Lydia Denworth

How Friendship Has Changed in the Pandemic

New research reveals that some people have it worse..

Posted February 24, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Key Points:

  • Younger adults were more likely than older individuals to report that their friendships had suffered during the pandemic.
  • Because of the ways they tend to interact with friends, men's friendships appear to have suffered more during the pandemic than women's.
  • In the pandemic, rather than experiencing friendships as an outlet for managing risk, many have come to view them as a source of risk.

How much do you miss your friends? A lot, I’m willing to bet. The forced lack of in-person social connection that the Covid-19 pandemic enforced has been painful and prolonged. Friends are supposed to be able to be there for each other in a crisis, but this crisis looks and feels different. Coming together in person is exactly what we haven’t been able do.

The isolation has been difficult for just about everyone. But it looks like it has been harder for some of us than for others. Men, young people, and less educated people have experienced more negative effects on their friendships during the pandemic than other groups. For instance, they reported feeling lonelier and less satisfied with their friends. Those feelings in turn made the same people more likely to engage in risky social behavior such as attending large parties.

Those results come from a preliminary report on a study led by social psychologists at Arizona State University. It surveyed more than 600 people from multiple countries in both March and August of 2020 and asked them to report on the state of their friendships. Because the study is still undergoing peer review, the analysis may change a bit before publication. But I was curious about some of the trends that the researchers identified.

Why might some groups have suffered more than others?

filadendron/iStock

Young and Lonely

We usually assume social isolation is hardest for people who are older. In the pandemic, older people were at higher risk and most took higher levels of precaution about socializing. But the researchers found that while older people did report being lonely, it was younger adults who felt their friendships had taken the biggest hit.

Young adulthood has long been recognized as a time for establishing new, long-term friendships, and that has been especially difficult to do over the last year. And in adolescence , which runs from the age of 10 all the way to 25, the brain is more sensitive to social acceptance and rejections than at any other age. “Friendships just might be more important [when you’re young],” says Jessica Ayers , a doctoral student in social psychology at ASU who led the study. “They might perceive their friendships to be taking a bigger hit simply because it’s more salient.”

Another explanation might be the fluctuating social situation many young people experience, says Ayers. New college students, for example, are in transition. “[In their] high school world, they’ve been around the same group of people since probably early childhood ,” Ayers says. “They’ve been immersed in that social hierarchy. They know how to navigate it. And they are all of a sudden thrust into this new world. You might not understand the rules.” All of that is hard enough without a pandemic introducing even more rules and restrictions, or closing the door on new opportunities.

Men vs. Women

Gender differences showed up in the study as well. There is a popular line to describe the difference between male and female friendship . Women do friendship face to face; men do friendship side by side. In other words, women talk to each other a lot and men do things together—they watch sports or play sports or sit on neighboring barstools. These stereotypes are certainly not universal, but they are based in truth, both biologically and culturally.

“Men and women have different adaptive pressures that have shaped their social strategies and shape the way they interact with their friends,” Ayers says. On the other hand, they tend to value similar things in friends, such as reliability, loyalty and trustworthiness.

Clearly, the pandemic has been a terrible time for being side-by-side whereas women could keep talking by picking up the phone or jumping on Zoom. “You can’t go out and do tasks together,” says Ayers. “You can’t go out and do activities together.”

importance of friendship during pandemic essay

The Risks of Friendship

The survey looked also looked at risk and turned up some intriguing ways in which the pandemic has turned standard assumptions upside down. “Friendships in general are theorized to be a way that people can manage risk,” Ayers says. “You can ask for help. Get advice.” Psychologists call such behavior “risk transfer” in that by turning to others for help, you spread some of your own risk. That’s usually healthy. But in the pandemic, those who tended to engage in risk transfer (like a young person who needed help from his parents shopping for food) suffered more, mainly because they felt guilty for putting friends and family at risk.

Young, old, male or female, the pandemic has helped to remind us all about the benefits of friendship and social connection. “Maybe our most valued friendships are going to have a positive boost from the pandemic,” Ayers says. “Because we haven’t been able to see them, when we finally do, those interactions are going to be more meaningful and we’ll put more effort into them.”

I can’t wait and I bet you can’t either.

Copyright Lydia Denworth 2021

Ayers, Jessica & Guevara Beltran, Diego & Horn, Andrew & Cronk, Lee & Todd, Peter & Aktipis, C.. (2021). The changing landscape of friendship in the pandemic: Males, younger people, and less educated people experience more negative effects of the pandemic on their friendships. 10.31234/osf.io/wkj4x.

Lydia Denworth

Lydia Denworth is a science journalist and author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond.

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What Did COVID Do to Friendship?

One person blissfully leans on a large cell phone in the grass which is being propped up by a less happy person.

A little over a year ago, near the start of quarantine, an acquaintance announced, on Twitter, that she was leaving Twitter. She’d had a good run but decided that she could do more by being online less. I found myself sliding into this near-stranger’s D.M.s, confessing that I’d miss her; instead of deflecting with formal niceties, she asked for my e-mail. Within months, we progressed to periodic phone calls, and then to daily texting—an escalation in intimacy that feels unique not only during the digital age but in this past year-plus of social distancing.

We still text every day. “Who are you messaging?” my boyfriend asks. “Is it her again?” He leans over and eyes the familiar avatar winking at the top of my phone. This scene has repeated itself throughout the past year. Whereas my boyfriend has yet to accuse me of carrying on an affair, he did, at one point, sit me down with a straight face to say he was beginning to feel jealous.

In his essay “ Friendship ,” from 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson begins with a parable: a “commended stranger” arrives at another’s house, representing “only the good and new.” Brimming with expectant generosity, the two hit it off: “We talk better than we are wont. We have the nimblest fancy, a richer memory, and our dumb devil has taken leave for the time.” But, after some dinner and some more talk, “the stranger begins to intrude his partialities, his definitions, his defects, into the conversation,” and then, suddenly, “it is all over.” The only friend worth having, Emerson tells us, is one who remains somewhat unknown.

Throughout “Friendship,” Emerson burrows deeper into this tension between the enticing stranger and the overly familiar friend, between an idealized abstraction and the person who swings by unannounced to eat all your crackers. Enduring friendships inhabit the contradiction between absence and immediacy—“the systole and diastole of the heart,” as Emerson puts it, or “the ebb and flow of love.” When first reading Emerson, in college, I was immediately drawn to the utopian vision promised by his transcendentalist philosophies—at eighteen, I, too, wanted transcendence. Revisiting him now, I’m more struck by the lack of sentimentality behind his sometimes flowery prose. “We over-estimate the conscience of our friend,” he writes. “What a perpetual disappointment is actual society. . . . Our faculties do not play us true, and both parties are relieved by solitude.” Emerson was writing amid a crisis of liberal democracy, when the fervor of abolitionism was starting to show its cracks and the politics of protest were being co-opted into mere symbolism and more self-interested agendas. He may have prized a degree of detachment, in part, because he was skeptical of groupthink.

Emerson, I’m convinced, would have appreciated texting, which affords the intimacy of letter writing with even fewer of its demands. The phone frames your friends in the least annoying and most imaginatively nurturing light. I turn this insight over in my head and then text it to my new, no-longer-tweeting friend. Eventually, she texts back in agreement.

