Opinion: How social distancing will help us find happiness
by Greg Woodman
This op-ed appeared in the April 3 issue of the Centre Daily Times.
Twenty years ago, I bought a company on the premise that strong personal connections and lasting friendships lead to happiness. If you’re struggling with social distancing, I’m here to tell you that you’ll be better for it if you do one thing: stay connected to other people.
In 2000, I read Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking “Bowling Alone,” which argued that Americans had become disconnected from the people in our lives. Over 25 years of research, he found that people belonged to fewer organizations, knew fewer neighbors, met with friends less frequently, and even socialized with family less often than previous generations.
He called it a loss of social capital. Social capital carries value: trust and cooperation, along with tangible health and happiness markers. In fact, Putnam said that participating in one group cuts your odds of dying in the next year in half.
Soon after reading “Bowling Alone,” I purchased a small State College company, Stewart Howe Alumni Services, which I renamed Affinity Connection. Since then, we’ve been creating communications in the form of emails, newsletters, and appeals for support for organizations like State College Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, fire companies, and hundreds of alumni organizations at Penn State and across the country.
These groups enjoy strong, consistent support from dedicated donors. But since COVID-19, those donors and many new ones are doubling down: giving more, getting involved as volunteers, and reaching out to fellow alumni to check on their well-being.
“Social distancing has shown us how important friendship is—the strong bonds we created as fraternity brothers are coming through now that we’re so isolated,” says one alumnus. Donors are giving time and money at record levels to food banks and other relief funds for people who’ve lost their jobs.
What does this mean?
In Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness,” he asks, “What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?”
A professor of psychiatry at Harvard, he is the fourth director of the longest-running study of adult life. Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been following a group of 724 men through work, home, family, and health. At the time of his TED Talk, 60 of the participants were still alive.
Over 80-plus years, some experienced meteoric success, some epic failure. Who was happiest?
“The biggest lesson we learned is that it isn’t wealth, fame, or hard work that matters. Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period,” Waldinger says. The healthiest 80-year-olds turned out to be the ones who were most connected in their 50s. Those with good relationships had healthier bodies and clearer minds than their counterparts.
Waldinger’s findings are more prevalent now than ever, several weeks into the COVID-19 shutdown. I am teaching Entrepreneurial Leadership to Penn State students around the world via Zoom, alone in our once-bustling office. Restaurants are empty and we’re hunkered down at home.
You’d expect that we would all feel more isolated than ever. Yet. Somehow, social distancing has cut through all that busyness, making more space for authentic relationships with family, friends, and neighbors.
My siblings are scattered, my wife’s mother is in her retirement home and my parents are in their own home. One of my sons is quarantined in Arizona (having tested positive for COVID-19), while another is working the front lines as a doctor in Baltimore. My youngest is ending their senior year of college with no cap and gown. We are far apart, yet we have never been so close. We talk daily on Zoom and group texts. I feel more connected with the people I love today than I did two months ago!
Is staying home tough? Yes. But remember, the bonds formed in adversity are not just helping us get through this time, but they are also making our future bodies healthier, our future brains sharper, our present self … happier.
Right now, connect. Make the call, send the text, mail the card. Plan future dinners at your favorite restaurant. Give to your church, your favorite museum, the charity that’s helping kids and families. Giving back and connecting with others not only changes us, it changes the world. Greg Woodman is an Instructor of Entrepreneurial Leadership at Penn State University and CEO of Affinity Connection. Affinity Connection, in name and mission, promotes human connectedness and purpose. The company believes that organizations are being called upon by their members to rise to the occasion of improving the world. Greg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.