For more than a year now, many people have only seen friends and family on Zoom or FaceTime screens.
While it’s important for everyone’s health that we stick to social distancing, it’s also impacting mental health.
In a survey of 2,000 adults conducted in August 2020 by the AARP Foundation and United Health Foundation, two-thirds reported social isolation.
No wonder mental health experts express concern.
Our brains crave social connection.
“These relationships provide more than I can possibly list,” says licensed psychologist Robin Hornstein, Ph.D.
“For instance, they make us leave our comfort zone, and good time spent with another person can help release dopamine, a happy neurotransmitter in our brains that stimulates the reward system.”
Our connections also can help us when we’re facing problems and support us if we want to break down, she adds.
Although technology is often a great way to feel more connected, it’s not the same.
“Unless someone is really listening, it’s like yelling into an echoing cave,” says mindfulness and communication expert Terri Lonowski, MEd. “The reciprocal nature of fulfilling exchanges is needed to diminish loneliness and create meaningful social connections.”
If you’re ready to boost your social connections, try these expert ideas to maintain real connections.
1. Put Pen to Postcard
When’s the last time you wrote someone a letter? We all know how much a heartfelt message from a friend means for the receiver.
“I’ve been sending postcards,” Hornstein says.
Go to the local store or shop online, pick out 10 or so fun designs with specific people in mind, and send one each day.
2. Text and Cheer
Whether you love March Madness or want to check out the same movie, do it with a friend — from a distance.
“Watch it at the same time and text each other during intense or exciting moments, then jump on a quick call afterward,” Lonowski says. “The combination of being in touch during the event and following up with a real conversation adds varied dimensions to the experience. And it’s fun!”
Another option? Do the same workout program and text after each session.
3. Host a Down-the-Lane Dinner
This is one to do with neighbors or friends who live nearby. It’s kind of like a potluck.
As a group, you decide who will make what part of the meal (such as an appetizer, entrée, dessert, and even a cocktail).
Then you portion it out and drop off servings of what you made to everyone else.
“You all eat the meal on Zoom while you are oohing and talking about each person’s contribution,” Hornstein says. “You could do a theme such as holiday, comfort food, or chocolate in every course.”
4. Dare Friends to a TikTok Dance-Off
The choices are endless, and this could become a weekly thing.
One person starts by sending a dance to their friends. Then everyone has to try to replicate it, throwing in their own pizzazz.
You can up the ante by having a weekly prize or doing a set number of dances and giving an award at the end.
5. Try a 30-Day Challenge
List out 30 different people in your life. Think: relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, or people you casually know.
Then, each day for 30 days, set aside five to 10 minutes and send a quick text, email, voicemail, video chat, or letter, Lonowski suggests.
6. Drop Off a Meal
Next time you make a meal you love, share the deliciousness, Hornstein suggests.
Call your friends ahead of time and ask if they’re comfortable with you leaving something on their front stoop or at their door.
Then package up the extras and drop it off along with a personal note and any information on the recipe and how to reheat it.
7. Rally Around Someone
Lonowski’s friend asked her close network to send cards to her mother for her 90th birthday.
“Imagine how uplifting it was for this dear woman to receive a huge stack of cards,” she says.
Think of who in your life probably feels particularly lonely right now, and ask your crew to send them some love so their messages arrive around the same date.
A big dose of safe social connection can go a long way!
8. Get Outside
If you and your friend feel safe doing so, go for a distanced walk, run, or bike ride a few times a month, suggests Stephanie Rojas, LMHC, media adviser for Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
Maybe it’s a workout (or maybe it’s not!); the important thing is actually seeing someone — even if you can’t hug.
9. Plan a Shared Meal
Send a friend a recipe and cook together over video chat.
Even better — “order a meal delivered to a friend and have the same meal delivered to your home,” Lonowski says.
Then dine together over video and truly catch up, just like you would in a restaurant after going weeks or months without seeing each other.
10. Travel Together…Virtually
Many museums around the world now offer virtual tours.
Have your friends explore the Louvre, Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, or another renowned location at the same time, and be on video while you do it so you can discuss each piece together, Lonowski says.
11. Use Social Media Actively
A lot of us are Zoomed out. When we’re on work calls, we’re also answering emails, texting, reading the news, and looking up new workouts and recipes.
When you’re on FaceTime or Zoom or whatever platform you use with your loved ones, truly be there.
Close out any other apps or browser windows and consider turning off notifications to be 100% present.