My last pre-quarantine outing was with two women I no longer speak to, and when we broke up it all happened over text—no spoken exchange, no I.R.L. confrontation. Our friendship was already flagging, but the pandemic hastened its demise, in part because we didn’t have to worry about whether we might run into one another any time soon. After months of mutual silence, I made the split official by unfriending both on social media.

Whereas the pandemic helped put a definitive end to certain friendships, others petered out in ghostly whimpers. When limited to texting and phone calls and the odd celebration on Zoom, one gradually learns which relationships are held by enduring fondness and which will crumple amid structural collapse. (A recent essay in the Times , much maligned on social media, offers tips for how to optimize one’s “friendscape” after the pandemic, and, in a startling moment, warns readers “to be mindful” of spending too much time with friends who struggle with weight, depression, or substance-abuse issues.) In the absence of shared social spaces—the office, the coffee shop, the party, the gym—some relations were revealed to be friendships more of convenience than anything else. As our physical and psychological thresholds for sociality changed, I found that certain friendships no longer met them. Gone were the rhythms of the lunch break, the walk home from work, and even—I am loath to admit—the gym date, where we breathlessly traded life updates between the narrow space of our neighboring ellipticals. In retrospect, one begins to wonder: Did I go to the gym to see my friend, or did I see my friend in order to go to the gym?

These questions have begun to wind their way to the foreground, as some of us are lucky enough to be returning to these shared spaces. I will eventually run into the people I explicitly fell out with, and I imagine those encounters will be marked by chilliness, tinged with embarrassment. In the case of workplace acquaintances, I wonder if we’ll simply pick up the coffee breaks and post-work drinks where we left off. (And who knows if I’ll ever meet my new pandemic friend in person.) Sociality, after all, includes as much prose as poetry—mere niceties compelled by the sharing of something as basic as an office or a commute.

Formalities such as these are another reason I’ve found myself rereading Emerson. For him, the possibility of friendship—any friendship—is ultimately not personal but structural. “I ought to be equal to every relation,” he writes. “It makes no difference how many friends I have, and what content I can find in conversing with each, if there be one to whom I am not equal.” To be decent to one of your friends, Emerson suggests, is to be decent to all of them. This might sound obvious, but its logic lately has played out for me during quarantine, when anxious projections and ungenerous readings haunted too many interactions. Shit-talking can be a bonding mechanism; but let us do it with, not about, our friends. Emerson’s ecosystem of equitable friendships offers a cautionary tale for social distancing, when many of us felt increasingly at odds with another, our inequalities sharply revealed.

Good conversation, as Emerson reminds us, is necessary glue for any friendship. But, given the attenuation of social engagements during quarantine, there often seemed to be less and less to say to one another. I’m reminded of a long-distance college boyfriend, with whom each subsequent phone call felt more and more like a chore, until we stopped talking altogether. The dwindling of shared experiences aside, pandemic-related crises also exacerbated social inequities that were already present. Given the range of burdens and consequences, there simply felt less and less we could say to one another. Previously mundane comments around work and kids now revealed the edges of one’s relative privilege, or lack thereof—starting with who had space to work from home, who could work at home (or at a second home, or at the home of a grandparent who could help with child care), who still had work at all (and what kind of work?). The possibility of friendship—of equality—hinged more on class and race and gender than ever. The field of friendly conversation shifted accordingly.

The pandemic reoriented our economy of attention, especially online, re-clarifying the limits of who and what we could care about. Some got off social media, while others posted more than ever. As someone who stayed on, so much of what others said—from complaints to commiseration to humblebrags—felt unusually sticky with significance. No speech act online felt fortuitous, or safe from projection or scrutiny. Every articulation of suffering or joy cut disproportionately into others. Our resources dwindling, I had never felt so much, at times, like the world had tricked us into believing that we were playing zero-sum games. One person’s passing anecdote online became fodder for someone else’s private group text. Which is, I’ll admit, one way my new pandemic friend and I bonded over this past year.

“It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew,” Emerson writes, toward the end of his essay, “to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other.” The structural work of friendship stems from a fundamental social obligation—that we owe others, whether strangers or friends, the minimal formalities we would desire ourselves. The ebbs and flows of friendships over this past year feel embarrassingly banal—more often prompted by no one thing, and the source of no one’s fault. But, just as the dissipation of a friendship might be blamelessly shared, so, too, is the work of its possible return.

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Mental Health

'call your friends': the importance of maintaining friendships during the pandemic.

NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with science journalist Lydia Denworth about the biological effects of friendship — and why friends are so important to well-being, especially during the pandemic.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Everything I’ve learned about friendship during the pandemic

T he last few months of our lives have been ruled by one word – coronavirus. It’s affected every one of us in some way, whether it’s been our jobs, studies or social life. While it’s undeniable that the effects of the pandemic are varied and probably won’t be understood for many months to come, one aspect of our lives has undergone a radical change with lasting consequences, and this is the impact of the pandemic on our friendships and close relationships.

An overnight transition from seeing friends and other people to not seeing anyone apart from the people in my household has been interesting, to say the least. No one knew exactly how long lockdown would last or when it would not feel illegal to step foot outside again. The existence of modern technology meant that we could still see and communicate with friends virtually, though still separated by distance.

It felt like we as a society had cracked the code to keeping in touch with our friends

Since we were all at home, there was this illusion of ‘free time’ with no responsibilities. So obviously we must’ve all been available to talk to friends all day every day, right? I soon discovered that this was not the case at all. Of course, I wanted to maintain communication with my friends, but in the midst of all the worry and anxiety of a pandemic, it was very draining to talk and be virtually social all the time. I soon found myself with this question in my head: how can I keep up with my friends if I’m barely keeping up with myself?

I remember seeing a tweet a few months ago that said something along the lines of, “this pandemic will reveal who your true friends are”. There was an increasing discourse online which suggested that if people don’t talk to you during this time it meant they didn’t care about you. I found myself disagreeing with this take on the situation as I felt it just added more stress to an already stressful situation. More importantly, it doesn’t allow room for understanding that we are all going through this pandemic and everyone’s situation is different.

Does communicating less often with our friends mean that we don’t care about them? Of course not. It just means that people have their own lives to deal with and we can’t expect them to focus on us all of the time and vice versa. The era of zoom calls, zoom pub quizzes and Houseparty calls was thrilling at first. It felt like we as a society had cracked the code to keeping in touch with our friends, or possibly we just set an unrealistic standard for friendships.

The thought of maintaining a conversation with them was daunting

I think I’ve done fairly well with keeping in contact with friends, but there were a few weeks where I didn’t speak to anyone, not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t have the energy, both physically and mentally. I thought about my friends often and hoped they were okay, but the thought of maintaining a conversation with them was daunting.

Also, since the beginning of lockdown, consuming social media had become a full-time job for me which was not helpful. It got to the point where I had to detox so I turned off all my notifications and started turning my phone off for most of the day to return myself back to default.

After two weeks of this, I felt much better. I had an adequate amount of energy and instantly resumed talking to friends again, anxious they’d be annoyed at my disappearance and apologising for being gone for so long. It was very relieving to be met with understanding from them, there was no anger, no broken friendships, instead it opened up the conversation for us to discuss how we’d really been coping with lockdown with no judgement.

We should understand their situation and support them where we can

It was then that I realised that communication, while it is important, it is not the most crucial part of friendship. Instead, it is care and understanding, remembering that our friends are their own people, individual and multi-dimensional, with their own lives and situations to deal with.

