Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness column

How we all thrive with a little help from our friends, even during a pandemic: Jennifer Moss

Evidence shows that having friends is good for us. It improves both our mental and physical health. Happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss looks at what's happened to our mental health in a year without friends.

'It's not healthy for us to be without friends. We're just built for social contact': Moss

Most of us aren't enjoying a meal with friends like the models in this stock image. It's been a rough year for people as individuals and it's been tough on friendships. (Mediteraneo - stock.adobe.com)

It's been almost a year without friends. At least in the way we're used to having friends.

Although Zoom cocktail hours, Netflix parties and getting on the phone has helped… it's just not the same. 

We're all missing laughter in real life. And many of us are missing a good hug from a best friend.

According to experts, the lack of in-person time with friends is taking a real toll. So, what is the health impact from being without friends in real life for this long? 

It's significant.

Consequences of loneliness

According to Dr. Robin Dunbar, globally recognized psychologist, "friendship and loneliness are two sides of the same social coin." He says that medical researchers over the past decade have been surprised by how dramatic the effect of friendship (or lack of friendships) can be on our health as we do not cope well with isolation. For example: 

  • Lonely individuals deal with higher levels of perceived stress even when dealing with the same stress that others may experience.
  • Loneliness raises levels of stress hormones and blood pressure. It can even make heart muscles work harder to pump blood through our bodies.
  • Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically.

In other words, it's not healthy for us to be without friends. We're just built for social contact. 

Benefits of friendship

There are myriad mental and physical health benefits to friendships. The Mayo Clinic describes the following as the positive byproducts of healthy relationships:

  • Increases our sense of belonging and purpose.
  • Boosts happiness and reduces stress.
  • Improves self-confidence and self-worth.
  • Helps us cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one.

According to a recent Harvard study, healthy friendships are as important to our physical health as eating well and keeping fit. Good friends even help promote brain health and allows us to rebound from health issues and disease more quickly.

Also, when we're together we trigger endorphins, which is chemically similar to morphine but without the harmful effects. We experience these healthy chemicals by sharing laughter, those moments where we casually place an arm on a friend's hand, or when we're enjoying our meals together. These bonding moments make us feel more connected to the world and increases our hope.

Many of us have turned to online calls to see friends. Even if it's not the same, it's something, writes happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss. (Shutterstock / PSShutter)

Lack of work/life balance impacts friendships

It's been so challenging to stay connected this year and although it feels like the video chats at the start of the pandemic helped, now, by the end of the day, we can't imagine one more Zoom hangout. Even if it is with our best friend.

We keep hearing the term "Zoom Burnout" and I've mentioned in other columns, but it doesn't just exhaust us at work. That overwhelming meeting fatigue spills over into our personal lives, too.

Dr. Dunbar says that the reason we're so exhausted by these conference calls is that there is a very strict limit on the number of people we can hold in any conversation. It's four, including the speaker.

Dunbar claims, "If we were in person, we would break into smaller conversations, but you can't do that on a video chat. Instead, in a large group, the most dominating personalities will converse while the rest drift off, become distracted by their cat, or start to check their emails or media feeds."

What is so fascinating about this specific number for virtual meetings coincides with the "Dunbar Number" which is the limit of friends and family that you optimize in your life at any one time. Dr. Dunbar found in a large-scale analysis of people in 11 European countries that about five close friends is optimal for minimizing risk of depression. Less than that and depression is likely to increase. More than that and the risk also increases.

Reality of large virtual gatherings

In most gatherings these days – we try to jam everyone into a Zoom chat while the most dominant personalities carry the weight of the conversations as others just stay silent. To fix that, try and find a shared goal. Instead of just meeting to eat together, try cooking your meal together then eating it.

Instead of having cocktail hour, how about playing a game. Our family has started to play Kahoots as a big group and it's a blast. I also have a standing Euchre game on Sundays with my in-laws and we play Code Names on Wednesday – our family versus my brother's family. Winner take all! Although, there is nothing to take – it's still really fun.

Staring at yourself isn't all that healthy and feeling awkward increases stress hormones – so working collectively on one project or a singular game is much healthier. It encourages easier conversations and gives more people the chance to speak and be heard.

Fostering friendships, your first priority

The strength of a friendship is completely dependent on how much time you invest in each person. Time is limited. According to Dr. Dunbar, we typically devote about three hours a day to social exchanges, regardless of age or personality.

I know we're tired and burned out, but let's still try and keep that up – even if it's just what we can offer these days. 

See, time allows us to build social bonds, mainly through the activities we do together. It helps us get to know someone sufficiently well that you know how they think and how they will react to something.

Through conversation and time spent together, we offer information about our own likes and dislikes and seek information on the likes and dislikes of others. We share history. We cultivate empathy. The more time we spend with someone, the better we know them and the more accurately we can predict their behaviour.

All of this time together, then creates an effortless state of belonging – a feeling that positive psychologists say is that ideal state you experience when you're with someone you care about. It just feels really easy to be around them.

The more thinly we spread out our social effort, the less strong your friendships are, and the less they provide you the meaningful benefits of true friendship. 

So, we can't cull our friendships like some of us have done this year, understandably so, mostly because we're exhausted, chronically stressed, and tired of getting on another call.

But we need to reclaim our relationships. How about we all try to cull one unnecessary Zoom meeting at work each day and give that time back to your friends instead? 

In times like these, we need our people. Our pick-us-up-from-the-airport/bail-us-out-of-jail kind of people.

We just need to give them a bit more of our time.

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