesis would be that when people are face to face, they laugh more than when they’re on the phone or when they’re on a video chat,” says Roberts. With work colleagues, in particular, it may be hard to share an informal joke from the opposite ends of an internet connection.

Third, and perhaps most surprising, we may be missing our “weak ties”. These are vague acquaintances and fleeting interactions, say with a barista or the distant colleague queuing next to us at the coffee machine. “You might have a sort of mutual recognition, but you wouldn’t necessarily know their name,” says Gillian Sandstrom at the University of Essex in the UK – so they aren’t the kind of person you would now arrange to catch up with on Zoom. Before the pandemic, people had an average of between 11 and 16 of these interactions on a typical day. Their importance to our well-being and work success shouldn’t be underestimated.

In a series of studies published six years ago, Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia in Canada asked students to count the number of interactions with strong ties and weak ties over the course of their day. They found that both were important independent predictors of subjective well-being and a sense of belonging. In other words, someone with many close friends would be happier still if they had lots of vague acquaintances. And even a small effort to build on those interactions can pay great dividends. When participants were encouraged to make small talk to a stranger, for example, they reported a 17 per cent increase in a measure of happiness.

These apparently inconsequential ties may also be essential for successful collaborations. Consider an experiment by Bernardo Monechi at the Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Paris: a few years ago, he set up an installation at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, a museum in Rome, with an almost limitless supply of Lego and three platforms for visitors to build sculptures on. Participants were given an RFID tag, which tracked how they interacted with each other as they worked. Some of the constructions were built by groups who already knew each other and interacted very closely, but Monechi found that the most impressive and elaborate structures were created by those with a large number of weak ties.

Monechi points out that groups of people who are close often share a similar background and outlook, while relative strangers may bring fresh ideas and different perspectives. He estimates that the optimal ratio of strong to weak ties is about 50:50. The results fit with historical analyses of scientists’ and artists’ networks, finding that the most productive collaborations are often forged between people of different experiences and backgrounds. Without a queue in the canteen or a backroom chat at a work conference, it is now far harder to strike up these kinds of fruitful conversations.

Sandstrom describes many of our current efforts as “social snacking” that creates a relatively superficial sense of connection without necessarily providing the nourishment we need. “You can keep snacking, but at some point you’re going to feel unsatisfied if you never have a full meal,” she says.

So what should we be doing instead? Given the importance of shared experiences, we might change how we interact with our existing friends. Whether meeting virtually or physically, we need to turn it into a joint activity that will help to cement our bonds. If you used to go to the cinema together, for example, you might arrange to watch the same film at the same time and then catch up through video chat afterwards.

Replacing the comfort of physical touch, while social distancing, will be much harder to correct, but von Mohr believes we might be able to enjoy some of the benefits vicariously. An ongoing study of hers has found that simply watching videos of people holding hands or stroking cats and dogs has helped to reduce some people’s anxiety during the crisis. “It suggests that vicarious touch can work as an important substitute for actual touch during the pandemic,” she says.

While we may be unable to easily forge new weak ties, we could attempt to make the most of the chance encounters we do have, whether striking up a conversation with someone we see regularly in the park, reaching out to a colleague whose work you have admired from afar or perhaps sending out an open invitation for a video conference with people who work in the same field. Although you may be nervous about their reaction, Sandstrom’s research suggests that most people respond very well to an attempt to build new bridges – and you will feel much better afterwards.

From our closest friends to our most distant acquaintances, there has never been more reason to recognise the importance of the people around us, and our need to cherish those relationships – and that is a lesson that will be well worth remembering long after the threat of covid-19 has passed.

newscientist.com, 12 August 2020
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