So, instead of judging them by their ability to place us at the centre, we should understand their situation and support them where we can. I started beginning messages with ‘you don’t have to reply to this but,’ and then continuing the message with something positive and supportive to show that it’s okay if they don’t have the energy to respond, but at least they know that I’m thinking of them. During these uncertain times, this is one of the best things we can do.

Now, I know how I feel about the effect of the pandemic on friendships, but alas I am not the only person in the world. So, I asked some of my friends and family for their thoughts and perspective on the matter. It was interesting to hear their experiences of their friendships over the course of the pandemic and lockdown.

She added that this did make her appreciate her friends more

I was most intrigued by my older sister’s answer. She said that her main way of communicating with friends was already through phone calls and video calls due to them all leading busy lives, so the pandemic had not actually changed how they kept in contact. However, she added that this did make her appreciate her friends more and it allowed her to realise that she does not meet up with her friends as often as she’d like to.

My younger sister also had an interesting take on this matter. She commented that she used to have a million things to say to her friends but now she ‘doesn’t even have one thing to say’. She is 10 years old, and anyone who has ever been around children knows that children both can and will talk about anything and everything…for a very long time.

This is what interested me as it made me realise that younger children are probably having a very different experience to adults during this time. School was their main and for most, their only method of actually interacting with friends and socialising as a child, but that channel has been removed for many months now.

The pressure to keep up with everyone while trying to keep up with ourselves was immense

I also asked a couple of my friends from home to see their perspectives, and it was quite eye-opening for me to hear what some of my closest friends had to say. My friend Temi said that she found that there was pressure to keep in contact with friends, and it was especially difficult during the peak of lockdown when most people were in low spirits and it was harder to remain positive. She makes a very valid point here, and it relates a lot to what I was saying earlier – the pressure to keep up with everyone while trying to keep up with ourselves was immense.

My other friend Debbie said that the pandemic hadn’t had a massive effect on her friendships, but similar to my sister, it made her value her friendships more and lockdown also gave her time to reflect on the kind of friend that she wants to be. Lockdown has definitely been a time of self-reflection and it has highlighted the importance of friendship and the qualities necessary to make it work.

Overall, it can be said that no two experiences of friendship during lockdown have been the same, but it has revealed a lot about friendship to us. I’ve definitely discovered that patience and understanding have been the most important practices during this time, and having these allows us to better connect with friends as we are all understanding that people have lives that they need to deal with.

We can use this time to reflect on our friendships and who we want to be

Communication with friends has looked a little different over the past few months. It’s not been as often or as constant, and that’s okay. Now, if I haven’t heard from a friend in a while, I take that as a sign to check up on them, rather than a sign that they don’t want to be friends.

I’m still thinking about the tweet that I mentioned earlier and how if I had followed that advice, I wouldn’t have learnt to be as understanding of my friends and their situations. Now, my experience is not universal and I do not wish it to sound that way; I understand that some people may have lost friends, or even gained friends during this difficult time and that is okay too.

It can be said that no one predicted the current global climate and what it had in store for us, but we can reflect on the things we’ve learnt, and just like my friend Debbie, we can use this time to reflect on our friendships and who we want to be.

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Keeping Friendships Strong During the Pandemic Is Good for Kids–and Adults

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In 2011, the United Nations designated July 30 as the International Day of Friendship , recognizing in its resolution “the relevance and importance of friendship as a noble and valuable sentiment in the lives of human beings around the world…” As we all adapt to social distancing, limiting time spent with others, and working from home in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, finding ways to maintain friendships can help counter the isolation such restrictions can induce—especially for children.

Tracy Gleason , professor of psychology at Wellesley, studies how young children understand their relationships with other people and with imaginary companions . At a time when friends can’t get together in person, she stresses the importance of maintaining friendships and offers advice on how to do that from a distance.

How would you describe the significance of friendship for children?

Tracy Gleason : It’s difficult to overemphasize the significance of friendship, particularly in childhood. Friends are the first relationships that children choose. The fact that friendships are open and voluntary—they could end at any time—makes them significantly different from relationships with family members.

For example, conflict with your sibling does not have to get resolved for the relationship to continue, but conflict with a friend does. Consequently, friendships are contexts in which children learn skills that are critical for getting along with others, like negotiation, compromise, and conflict resolution. In contrast to most other relationships, friendships are also what we call "horizontal" (as opposed to "vertical"), meaning that the dynamic is largely egalitarian. So again, that means a friendship is a context in which children get to try out directing play or sharing, where they sometimes get to be the one with knowledge that the other person doesn't have.

Friendship also affords other important experiences, like having your ideas rejected, cooperating with someone else, or having a partner in crime when you're being mischievous (although, to be fair, siblings are good for that, too). Especially in early childhood, adults help quite a bit with emotion regulation, so when children are with their friends, they have to practice regulating themselves, whether that means managing negative or positive emotions. Friends give you all of these opportunities.

What's the importance of imaginary friends for young kids at a time without school or playdates?

Gleason: Hard to know, since no research has ever been done on imaginary companions (ICs) in a time without school or playdates. However, we do know that ICs are often associated with home (they rarely attend school, or if they do, they often go to a different school than the child), and peers are typically absent when they appear. I'm speculating, but these findings suggest that ICs might be in their heyday right now. Contrary to popular belief, the children who create ICs are not on the shy end of the spectrum. In fact, they tend to be more social than other children to really enjoy pretend play, so one way in which they manage when they don't have a playmate immediately available is they play with an IC. Could be that more ICs are around than ever.

What can people at any age do to maintain strong friendships at a distance?

Gleason: Common ground is a critical piece of the relationship. To the extent that friends can enjoy common activities and play at a distance, it's worth trying. Online games work for some children. For older children and adults, a big key to friendship is self-disclosure—sharing thoughts and feelings and ups and downs. Any and all opportunities to continue doing so—Zoom or FaceTime, phone calls, texting, or in person but socially distanced—will help retain these connections.

My teenage daughter and her friends have gone old-school and have sent handwritten letters now and then just as a new and different way to connect. Ellen Berscheid , an expert on relationships, and her colleagues define a close relationship as one in which two people influence each other's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors frequently and over a long time. The friendship will last if those thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are being shared over the distance.

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How the pandemic has changed friendship ... for the better

How the pandemic has changed friendships

Like many parts of our lives, friendships have been severely impacted by the pandemic . So many people missed out on small talk with office or church friends or acquaintances they'd see at parties. Many long-distance friends had to cancel their annual getaways or visits to see each other. Things definitely got shaken up, but it wasn’t all bad.

Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of " Frientimacy ," told TMRW that the pandemic forced us to look at what types of relationships we lacked and needed, as well as what relationships we already had.

“Many of us got closer to fewer people, which is interesting because when we’re lonely, it’s not that we need to meet more people, we need to go deeper with a few and feel more seen,” she said.

importance of friendship during pandemic essay

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“If I had to choose one over the other, I’d choose for people to have fewer closer friends where they feel supported, witnessed, loved and accepted,” Nelson added.

Of course, now that we’re more than a year into the pandemic, people’s schedules are getting busier again. The long phone calls with a best friend during lockdown, for example, are probably getting shorter and less frequent.

“I realistically expect some of that to drop down,” she said. “I like to say there will be a new normal.”

So, what might the new normal be when it comes to friendship? See below for six ways the pandemic has changed the way we interact with each other.

