Standard image of the new scientist

The surprising effects of small social interactions on your health

Greeting a neighbor or clapping with a coworker can improve your health and well-being, but coronavirus bans put it at risk. How to stay connected

health


August 12, 2020

By David Robson

At the beginning of the British ineligibility, I woke up every morning with the feeling of impending doom. Of course, I was afraid of Covid-19, but also of isolation. How would I deal with without seeing friends and family? How could I do my job as a journalist if I couldn't meet people?

These were not unfounded fears. Over the past few decades, a number of research has shown that people with a richer social world tend to have better mental well-being, less stress, and perform better at work. Skipping our interactions with friends, coworkers, and even shopkeepers can have a surprisingly high impact on our health.

WhatsApp conversations and Zoom parties have helped me maintain a sense of connection, but these tools can't replace aspects of interaction – like social touch and impromptu chats through the water cooler – that can improve mood and strengthen relationships.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella suggested this in a recent interview with the New York Times. Although he thought the transition to digital interactions was going relatively smoothly, he wondered if we would burn through the "social capital" that we had built up over the years. He suspected that social bonds could break. "What I miss is when you go into a physical meeting, talk to the person standing next to you, and you can connect with them two minutes before and after," he said.

"An abundance of studies has shown that high 'social capital' improves our quality of life."

With many of us continuing to work remotely, the long-term effects of social distancing can be severe. What can …