Here’s advice for preserving your mental health while avoiding physical proximity
With increasing numbers of people isolated because of quarantine and social distancing, COVID-19 is not the only public health threat we should be worried about—loneliness is one as well.
While scientists are rushing to understand how the coronavirus works, researchers have long understood the toll that social isolation and loneliness take on the body. People who do not feel connected to others are more likely to catch a cold, experience depression, develop heart disease, have lower cognitive function and live a shorter life. In fact, the long-term harm caused by loneliness is similar to smoking or obesity.
In January, a national survey found that 79 percent of Gen Zers, 71 percent of millennials and 50 percent of baby boomers feel lonely. Similarly, the proportion of people who belong to any kind of community group, such as a hobby club, sports league or volunteer group, fell from 75 to 57 percent over the past decade. Even without the coronavirus keeping us apart, it seems the majority of the population suffers from poor social health.
Although isolation is the right response to the coronavirus pandemic, we need the exact opposite in response to the loneliness epidemic. So how can you cultivate your social well-being while avoiding infection?
An obvious answer is the device you are reading this article on. People often blame technology for the prevalence of loneliness, pointing out that we spend too much time scrolling through social media and not enough of it interacting IRL. Yet recent research by my colleagues at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health paints a more nuanced picture: how you use such platforms seems to matter more than how much you do so. We can all benefit from developing digital habits that support meaningful human connections—especially now that it may be our only option until the outbreak calms.
Whether you are quarantined, working remotely or just being cautious, now is the perfect time to practice using technology in socially healthy ways. Here are a few suggestions for how to connect without contact.
Face-to-face from afar: The next best thing to in-person interaction is video chat, because facial cues, body language and other nonverbal forms of communication are important for bonding. When possible, opt for video over messaging or calling and play around with doing what you would normally do with others. For example, try having a digital dinner with someone you met on a dating app, a virtual happy hour with friends or a remote book club meeting.
One-minute kindness: Getting lots of likes on a social media post may give you a fleeting hit of dopamine, but receiving a direct message or e-mail with a genuine compliment or expression of gratitude is more personal and longer lasting—without taking much more time. When you find yourself scrolling through people’s posts, stop and send one of them a few kind words. After all, we need a little extra kindness to counter the stress and uncertainty of the coronavirus.
Cultivate your community: The basis of connection is having something in common. Whatever your niche interest is, there is an online community of people who share your passion and can’t wait to nerd out with you about it. There are also digital support groups, such as for new parents or patients with a rare disease. Use these networks to engage around what matters most to you.
Deepen or broaden: Fundamentally, there are two ways to overcome loneliness: nurture your existing relationships or form new ones. Reflect on your current state of social health and then take one digital action to deepen it—such as getting in touch with a friend or family member you haven’t spoken with in a while—or to broaden it—such as reaching out to someone you’d like to get to know.
Use a tool: Increasingly, apps and social platforms are being designed to help us optimize our online interactions with loved ones, including Ikaria, Cocoon, Monaru and Squad. If you do well with structure, these resources may be a useful option for you. Or you can consider using conversation prompts, such as TableTopics or The And, to spark interesting dialogue during a video call.The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that human connection can spread illness. But human connection also promotes wellness. Let’s take this opportunity to recognize the importance of relationships for our health and to practice leveraging technology for social well-being.
This coffee additive and killer of trees has a reputation as a medical marvel.
Inonotus obliquus, the chaga mushroom, is a parasitic polypore that slowly sucks the life from birch trees. It lives in cold northern climates and takes decades to decimate its victims. Despite chaga’s destructive capabilities, this fungus has been prescribed as a natural remedy for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. In Russia, Poland, the Baltics, and Scandinavia, chaga is revered for its use in folk medicine.
One traditional use of chaga is tea. In response to World War II rationing, Finns in particular embraced the beverage and steeped chaga in Finland came to be known as tikka tea (tikka means woodpecker in Finnish, a reference to chaga’s tree-destroying ways). Some entrepreneurial spirits continue to experiment with chaga-based pick-me-ups. A small roaster in Maine and a Finnish startup now make chaga coffee. The beverages are a combination of actual Arabica coffee beans and chaga mushrooms, and resemble regular coffee in taste and color. The Finnish company, Four Sigmatic, claims the coffee doesn’t cause the crash or jitters that accompany a typical cup of joe.
What’s also unusual about the chaga mushroom is that it’s not really a mushroom. It’s fungal mycelium that grows outside birch trees into a bulbous outpouring that resembles burnt charcoal and can reach the size of a basketball.