1. People feel more comfortable being vulnerable

The pandemic has been a rough time for everyone. People have lost loved ones and jobs, they’ve had to manage working from home while teaching their kids, they’ve missed out on weddings and reunions and so much more. Collectively, we have all been under a lot of stress, and it feels more comfortable being open and honest about it with friends.

“Vulnerability was given permission to be more present in our relationships,” Nelson said. “We all knew things were hard, and we were maybe more willing to talk about that than if we were going through a hard thing all by ourselves.”

She also noted that men sometimes opened up more with each other. “(Before the pandemic), men were more dependent on proximity and location,” she explained. But during lockdown, they had to decide which relationships were built on more context, and that in turn created a deepening of their friendships."

importance of friendship during pandemic essay

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2. technology has helped long-distance friendships thrive.

Technology will help long distance friendships thrive

When lockdowns happened, suddenly location just didn’t matter as much anymore. “We saw a lot of re-deepening with long-distance relationships,” Nelson said. “Before this, we didn’t want to be on the phone. But through calls, texts and video chats, long-distance friends were able to stay in touch and deepen their connections."

Nelson also said there was a big trend of people reaching out to former friends they haven’t talked to in a while. “When people who couldn’t go meet new people and felt lonely, their only option was to reconnect with someone.”

importance of friendship during pandemic essay

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3. we were reminded we'll always need in-person acquaintances and small talk.

While Nelson said she’d take quality over quantity any day when it comes to friendships, she also mentioned there will still always be a need for in-person socializing and small talk.

“If we know a couple of neighbors, we feel like we belong in the neighborhood,” she explained. “If we have a couple of colleagues , we feel like we belong at work. If we know parents at school , we feel more a part of that community. Wherever it is that we want to frequent in life, it’s also important that we have those acquaintances. They make us feel like we belong to those places.”

The pandemic showed us just how important these small interactions were to our lives, and hopefully it’s something we’ve learned to not take for granted.

4. Friendships and interactions got more intentional

Scheduling interactions will be more intentional

Nelson said she hopes the pandemic taught us that we can’t just let friendships happen; they take work. “The people who intentionally reached out to people and scheduled an interaction are the people who came out of it way happier with their relationships,” she said. “They’re happier with family and friends, and they feel closer to people.”

Nelson also said she hopes the pandemic made people look at who they really want to invest in. “It’s the perfect time to be intentional going forward and not just do what you’ve done before.” Her advice is to make a list of friends who bring you happiness and give you support; the ones who you’d be sad not to have in your life six months from now.

“I think it’s really important to be clear where our energy is going,” she said. “Initiating, paying attention and prioritizing the people you want to be closer to is always step one.” She added that research shows women feel really stressed about how many people they have to stay in touch with. “We don’t have to stay in touch with everyone and we don’t have to make every relationship work. It’s OK to let some go.”

5. Friends have had to work around major differences

Friends will need to agree to disagree

People have always had different views, but it seems like the last year has been especially polarizing. When friends post on social media about their opinions regarding current events and they don’t share the same perspective you do, it can definitely lead to tension.

Nelson said you can still be friends if that's important to you.

She suggests having a conversation with that person acknowledging that you have different views and asking what you can both do to protect your friendship. “We don’t have to have a solution — we just need to show our friends that we’re willing to talk about it,” she said.

Nelson said we also need to be gentle with our friends and ourselves regarding comfort levels. For example, one friend might want to go to a concert and the other might not be ready for that yet. “Our goal here is to communicate our desire to be with people in a way that does not leave them feeling judged,” she explained.

Her advice is to affirm the desire to be with them (for example, “I miss you!”), say what you can as gracefully as possible so they don’t feel judged (“I’m not feeling comfortable going to concerts yet, but I’m so happy for you”) and make an alternative plan.

“Our relationship won’t die because we didn’t go to that concert or bar together. Our relationship will be damaged because we are judged or are judging,” she said.

6. We’ve learned how much we need each other

People will feel more comfortable being vulnerable

“The articles on loneliness the past year have been so powerful because I think we’ve just ignored the subject and pretended that we didn’t have that need,” she said.

Nelson added that research has shown a quarter to a third of our population is feeling starving for people. “My hope is that now we all know how important connection is, those of us who have it can help think of ways to offer opportunities to others.”

importance of friendship during pandemic essay

Julie Pennell is a regular contributor to TODAY.com and author of the novels “The Young Wives Club” and “Louisiana Lucky.” She currently lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two young sons. You can connect with her at juliepennell.com . 

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The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly disrupted some social circles. Here’s what experts and new pals have to say about making, and maintaining, pandemic friends.

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importance of friendship during pandemic essay

By Katherine Cusumano

It took a pandemic, a layoff and last year’s racial-justice protests to impel Margo Gabriel , a travel and food writer, to finally fulfill a long-held aspiration: to move to Lisbon from Boston. “I was like, ‘OK, I really need to think about next steps,’” Ms. Gabriel, 34, said recently. “I’m getting older.” She applied for, and was accepted to, a two-year master’s program at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa. She arrived in October.

Forming new relationships in Lisbon was a priority, but she worried about making the connections she needed to thrive in her new home, especially during the pandemic. “I’m an introvert by nature,” Ms. Gabriel said, “so I’m easily overwhelmed.” An editor she frequently works with recommended she reach out to another expat. They hit it off over coffee, finding solidarity in their shared identity as Black American women in Portugal. “We’ve been hanging out ever since,” she said.

The pandemic has profoundly disrupted some social circles: Perhaps you’ve moved yourself, or maybe you’re looking up after a year of social distancing to find your close friends are the ones who have relocated. And the guidance of public health officials to keep your distance, to mask up, to limit gatherings and to remain six feet apart? None of these are helpful for meeting new people and nurturing new friendships.

Nevertheless, Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University who has studied friendship for more than three decades, has anecdotally observed what she described as an “explosion of friendships” last summer, particularly in her own Manhattan neighborhood — a display of optimism in the face of our oxymoronic collective isolation. It just takes a little more intention and a little more openness.

Here’s what experts and new pals have to say about making, and keeping, pandemic friends.

Get creative about meeting prospective friends.

“It’s a difficult time to connect with new people,” said Marisa G. Franco , a psychologist and friendship expert. “The first question you can ask yourself is, ‘Is there someone you want to reconnect with?’” According to one study , rekindling “dormant ties,” or those you’ve lost touch with, is often easier than making new friends, because the individuals already trust one another. Look through your phone to see who you were texting this time last year, or reach out to a high school or college club you were affiliated with.

Lean on existing networks of friends and acquaintances, too. Though chance meetings in corridors or cafeterias may be infrequent these days, you can still turn casual connections, whether neighbors or work colleagues, into friends, or reach out to new people through shared acquaintances.

Or if that fails, join a virtual book club or a volunteer effort to connect with a stranger over a shared pastime. (It’s still possible!) Last year, Emily Beyda, a novelist, joined a roller-skating club with two other women in Los Angeles. It has since blossomed to around nine members who share techniques for new jumps, spins and tricks and linger after their practice has ended, just to talk.

And, with no clubs for dancing or reasons to go out, the group’s members have taken to dressing up: “Everyone’s showing up at 1 p.m. on a Sunday just looking gorgeous,” Ms. Beyda, 31, said. “Leopard-print bell bottoms, a gold lamé jumpsuit — dressed to the nines in the public park.”

