How to stay sane and connected in crazy times

Connected in a pandemic

Here’s a fact that may surprise you . . .

Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

Why is being socially isolated so damaging to our health?

It’s because we’re social creatures.

We’re biologically wired for connection. This is one of our core human needs. When we don’t feel connected, we don’t feel so good. We experience pain.

In fact, studies involving monkeys have found monkeys would rather go hungry than be alone. That’s how important connection is.

My period of isolation (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t fun)

A few years ago, I moved temporarily to Japan. I lived in a place called The Washington Plaza hotel. Sounds fancy, right? It wasn’t.

It was the cheapest hotel in town. My room was tiny. The view was a concrete jungle. Breakfast was chemical sludge soup from a vending machine. But I wasn’t there for a fun holiday. I was there to visit a friend who was very ill.

Every morning, I would catch the bus to the hospital to see my dear friend. After a few hours, I would head back to my little hotel room, where I would sit and cry. It was hard to get up and leave that little room.

I started to understand how people lose their minds and deteriorate quickly when placed in solitary confinement.

So I forced myself to do little things like run up and down the hotel stairwell, ride the hotel bike, go out and buy a rice ball from the 7-Eleven, etc. Doing these things helped a lot but I won’t lie, it was still really tough.

When I returned home to Australia, I noticed something interesting …

I felt instantly better.

Feeling better
This is how I felt when I returned home: happy and connected.

I was with my family, friends and pets. I could see trees and hear bird song. I felt connected and fully alive. Instead of procrastinating, I just got on with things. I became a productivity powerhouse.

This experience made me realise two things about connection:
1) It keeps us sane and grounded; and
2) It’s the most effective pathway to happiness and productivity.

So the question is …

How do we stay sane and connected in the midst of a pandemic?

Let’s start with the obvious things you can do . . .

Share a meal with the people in your house.

Then pull out your favourite board games and engage in some “supercharged socializing”. Cal Newport refers to this as a form of socialising that is characterised by excited chatter and loud belly laughs. Playing games is a great way to help you be present and connected to others.

Don’t have any board games? No problem!

There are many spoken games and paper and pen games (e.g. Mr Squiggle) you can play. I recommend checking out the book Parlour Games for Modern Families by Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras. This book contains 130 games, which the authors tested and tweaked over a 6-month period with their families. What I love about these games is you don’t need to buy anything. And no tech devices are required, which brings me to my next point . . .

Unless it’s absolutely required, put your devices away (out of sight). Give the person your full attention. Psychotherapist Nancy Colier states in her book The Power of Off:

“Attention is how we show each other we matter . . . The gaze of someone who is really with us (not distracted) is a gift.”

Have a pet dog or cat?

Go play with your pets. Rub their bellies. Stroke their silky ears.

But it’s not just people and our pets who we need to connect with. It’s nature, too. So put on your shoes and head outside into your garden. If you need a bit of guidance in exploring the natural world, check out the guided exploration Making Moves by RZA on Spotify.

My next suggestion requires a bit of courage …

Pick up your phone and call a friend.

I know it feels much safer to send a text or an email. But this won’t cut it.

Professor Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, argues apps like Facebook and Instagram give us this illusion of connection and companionship.

Send a messages on one of these platforms? You’re being communicative. Being communicative is very different from feeling connected to another human being.

Our brains evolved over millions of years to crave rich social interactions. This need to connect can’t simply be met by receiving text messages and a few ‘likes’.

Research from the Center for Cognitive & Social Neuroscience (University of Chicago) has found that the more face-to-face interactions we have, the less lonely we are. The more online interaction we have, the more lonely we’re likely to feel.

So give your brain a treat. Pick up the phone. Phone a friend.

If you’re not used to having phone conversations, that’s okay. Just know that this is a skill and with a little practice, you can get a lot better at it.

Want to make the experience even richer for your brain?

Download Zoom or Skype.

People in Italy and other parts of the world that are currently in lockdown have been using these to host virtual dinner gatherings, craft sessions and dance parties.

If you find yourself working at home alone, consider joining a free virtual work session, such as Akimbo virtual coworking.

And finally, whatever activities you choose to engage in, do your best to follow this Zen Mantra:

“Sit Sit.
Walk Walk.
Don’t wobble.”

In other words, be fully present.

As the authors of one of my favourite books The Art of Frugal Hedonism suggest:

“Smack your lips and make appreciative noises when you’re eating something tasty…Stroke your dog’s ear between thumb and forefinger and marvel at its silkiness. Snuggle into your bed on a cold night and actually grin about how good it is … Go for a barefoot walk somewhere where you can curl your toes into brittle grass, mud or sand. Listen to music while doing nothing else at all. Call it mindfulness, call it living in the moment, call it relishing – it’s recommended by psychiatrists, hedonists, Buddhist monks and cheapskates alike.”

To sum up

The pause button has been hit on life. Many of us have been given the precious gift of time. Let’s use it wisely. Let’s stop the multitasking madness. Let’s commit to being fully engaged in whatever we’re doing and whoever we’re with. Let’s make being present our top priority.