Published research on the medicinal properties of chaga is lacking, but its reputation in traditional medicine has given it clout among the holistic healing crowd. Users typically drink it after boiling the fungus for a few hours. It’s safe for consumption (although it does possess blood-thinning properties). Think of it as a coffee additive that might just cure what ails you.
Artist – Thomas Eakins, American, 1844 – 1916 (1844 – 1916) – Artist/Maker (American)
Title – “Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)“.
Date – 1875.
Medium – Oil on canvas.
Dimensions – Height: 2,440.18 mm (96.07″); Width: 1,982.72 mm (78.05″)
Collection – Philadelphia. Museum of Art.
Source – tQFcdDEg20osqg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level
Artist – Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert or Nicolaes Moyaert or Mooyaert (1592–1655) was an authoritative Catholic Dutch painter.
Title – “Hippocrates Visiting Democritus“.
Date – 1636.
Medium – Oil on panel.
Dimensions – Height: 80 cm (31.4″); Width: 85 cm (33.4″)
Collection – Mauritshuis. Netherlands.
References – RKDimages, Art-work number 1510, as Het bezoek van Hippocrates aan Democritus te Abdera, 1624.
European Medieval Festivals, such as “The Feast of Fools”, inverted the social order for a day.
Paupers became Kings & Fools became Popes.
The Feast of Fools, as described by the French theologians who condemned it in 1445, sounds like a ton of fun. This New Year’s Day celebration, they wrote, caught up high-ranking church officials in a bacchanal unworthy of their exalted positions.
“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office,” the theologians recounted, presumably with a sniff of horror. “They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings… while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice… They run and leap through the church, without a blush at their own shame.”
Officially banned in the 15th century, the Feast of Fools had its origins 300 years before, in the 1100s, and continued as a tradition well into the 16th century. It was memorialized in church documents condemning its excesses and in paintings depicting streets full of merry chaos. It appears in Victor Hugo’s famous 19th century novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when Quasimodo is swept up in the festivities and crowned King of Fools.
This rowdy revelry may never has been quite as raucous as was rumored. It started out as a much tamer liturgical celebration, which accrued an outsized reputation for subversiveness. At its heart, though, the Feast of Fools always turned power on its head—a reversal that naturally made church leaders very nervous.
In the book Sacred Folly, independent scholar Max Harris traces the history of the Feast of Fools to three locations in northern France. There, on the first day of each year, lower members of the clergy would take on the duties of higher-ranking priests and bishops. (There was, for instance, a Pope of Fools.) This inversion of power, though, wasn’t meant to bring down the more powerful clergy so much as uplift the lower: The “fools” here were fools in a particular Biblical sense, people beloved of God precisely because they were of lower status.
There were some elements of merriment to these early Feasts of Fools, including a “song of the ass,” which “evoke[d] the beauty, strength, and virtues of an ass as it journey[ed] from the East, across the river Jordan, to Bethlehem,” and sometimes involved an actual donkey being led into church. And once, Harris reports, someone did use this celebration as an opportunity to hit a cleric with “an inflated and swollen hen’s bladder.”
For the most part, though, he finds “no verifiable rowdiness,” only second- and third-hand reports from worrywarts distant from the actual celebrations.
But outside the church doors, concurrent celebrations were much more irreverent. In these medieval centuries, Harris writes, it became popular for students to parade through the streets with their faces blackened with mud (or even animal dung) to conceal their identities while they parodied clergy, doctors, civil officials, and rulers. These parades certainly featured cross-dressing, drinking, singing, and all manner of other mischief and behavior that usually wouldn’t be tolerated.
Wintertime celebrations like these, where the less powerful parts of society had the chance to break loose for a day, trace their roots to Roman and other European pagan festivals of role-reversal. They weren’t always held on New Year’s Day, but in some places the New Year’s Feast of Fools took on a second, more secular meaning.
Compared to other scholars, Harris goes unusually far in trying to distinguish the Feast of Fools inside the church from the revelry outside, a distinction that leads him perhaps too close to “the opposite statement of the Feast of Fools as lacking disarray,” as one reviewer wrote. Even if actual clergymen weren’t getting dressed up and rampaging through the streets, the reversal of power that they did indulge in was enough to make their leaders crack down on the tradition. People in power don’t always have a sense of humor about their power being questioned, even if this critique stops at donkey songs and hen bladders.
It’s easy to imagine, too, that lower-ranking religious servants did occasionally get caught up in the madness going on in the streets. After all, if some strange behavior is banned, it’s usually because someone tried it.