Even if you feel as if your social muscles have atrophied, don’t brace yourself for rejection. Approaching strangers in public places might not feel so welcome these days, but “in general, people underestimate how much strangers like them,” Dr. Franco said.

Stay connected.

Writing letters, sending voice memos, scheduling phone or video dates — keeping in touch during the pandemic doesn’t have to be impersonal, even if it’s not in person. Not long after Catherine Smith , 34, moved to rural Abingdon, Va., from Philadelphia, she started trading favorite hiking routes and local tips with a new friend over Instagram. A quintessential social media meet-cute, with one pandemic-specific hitch: “We still haven’t gotten to meet in person,” Ms. Smith said.

Aminatou Sow , who hosts the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” and wrote the book “ Big Friendship ” with Ann Friedman , suggested that friends try to avoid communicating over the same airwaves used for work. So if you video chat all the time for your job, don’t video chat your friends.

“We are two friends who love the Postal Service,” Ms. Sow said of herself and Ms. Friedman. Letter-writing can even be a way to meet new people across distances: In the spring, the writer Rachel Syme started a pen pal exchange called Penpalooza that has since connected more than 7,000 participants.

However you choose to stay in touch, keep it consistent: Send monthly postcards, tiny gifts or whatever baked good you’ve been perfecting recently, or get a weekly phone call on the books.

Talk frankly about your friendship.

A year ago, frequent, granular discussions about how you handle exposure to disease weren’t especially common among even close pals. Now, they’ve probably become hallmarks of your relationships. Having open, candid conversations can help buoy friendships along by establishing shared expectations and trust.

“Part of making friends in adulthood — in general, but particularly in this moment — is trying to figure out how you fit into someone’s life,” Ms. Friedman said.

Ms. Sow added: “The stating of intentions is the first place to start. In this pandemic moment, I think that is also really important to remember because so many people feel lonely and so many people feel overwhelmed and so many people feel scared.”

This means setting aside time to have conversations about how much friendship you’re looking for — whether a mere running buddy or a BFF — while still allowing for the relationship to evolve. Talking about the Covid-19-related precautions you’re each taking can also make any in-person meet-ups more comfortable.

“I tend to overcommunicate, especially now,” said Amanda Zeilinger. In July, Ms. Zeilinger, 23, moved in Minnesota to St. Paul from Northfield to start a new job at a mosaic workshop in the Twin Cities. She had anticipated it might be harder to make friends in a new city amid shutdowns, but that hasn’t been the case: Recently, she formed a pod with two colleagues so they could foster their friendship outside of work. “I think people are so starved for human connection that we’re that much more open,” she said.

Go on a date — or two or three.

“One of the defining features of our friends is that they’re exclusive,” Dr. Franco said. That means you have shared memories and experiences. So if you met through work or school or a club, plan a one-on-one virtual teatime or socially distanced walk. “Repotting” friendships, or moving them from one setting to another — a term the digital strategist Ryan Hubbard uses — can also help them gain momentum.

Developing a new friendship is not dissimilar to entering a romantic relationship, and initial meet-ups with a new friend can feel “sort of like a first date,” said Jordan Bennett, 31, a communications professional who lives in New York City. “You have the same nerves.”

Several of Mr. Bennett’s close friends left New York last summer; this, combined with a natural tendency to be “very, very social,” led him to start exchanging messages with a new friend through Bumble BFF. They met for the first time in September, and though it was platonic, Mr. Bennett said, he was also unsure how this prospective friend might react upon learning he is gay. “You don’t know if someone is an ally, or how comfortable they are,” he said. The subject emerged organically, producing a comfortable conversation about relationships; they’ve since ventured out to bars, the gym and watched the vice-presidential debate together.

After a successful initial get-together, make plans to continue meeting up regularly. Several experts agreed that consistency strengthens bonds. “Ritual is really important when it comes to connection, especially friendship,” said Adam Smiley Poswolsky , the author of the forthcoming book “ Friendship in the Age of Loneliness .” Attaching friendship to a shared goal — a regular yoga practice; keeping up with a TV show — can help reinforce the relationship and your new habit.

“Being intentional, being available, being reliable and being excited are all things that work in your favor,” Ms. Sow said.

The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship

There’s a reason you miss the people you didn’t even know that well.

A woman sits alone, with others floating around her. Everyone has their faces blanked out.

A few months ago, when millions of Americans were watching the Netflix series Emily in Paris because it was what we had been given that week, I cued up the first episode and was beset almost immediately by an intense longing. Not for travel, or for opportunities to wear beautiful clothes—two commonly cited high points in an otherwise charmless show—but for sports. Specifically, watching sports in a packed bar, which is what the titular character’s boyfriend is doing when the viewer meets him.

The scene is fleeting, and it’s also pretty bad. It doesn’t come close to capturing the sweaty intensity of a horde of nervous fans, poised to embrace each other in collective joy or drink through despair. I know this because I am, sometimes unfortunately, a person who has spent a good chunk of her adult social life watching sports in bars, both with my actual close friends and with 500 or so fellow travelers at the New York City bar that hosts expatriated University of Georgia alumni during college-football season.

During the pandemic, I’ve been able to maintain, on an outdoor TV, the ability to watch a game with a couple of my closest buddies, which is a balm. But the other experience—the one Emily in Paris was trying to portray—has been lost entirely. In noticing all the ways the show misunderstood its joys, I realized how much I missed it, and especially how much I missed all of those people I only sort of know. Of the dozens of fellow fans and bar employees I’d greet with a hug on a normal fall Saturday, I follow only a handful of them on social media; for most of the others, I know only their first name, if that. But many comforted me through mutual, bone-deep disappointment, or sprayed champagne at me in exhilaration.

In the weeks following, I thought frequently of other people I had missed without fully realizing it. Pretty good friends with whom I had mostly done things that were no longer possible, such as trying new restaurants together. Co-workers I didn’t know well but chatted with in the communal kitchen. Workers at the local coffee or sandwich shops who could no longer dawdle to chat. The depth and intensity of these relationships varied greatly, but these people were all, in some capacity, my friends, and there was also no substitute for them during the pandemic. Tools like Zoom and FaceTime, useful for maintaining closer relationships, couldn’t re-create the ease of social serendipity, or bring back the activities that bound us together.

Understandably, much of the energy directed toward the problems of pandemic social life has been spent on keeping people tied to their families and closest friends. These other relationships have withered largely unremarked on after the places that hosted them closed. The pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship, and by doing so, depleted the joys that make up a human life—and buoy human health. But that does present an opportunity. In the coming months, as we begin to add people back into our lives, we’ll now know what it’s like to be without them.

American culture does not have many words to describe different levels or types of friendship, but for our purposes, sociology does provide a useful concept: weak ties. The term was coined in 1973 by the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter, and it comprises acquaintances, people you see infrequently, and near strangers with whom you share some familiarity. They’re the people on the periphery of your life—the guy who’s always at the gym at the same time as you, the barista who starts making your usual order while you’re still at the back of the line, the co-worker from another department with whom you make small talk on the elevator. They’re also people you might have never directly met, but you share something important in common—you go to the same concerts, or live in the same neighborhood and frequent the same local businesses. You might not consider all of your weak ties friends, at least in the common use of the word, but they’re often people with whom you’re friendly. Most people are familiar with the idea of an inner circle; Granovetter posited that we also have an outer circle, vital to our social health in its own ways.

