October 3, 2022

Social connection and well-being during COVID

Over a century of research has proven how crucial social connection is for well-being, so no wonder we see the current situation as very concerning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted life worldwide and in order to minimize the spread, stay at home and physical distancing guidelines have dominated 2020.

Over a century of research has proven how crucial social connection is for well-being, so no wonder we see the current situation as very concerning. In addition, previous research on past pandemics has revealed that quarantining or separating those who may be infected leads to long-lasting negative psychological effects.  

Happiness and life satisfaction saw one of the largest declines during the pandemic along with mental and physical health, while meaning in life and overall flourishing saw only moderate declines.

In the light of growing research on the pandemic, particular patterns have emerged outlining protective and risk factors when it comes to well-being as summarized below:

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Figure 1: Psychological well-being during COVID-19

When it comes to protective factors for positive well-being, specifically to psychological characteristics, extraversion, grit, gratitude, and resilience are at the top of the list. Along with psychological factors, social factors and social behaviors—including the quality and quantity of people’s social relationships—, have also contributed positively. Lastly, research has found that circumstantial factors (i.e., older age) may be protective of well-being.

When it comes to risk factors for negative well-being and specifically to psychological characteristics, research has revealed that two types of psychological characteristics, namely, intolerance for uncertainty and pre-existing mental health conditions, appear to be risk factors for worse well-being during COVID-19. Social factors and social behaviors, including the extent to which people engage in distancing behavior and whether they have high-quality social relationships, have also been shown to be risk factors for worse well-being during the pandemic.

Although the social connection is vital in times of stress, such as a global pandemic, and many may use social media to connect with others while at a physical distance, research seems to point to social media having negative psychological outcomes. The reason behind this is relatively simple: we use more negative words, spend too much time on social media and consuming online news, inevitably also likely to encounter fake news. A few years back I wrote an article about the power of language, something that has always interested me. Now language is something we can work to improve. We have to shift our thoughts first and our language second towards a more positive and optimistic register.

Given that much of the world has been physically distancing for over a year now, connection and loneliness have been heavily studied. The aim has been to understand and find ways in which social connection could be promoted. This is only the beginning of the journey into studying a world that was already suffering from loneliness even before the pandemic and how we can continue to protect our social connections and avoid falling prisoner of loneliness. We all wish to see the end of this pandemic, but in the meantime, it's important to self-reflect and assess one's mental and physical health and start practicing mindfulness, gratitude and kindness and when relevant reach out for professional support.

Research has also proven that experiencing flow is a positive factor for well-being and social connection in this environment. Achieving flow is achieving that state of mind in which you become fully immersed in an activity. In order to achieve flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (credited for popularizing the concept), observed that two variables were needed: (i) that people tackle challenges that they perceive to be at just the right level of ‘stretch’ for their skill sets; and (ii) that people have unambiguous short-term goals and receive instant feedback on their progress. Flow can be achieved both in personal or professional moments and it can have the same positive effect on our happiness. By getting engaged in things that we love doing we enrich our lives and tap into greater meaning in life.

Lastly, it's important to highlight the concept of flourishing, which reflects the state when people experience positive emotions, positive psychological functioning and positive social functioning, most of the time. Initial research has shown that while we are experiencing more negative emotions, the positive has been accentuated and made more obvious, resulting only in a small decrease in both flourishing and life meaning.

Researchers have identified multiple factors that explain the differences in well-being and social connection across the globe, such as seeking out COVID-19 related information, experiencing flow, using social media, being from a vulnerable population, living with a partner, and having positive psychological characteristics like gratitude or resilience. While a lot of research was already done, more is needed to support interventions and policies that aim to balance physical and mental health looking to boost the well-being and social connection of people worldwide.

Written by Andreea Pap

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