Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 10, 2020

Four Guilty Pleasures That Might Just Save Your Sanity During Isolation

by Shira Gabriel
Asian woman cooking noodles in her kitchen

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Decades of research suggests that human beings need social connections just like we need oxygen, food, and water. A lack of social connections is one of the strongest predictors of depression, anxiety, poor physical health, and even suicide.

So what should people do in this time of physical isolation? Luckily there are easy and fun ways to keep connected and protect ourselves. My research suggests that four of your guilty pleasures may actually help you feel socially connected. In other words, stop feeling guilty and start engaging in the following activities.

First, dig right into your social media. Post stories of what you are doing. Share your concerns and also your moments of peace. Comment on other people’s posts. And don’t just reach out to the people you are closest to—reach out to your broader social circles. Host a virtual coffee or happy hour on a service such as Zoom. Invite your neighbors to a virtual book club. Make sure you aren’t just lurking on social media—that can make you feel worse because you start comparing your quarantine to someone else’s best three minutes of quarantine. Instead: post, respond, and connect.

Second, prepare the foods that you associate with being lovedfoods you might call comfort foods. My research suggests that preparing and eating those foods activates a primitive and implicit feeling of being cared for and loved. The food can fill our need for social connection and protect us from the negative effects of isolation. Also consider sharing your recipes and pictures of your food online. Try recipes other people post. Make eating and enjoying food a social activity.

Third, take part in all the bizarre and fun new rituals that people are doing with their communities. Draw on your sidewalks with your neighbors. Sing from your balcony. Put pictures of rainbows in your windows. Our research suggests that these kind of shared activities foster a sense of collective effervescence—a feeling of connection mixed with a sensation of sacredness. These experiences of collective effervescence make us feel less lonely and they give our lives meaning and that little extra kick of special. Even if it feels a little weird to you, give it a try.

Fourth, turn on the TV and stream your favorite TV show or movie. My research suggests that we can find symbolic social connections through watching (or reading) narratives. See, at the time when our social systems evolved, there was no need for us to differentiate between real relationships and the symbolic ones that we get through media—because media didn’t exist for early humans! So, our brains never developed that ability.  Sure, logically you know that the friends you have on Friends are not real, but to your mind they feel real, and our research suggests that they actually can fill your need to belong and make your happier. Any kind of narrative has the potential to make us feel connected, but my research suggests that in times of stress and anxiety, picking up an old familiar narrative (such as rereading a favorite book or rewatching a favorite show) can be especially rewarding. It is like connecting to an old friend in the safest way possible.

So my advice to you in this crazy and stressful time is to stop feeling guilty about guilty pleasures. Let yourself spend time on social media. Eat the foods that make you feel happy. Do silly and seemingly pointless things just because others are doing them. Watch TV whenever you want to. Think about what else makes you happy and do that too: exercise, art, creative writing… whatever makes your heart sing. And, of course, overdoing any one activity isn’t a good idea, so listen to your heart—if you start to feel like you are unhappy, pull back on one of these activities and try another one.

And wash your hands a lot.

For Further Reading

Gabriel, S., Valenti, J., & Young, A. F. (2016). Watching, reading, and eating your way to belonging: Symbolic social relationships and the social self. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 189-243.

Gardner, W. L., Pickett, C. L., & Knowles, M. (2005). Social Snacking and Shielding: Using Social Symbols, Selves, and Surrogates in the Service of Belonging Needs. In K. D. Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology series. The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (p. 227–241). New York: Psychology Press.

Shira Gabriel is an Associate Professor at SUNY Buffalo and an Associate Editor of Character and Context. She studies the social nature of the self, including how people form psychological relationships with non-human entities, the importance of spending time in large anonymous crowds (such as sporting events and rallies), and how our relationships shape our feelings about ourselves and vice versa.

This blog is reposted from Medium (March 29, 2020).


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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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