During the past year, it’s often felt like the pandemic has come for all but the closest of my close ties. There are people on the outer periphery of my life for whom the concept of “keeping up” makes little sense, but there are also lots of friends and acquaintances—people I could theoretically hang out with outdoors or see on videochat, but with whom those tools just don’t feel right. In my life, this perception seems to be largely mutual—I am not turning down invites from these folks for Zoom catch-ups and walks in the park. Instead, our affection for each other is in a period of suspended animation, alongside indoor dining and international travel. Sometimes we respond to each other’s Instagram Stories.

Read: The pandemic has remade friendship

None of the experts I spoke with had a good term for this kind of middle ground—the weaker points of Granovetter’s proposed inner circle and the strongest of the weak ties—except for the general one. “ Friend is a very promiscuous word,” William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University who studies friendship, told me. “Do we have a word for this array of friends that aren’t our close friends? I’m not sure we do, and I’m not sure we should.”

The extent to which individuals are separated from their moderate and weak ties during the pandemic varies by their location, employment, and willingness to put themselves and others at risk. But even in places where it’s possible to work out in gyms and eat inside restaurants, far fewer people are taking part in these activities, changing the social experience for both patrons and employees. And even if your job requires you to come in to work, you and your colleagues are likely adhering to some kind of protocol intended to reduce interaction. Masks, though necessary, mean you can’t tell when people smile at you.

Friends are sometimes delineated by the ways we met or the things we do together—work friends, old college buddies, beer-league-softball teammates—but they’re all friends, and Rawlins thinks that’s for the best. “Living well isn’t some cloistered retreat with just a few folks,” he told me. “The way worlds are created is by people sharing with and recognizing each other.” Many different kinds of relationships are important, he says, and man does not thrive on close friendships alone.

This realization, new to me, is also somewhat new in the general understanding of human behavior. Close relationships were long thought to be the essential component of humans’ social well-being, but Granovetter’s research led him to a conclusion that was at the time groundbreaking and is still, to many people, counterintuitive: Casual friends and acquaintances can be as important to well-being as family, romantic partners, and your closest friends. In his initial study, for example, he found that the majority of people who got new jobs through social connections did so through people on the periphery of their lives, not close relations.

Some of the most obvious consequences of our extended social pause could indeed play out in the professional realm. I started hearing these concerns months ago, while writing a story on how working from home affects people’s careers . According to the experts I spoke with, losing the incidental, repeated social interactions that physical workplaces foster can make it especially difficult for young people and new hires to establish themselves within the complex social hierarchy of a workplace. Losing them can make it harder to progress in work as a whole, access development opportunities, and be recognized for your contributions. (After all, no one can see you or what you’re doing.) These kinds of setbacks early in professional life can be especially devastating, because the losses tend to compound—fall behind right out of the gate, and you’re more likely to stay there.

Read: The pandemic is changing work friendships

The loss of these interactions can make the day-to-day realities of work more frustrating, too, and can fray previously pleasant relationships. In a recent study, Andrew Guydish, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UC Santa Cruz, looked at the effects of what he calls conversational reciprocity—how much each participant in a conversation talks while one is directing the other to complete a task. He found that in these situations—which often crop up between managers and employees at work—pairs of people tended to use unstructured time, if it were available, to balance the interaction. When that happened, both people reported feeling happier and more satisfied afterward.

Now Guydish worries that reciprocity has been largely lost. “Zoom calls usually have a very defined goal, and with that goal comes defined expectations in terms of who’s going to talk,” he told me. “Other people sit by, and they don’t get their opportunity to give their two cents. That kind of just leaves everybody with this overwhelming sense of almost isolation, in a way.”

This loss of reciprocity has extended to nondigital life. For example, friendly chats between customers and delivery guys, bartenders, or other service workers are rarer in a world of contactless delivery and curbside pickup. In normal times, those brief encounters tend to be good for tips and Yelp reviews, and they give otherwise rote interactions a more pleasant, human texture for both parties. Strip out the humanity, and there’s nothing but the transaction left.

The psychological effects of losing all but our closest ties can be profound. Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks. Regular interaction with people outside our inner circle “just makes us feel more like part of a community, or part of something bigger,” Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, told me. People on the peripheries of our lives introduce us to new ideas, new information, new opportunities, and other new people. If variety is the spice of life, these relationships are the conduit for it.

The loss of these interactions may be one reason for the growth in internet conspiracy theories in the past year, and especially for the surge in groups like QAnon. But while online communities of all kinds can deliver some of the psychological benefits of meeting new people and making friends in the real world, the echo chamber of conspiracism is a further source of isolation. “There’s a lot of research showing that when you talk only to people who are like you, it actually makes your opinions shift even further away from other groups,” Sandstrom explained. “That’s how cults work. That’s how terrorist groups work.”

Read: The prophecies of Q

Most Americans were especially ill-prepared for the sudden loss of their weak ties. The importance of friendship overall, and especially friendships of weak or moderate strength, is generally downplayed in the country’s culture, while family and romantic partners are supposed to be the be-all and end-all.

The physical ramifications of isolation are also well documented. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Brigham Young University, has found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from any cause by almost 30 percent. “The scientific evidence suggests that we need a variety of kinds of relationships in our lives, and that different kinds of relationships or social roles can fulfill different kinds of needs,” she told me. People maintain hygiene, take their medication, and try to hold themselves together at least in part because those behaviors are socially necessary, and their repetition is rewarded. Remove those incentives, and some people fall into despair, unable to perform some of the crucial tasks of being alive. In people at risk for illness, lack of interaction can mean that symptoms go unnoticed and arrangements for medical care aren’t made. Humans are meant to be with one another, and when we aren’t, the decay shows in our bodies.

The small joys of running into an old co-worker or chatting with the bartender at your local bar might not be the first thing you think of when imagining the value of friendship—images of more intentional celebrations and comforts, such as birthday parties and movie nights, might come to mind more easily. But Rawlins says that both kinds of interactions meet our fundamental desire to be known and perceived, to have our own humanity reflected back at us. “A culture is only human to the extent that its members confirm each other,” he said, paraphrasing the philosopher Martin Buber. “The people that we see in any number of everyday activities that we say, Hey, how you doing? That’s an affirmation of each other, and this is a comprehensive part of our world that I think has been stopped, to a great extent, in its tracks.”

Rawlins describes the state of American social life as a barometer for all that is going on in the country. “Our capacity for—and the possibilities of—friendship are really a kind of measure of the actual freedom we have in our lives at any moment in time,” he told me. Friendship, he says, is all about choice and mutual agreement, and the broad ability to pursue and navigate those relationships as you see fit is an indicator of your ability to self-determine overall. Widespread loneliness and social isolation, on the other hand, are usually indicative of some kind of larger rot within a society. In America, isolation had set in for many people long before the pandemic , making it one of the country’s many problems both exacerbated and illuminated by extended disaster.

In some senses, that means there’s cause for optimism. As more Americans are vaccinated in the coming months, more people will be able to return confidently to more types of interactions. If the best historical analogue for the coronavirus outbreak is the 1918 flu pandemic, the Roaring ’20s suggest we’ll indulge in some wild parties. In any case, Rawlins doubts that many of the moderate and weak ties people lost touch with in the past year will be hurt that they didn’t get many check-in texts. Mostly, he predicts, people will just be so happy to see one another again.

