Is Social Isolation Making Us More Social?

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social isolation
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In recent years, the meteoric rise in the worldwide usage of social media has drastically reduced the amount of time we spend in the company of our near and dear ones. We have somehow managed to remain connected via social media in its myriad forms (viz., Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.); however, people have tended to eschew face-to-face communication in favour of FaceTime/Skype calls or WhatsApp messages. Cherished memories such as a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation with a family member, a friend, a lover, or a spouse became a thing of the past, an anachronism of sorts. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in India in March 2020, it brought along with it the first of many “lockdowns” – a complete shutdown of all businesses, educational institutions, entertainment centres as well as religious places of worship. As the lockdown dragged on, people gradually started having enough of being confined to their homes for months on end. Ironically, this was because they began to miss the very things that they had once taken for granted. Here, the bottom line is that people are starting to realize the importance of real-life and real-world friendships vis-a-vis reel-life and virtual-world friendships. So, how does one explain this surprising trend?

Human beings (or Homo sapiens) are the only surviving species of sentient apes. From an evolutionary perspective, the most remarkable aspect of human sociality is its many diverse forms of cooperation. Human beings are a social species that rely on social cooperation to survive and thrive. This concept of cooperation is at the heart of human life and society – from day-to-day interactions to some of our most glorious achievements. The legendary Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Man is by nature a social animal. An asocial individual naturally and not accidentally is either beneath the notice of people or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.” Man cannot live alone. He must satisfy his basic natural needs to survive. He has to maintain relationships with his fellow humans to live a fruitful and productive life. 

No man can break the cycle of mutual dependence, which perhaps begins between the embryo and the mother and continues till its last breath. The embryo’s needs may be more physical than mental, but the mother’s needs are the other way round. Studies and surveys have shown that our brains and hearts are hardwired to function at their best only in the company of fellow humans. Human cognitive development in the early years happens the fastest when children are allowed to interact as much as possible with other humans. Hence, children are encouraged to step outside the four walls of their homes and enjoy as much social interaction as possible (mostly with other children) from an early age onwards. 

Long-term isolation from other people usually has detrimental effects on the human psyche (including and up to permanent mental scarring). Indeed, this is one of the reasons why incarcerated prisoners in state penal facilities are locked up in isolated and sealed cells, one man to each cell. The isolation thus serves to impress upon the prisoner the value of the social freedoms forfeited. 

Now, let us come back to why social isolation is essentially undoing itself these days. In times when the pandemic wasn’t even a thing, people still tried to make time for their families and friends despite ever-busier schedules and the relative convenience of social media. When March 2020 arrived, our lives changed forever with the imposition of the first lockdown. Any place that could act as a ” COVID-19 super-spreader” of sorts was to be closed down. People could no longer go to college, to school, or to work. Even short trips to the butcher’s or the market became instantly foregone conclusions. Religious places of worship, which are also powerhouses of social interaction, were among the first to be shuttered. Within only a week, our world as we knew it had “gone kaput”; all we were left to do was adapt and get used to the new normal. In the midst of all this, there were concerns from many quarters that people might never get any further opportunities to interact and socialize in person. The situation was that bleak. All along, people successfully managed to stay in touch with their near and dear ones using social media, the chronological and geographical distances notwithstanding. Human life continued, albeit online. As of this moment, competitions happen online. College lectures proceed online. Even weddings are streamed online for those who are unable to attend them in person. But in the long run, there is only so much we can do with social media. 

When using social media, one does not see the honesty, openness, and transparency that are ever-present in face-to-face, personal communication. Factors such as body language (kinesics), eye contact, gestures, and so on help us better comprehend and understand the person in front of us. And lastly, but not in the least, there is simply no online substitute for such irreplaceable and priceless memories such as a birthday party, a lunch date, a dinner with friends or even a stroll in the park with a significant other. 

Considering the pandemic, the urge to go out and spend time with family and friends was nevertheless omnipresent in people’s hearts and minds. Hence, when the central and state governments floated serious proposals to remove restrictions on the movement of people during the lockdown, starting from October 2020, many people wholeheartedly welcomed the move instead of fiercely opposing it. This enthusiastic response only proves that people still long for those good old days when it never cost us anything to step out of our homes and have a good time with our loved ones. One noteworthy observation is that as restrictions cease to exist, people are less and less reluctant to go outside to eat at restaurants, meet friends or head out on outings or vacations.

In retrospect, all of this bodes well as a change for the better. It clearly shows that people still treasure certain events and memories that are irreplaceable by online interactions via social media. There was a time not too long ago when there was talk of humanity forever losing its innate affinity for social interaction, thanks to the advent of social media. But this is not the case, just not yet. People’s behaviour is indeed a resounding validation of the numerous studies and surveys carried out; human beings are happiest when they are with other human beings and not otherwise. Just locking oneself up in a room and remaining in isolation won’t help; in fact, it never helps. 

True happiness only comes to us when we step out of our shells and start being more sociable. And happiness from within is the best start anyone can have to lead a complete, fulfilling, happy and productive life. Thank you, and have a wonderful day ahead!

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