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Our social lives also need a shot in the arm

by Bioreports
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Being social is necessary for our emotional health.

Jeanne Martinet is the author of nine books. The most recent is Mingling With the Enemy: A Social Survival Guide for Our Divided Era. She has been featured in The bioreports, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)The other day a friend texted me to see if I wanted to join her and two other people for dinner outside at a neighborhood cafe that evening. We were all fully vaccinated and the weather was lovely. Unaccountably, I found myself hesitating. “Let me get back to you in a bit,” I texted back. Wait, I thought, putting the phone down. What’s wrong with me? Why am I feeling so ambivalent about this?

It’s true I had been looking forward to watching the last two episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit,” and I had leftover pizza and an open bottle of wine waiting in the fridge. But was I actually going to choose staying home over going out with friends, when for an entire year I had done nothing but stream Netflix alone in my apartment?

Jeanne Martinet

Now, this equivocating might not be that unusual for the average person. But I am someone who essentially mingles for a living. Before the pandemic I went out five or six nights a week. I am a devotee of dinner parties, a promoter of in-person interactions. For months I’d been stuck inside in my muumuu and slippers; I should have been totally starved for human contact. Suddenly, a horrible thought struck me: Had Covid-19 turned me into an introvert?

    It’s a story I’ve been hearing a lot. Person after person has confided to me that they have found themselves resisting the idea of going out, even when under safe conditions. While face-to-face communication has already been on the decline in recent years — thanks in part to the internet and social media — the habits we acquired during Covid-19 have exacerbated this trend. Our inner hermits have been allowed to take control of our psyches, and the people who were already introverted have grown even more so.

      While nobody likes a global pandemic, the truth is that minglephobes were secretly happy that they now had an excuse to stay at home. “I can do this lockdown thing standing on my head,” I heard from one acquaintance. “Not having to socialize suits me just fine,” said another. I even know one woman who admitted that she lied when she said she hadn’t been vaccinated because she didn’t want to face her social anxiety. According to a 2020 SocialPro study, 65.6% of socially anxious people as well as 29.4% of non-socially anxious people felt relieved to be able to socialize less due to Covid-19.

        Our country’s intense partisan divide is another contributing factor. Many people were all too glad not to have to endure the stress of their family Thanksgiving dinner table last year, where politics often rears its head. But these days every conversation seems to lead to trouble. Even a casual observation about how pretty a passerby’s mask is can become an argument over the need for face-coverings and social distancing.

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        Avoiding all (safe) social activities is not the answer. Social isolation has historically been used for punishment or torture. Humans need person-to-person connection the way they need air to breathe. But, as with physical exercise, socializing is something we must work at.

          The longer you haven’t done something, the harder it is. Who feels like going for a run when you haven’t run in months? Our mingling muscles have atrophied to such a degree many of us may not even realize it. While a year of video chats may have honed our computer skills, they have eroded our conversational skills. Zoom has accustomed us to exchanges that are more like meetings, with only one person able to speak at any given time. On group chats, it’s easy to just sit back and listen, which causes people to become even more socially rusty.

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          For most of us, getting back into the swing of social life feels a bit like coming out of the storm cellar after a tornado. Emerging from our Covid caves, we are blinking our eyes in the sunlight, vaguely nervous, feeling awkward. Is it really okay out here? We also have worries that are akin to stage fright. What can I possibly find to talk about? What if people discover how little I’ve accomplished during the past year?

          One friend, Victoria, forced herself to overcome the inner voice telling her it wasn’t worth the effort to drive all the way into the city from a nearby suburb to see and old friend. “It turned out to be the best thing I have done all month. I can’t believe I almost didn’t go — I had almost convinced myself I had too much to do at home. But then I remembered, I used to go out all the time!”

            We need to combat the tendency to unwittingly extend our lockdown. Being social is necessary for our emotional health. In a recent bioreports essay, Adam Grant referred to a widespread pandemic-related disorder, “languishing,” defined as a sense of stagnation and emptiness or the absence of well-being. I believe there is a fairly simple cure: mingling with friends — and strangers — whenever you can.

            So did I forgo that evening of Netflix and pizza in favor of dinner with friends? Yes and no. We ended up ordering pizza at the restaurant while talking about everyone’s favorite show….”The Queen’s Gambit.”

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