All of the researchers I spoke with were hopeful that this extended pause would give people a deeper understanding of just how vital friendships of all types are to our well-being, and how all the people around us contribute to our lives—even if they occupy positions that the country’s culture doesn’t respect very much, such as service workers or store clerks. “My hope is that people will realize that there’s more people in their social networks that matter and provide some kind of value than just those few people that you spend time with, and have probably managed to keep up with during the break,” Sandstrom said. America, even before the pandemic, was a lonely country. It doesn’t have to be. The end of our isolation could be the beginning of some beautiful friendships.

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Read these 12 moving essays about life during coronavirus

Artists, novelists, critics, and essayists are writing the first draft of history.

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importance of friendship during pandemic essay

The world is grappling with an invisible, deadly enemy, trying to understand how to live with the threat posed by a virus . For some writers, the only way forward is to put pen to paper, trying to conceptualize and document what it feels like to continue living as countries are under lockdown and regular life seems to have ground to a halt.

So as the coronavirus pandemic has stretched around the world, it’s sparked a crop of diary entries and essays that describe how life has changed. Novelists, critics, artists, and journalists have put words to the feelings many are experiencing. The result is a first draft of how we’ll someday remember this time, filled with uncertainty and pain and fear as well as small moments of hope and humanity.

At the New York Review of Books, Ali Bhutto writes that in Karachi, Pakistan, the government-imposed curfew due to the virus is “eerily reminiscent of past military clampdowns”:

Beneath the quiet calm lies a sense that society has been unhinged and that the usual rules no longer apply. Small groups of pedestrians look on from the shadows, like an audience watching a spectacle slowly unfolding. People pause on street corners and in the shade of trees, under the watchful gaze of the paramilitary forces and the police.

His essay concludes with the sobering note that “in the minds of many, Covid-19 is just another life-threatening hazard in a city that stumbles from one crisis to another.”

Writing from Chattanooga, novelist Jamie Quatro documents the mixed ways her neighbors have been responding to the threat, and the frustration of conflicting direction, or no direction at all, from local, state, and federal leaders:

Whiplash, trying to keep up with who’s ordering what. We’re already experiencing enough chaos without this back-and-forth. Why didn’t the federal government issue a nationwide shelter-in-place at the get-go, the way other countries did? What happens when one state’s shelter-in-place ends, while others continue? Do states still under quarantine close their borders? We are still one nation, not fifty individual countries. Right?

Award-winning photojournalist Alessio Mamo, quarantined with his partner Marta in Sicily after she tested positive for the virus, accompanies his photographs in the Guardian of their confinement with a reflection on being confined :

The doctors asked me to take a second test, but again I tested negative. Perhaps I’m immune? The days dragged on in my apartment, in black and white, like my photos. Sometimes we tried to smile, imagining that I was asymptomatic, because I was the virus. Our smiles seemed to bring good news. My mother left hospital, but I won’t be able to see her for weeks. Marta started breathing well again, and so did I. I would have liked to photograph my country in the midst of this emergency, the battles that the doctors wage on the frontline, the hospitals pushed to their limits, Italy on its knees fighting an invisible enemy. That enemy, a day in March, knocked on my door instead.

In the New York Times Magazine, deputy editor Jessica Lustig writes with devastating clarity about her family’s life in Brooklyn while her husband battled the virus, weeks before most people began taking the threat seriously:

At the door of the clinic, we stand looking out at two older women chatting outside the doorway, oblivious. Do I wave them away? Call out that they should get far away, go home, wash their hands, stay inside? Instead we just stand there, awkwardly, until they move on. Only then do we step outside to begin the long three-block walk home. I point out the early magnolia, the forsythia. T says he is cold. The untrimmed hairs on his neck, under his beard, are white. The few people walking past us on the sidewalk don’t know that we are visitors from the future. A vision, a premonition, a walking visitation. This will be them: Either T, in the mask, or — if they’re lucky — me, tending to him.

Essayist Leslie Jamison writes in the New York Review of Books about being shut away alone in her New York City apartment with her 2-year-old daughter since she became sick:

The virus. Its sinewy, intimate name. What does it feel like in my body today? Shivering under blankets. A hot itch behind the eyes. Three sweatshirts in the middle of the day. My daughter trying to pull another blanket over my body with her tiny arms. An ache in the muscles that somehow makes it hard to lie still. This loss of taste has become a kind of sensory quarantine. It’s as if the quarantine keeps inching closer and closer to my insides. First I lost the touch of other bodies; then I lost the air; now I’ve lost the taste of bananas. Nothing about any of these losses is particularly unique. I’ve made a schedule so I won’t go insane with the toddler. Five days ago, I wrote Walk/Adventure! on it, next to a cut-out illustration of a tiger—as if we’d see tigers on our walks. It was good to keep possibility alive.

At Literary Hub, novelist Heidi Pitlor writes about the elastic nature of time during her family’s quarantine in Massachusetts:

During a shutdown, the things that mark our days—commuting to work, sending our kids to school, having a drink with friends—vanish and time takes on a flat, seamless quality. Without some self-imposed structure, it’s easy to feel a little untethered. A friend recently posted on Facebook: “For those who have lost track, today is Blursday the fortyteenth of Maprilay.” ... Giving shape to time is especially important now, when the future is so shapeless. We do not know whether the virus will continue to rage for weeks or months or, lord help us, on and off for years. We do not know when we will feel safe again. And so many of us, minus those who are gifted at compartmentalization or denial, remain largely captive to fear. We may stay this way if we do not create at least the illusion of movement in our lives, our long days spent with ourselves or partners or families.

Novelist Lauren Groff writes at the New York Review of Books about trying to escape the prison of her fears while sequestered at home in Gainesville, Florida:

Some people have imaginations sparked only by what they can see; I blame this blinkered empiricism for the parks overwhelmed with people, the bars, until a few nights ago, thickly thronged. My imagination is the opposite. I fear everything invisible to me. From the enclosure of my house, I am afraid of the suffering that isn’t present before me, the people running out of money and food or drowning in the fluid in their lungs, the deaths of health-care workers now growing ill while performing their duties. I fear the federal government, which the right wing has so—intentionally—weakened that not only is it insufficient to help its people, it is actively standing in help’s way. I fear we won’t sufficiently punish the right. I fear leaving the house and spreading the disease. I fear what this time of fear is doing to my children, their imaginations, and their souls.

At ArtForum , Berlin-based critic and writer Kristian Vistrup Madsen reflects on martinis, melancholia, and Finnish artist Jaakko Pallasvuo’s 2018 graphic novel Retreat , in which three young people exile themselves in the woods:

In melancholia, the shape of what is ending, and its temporality, is sprawling and incomprehensible. The ambivalence makes it hard to bear. The world of Retreat is rendered in lush pink and purple watercolors, which dissolve into wild and messy abstractions. In apocalypse, the divisions established in genesis bleed back out. My own Corona-retreat is similarly soft, color-field like, each day a blurred succession of quarantinis, YouTube–yoga, and televized press conferences. As restrictions mount, so does abstraction. For now, I’m still rooting for love to save the world.

At the Paris Review , Matt Levin writes about reading Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves during quarantine:

A retreat, a quarantine, a sickness—they simultaneously distort and clarify, curtail and expand. It is an ideal state in which to read literature with a reputation for difficulty and inaccessibility, those hermetic books shorn of the handholds of conventional plot or characterization or description. A novel like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is perfect for the state of interiority induced by quarantine—a story of three men and three women, meeting after the death of a mutual friend, told entirely in the overlapping internal monologues of the six, interspersed only with sections of pure, achingly beautiful descriptions of the natural world, a day’s procession and recession of light and waves. The novel is, in my mind’s eye, a perfectly spherical object. It is translucent and shimmering and infinitely fragile, prone to shatter at the slightest disturbance. It is not a book that can be read in snatches on the subway—it demands total absorption. Though it revels in a stark emotional nakedness, the book remains aloof, remote in its own deep self-absorption.

In an essay for the Financial Times, novelist Arundhati Roy writes with anger about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anemic response to the threat, but also offers a glimmer of hope for the future:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

From Boston, Nora Caplan-Bricker writes in The Point about the strange contraction of space under quarantine, in which a friend in Beirut is as close as the one around the corner in the same city:

It’s a nice illusion—nice to feel like we’re in it together, even if my real world has shrunk to one person, my husband, who sits with his laptop in the other room. It’s nice in the same way as reading those essays that reframe social distancing as solidarity. “We must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we don’t do is also brilliant and full of love,” the poet Anne Boyer wrote on March 10th, the day that Massachusetts declared a state of emergency. If you squint, you could almost make sense of this quarantine as an effort to flatten, along with the curve, the distinctions we make between our bonds with others. Right now, I care for my neighbor in the same way I demonstrate love for my mother: in all instances, I stay away. And in moments this month, I have loved strangers with an intensity that is new to me. On March 14th, the Saturday night after the end of life as we knew it, I went out with my dog and found the street silent: no lines for restaurants, no children on bicycles, no couples strolling with little cups of ice cream. It had taken the combined will of thousands of people to deliver such a sudden and complete emptiness. I felt so grateful, and so bereft.

And on his own website, musician and artist David Byrne writes about rediscovering the value of working for collective good , saying that “what is happening now is an opportunity to learn how to change our behavior”:

In emergencies, citizens can suddenly cooperate and collaborate. Change can happen. We’re going to need to work together as the effects of climate change ramp up. In order for capitalism to survive in any form, we will have to be a little more socialist. Here is an opportunity for us to see things differently — to see that we really are all connected — and adjust our behavior accordingly. Are we willing to do this? Is this moment an opportunity to see how truly interdependent we all are? To live in a world that is different and better than the one we live in now? We might be too far down the road to test every asymptomatic person, but a change in our mindsets, in how we view our neighbors, could lay the groundwork for the collective action we’ll need to deal with other global crises. The time to see how connected we all are is now.

The portrait these writers paint of a world under quarantine is multifaceted. Our worlds have contracted to the confines of our homes, and yet in some ways we’re more connected than ever to one another. We feel fear and boredom, anger and gratitude, frustration and strange peace. Uncertainty drives us to find metaphors and images that will let us wrap our minds around what is happening.

Yet there’s no single “what” that is happening. Everyone is contending with the pandemic and its effects from different places and in different ways. Reading others’ experiences — even the most frightening ones — can help alleviate the loneliness and dread, a little, and remind us that what we’re going through is both unique and shared by all.

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Helping Others Can Help You Feel Better During the Pandemic

In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which we rely on others. This year, we’ve been forced to find new ways to stay connected, whether that’s signing up for virtual volunteering , organizing Zoom happy hours, or using resources like Nextdoor’s Help Map to obtain essential supplies.

How are these new ways of connecting impacting our well-being during the pandemic? According to a new research paper published in The Gerontologist , all the help that we’re giving and receiving may be serving to brighten our days and keep our relationships strong.

As shelter-in-place orders were issued in March, a team of researchers began asking participants to complete surveys each night for a week. In total, over 1,000 participants in the United States and Canada responded in the spring and summer. In the surveys, participants were asked if they had helped anyone that day—either as part of an organized volunteer activity or by providing help more informally (for example, by offering emotional support to a friend or bringing a neighbor groceries). In addition, participants also reported on their positive and negative emotions, indicated whether they had received support from anyone that day, and rated how they felt their relationships were going.

importance of friendship during pandemic essay

The researchers found that participants who helped others more often—whether through formal volunteering or providing more informal types of help—reported higher positive emotions, lower negative emotions, and more satisfaction with their relationships. In addition to these differences between people, the researchers also observed people’s well-being fluctuate over time: On days when participants helped others, they felt greater positive emotions and were happier with their relationships, compared to days when they didn’t help anyone else.

Additionally, providing emotional support (that is, providing a listening ear rather than trying to fix someone’s problem) had a unique benefit: On days when participants offered this kind of support, they reported lower negative emotions.

During the study, older participants (ages 60 and up) were the most likely to participate in formal volunteering activities, and they were the most likely to receive emotional support from others. Older participants also reported the highest levels of well-being, in terms of positive and negative emotions and satisfaction with their relationships. Volunteering and staying socially connected—albeit at a distance—may play a role in helping older adults stay well during the pandemic.

In fact, receiving help seemed to be beneficial for everyone, not just older people: On days when participants received support from others, they reported higher positive emotions and more happiness with their relationships.

While this might seem intuitive, it actually differs from previous research, which has found that receiving help from others can sometimes backfire. For example, receiving support we didn’t ask for can be an unpleasant experience, since it can make us feel like our competence is being called into question. Research also suggests that feeling incompetent or powerless as a result of receiving support is linked to negative consequences, such as having more symptoms of depression.

Why didn’t receiving support have adverse consequences in the present study? Nancy Sin, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study, explains that one reason may have to do with the nature of the pandemic. Since all of us are going through a huge, collective stressor, reaching out for help is, in a sense, normalized.

Additionally, people may be more likely to receive the kind of helpful, effective support that they want right now. Participants in the study were especially likely to receive emotional support , and, when we’re facing an uncontrollable, unpredictable event—like COVID-19 is—being able to vent is sometimes more effective than having someone jump in to fix whatever’s wrong. It also helps that a lot of the support happening right now is reciprocal: In a conversation with a friend, we might find ourselves taking the role of both support provider and support recipient.

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Sin’s advice for people who are feeling lonely or disconnected right now? Seek out opportunities to connect with others, whether through formal volunteer organizations (many of which are offering virtual or socially distanced opportunities to help) or by simply reaching out to a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

Another way to help out is to get others connected to the digital resources they need to set up Zoom calls or do virtual volunteering. While more and more older adults are connected to the internet, not all are (and socioeconomic inequalities can exacerbate this issue). Helping to bridge this digital gap will have a meaningful impact on people’s sense of connectedness right now.

Sin also suggests that the efforts we’re making now to cultivate our social networks can have long-reaching consequences. The volunteer networks, community groups, and mutual aid organizations we’ve built up while social distancing are resources that we can carry forward, even after the pandemic. She explains, “What I hope is that, by people becoming more active in helping other people, in maybe becoming more involved in their communities, that this will build resources that people can still rely on in the future even after the pandemic is over.”

About the Author

Headshot of Elizabeth Hopper

Elizabeth Hopper

Elizabeth Hopper, Ph.D. , received her Ph.D. in psychology from UC Santa Barbara and currently works as a freelance science writer specializing in psychology and mental health.

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COMMENTS

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