My family, friends, colleagues and I are all well but things are indeed quite difficult here, especially from a psychological point of view. Now we all live in a red zone and feel the great responsibility to keep the contagion under control, so we stay at home most of the time. Yesterday I went out to buy a few things in the neighborhood but faces were worried and sad, people keep the recommended distance and someone told my son to stay away. Not everyone understands that we should be supportive and stay emotionally close.
Roy Baumeister is a reserved and extremely intelligent man who, for good reason, has become one of the most accomplished social psychologists alive. I first met Roy for lunch in Barcelona about seven years ago. More recently, I asked him why social ostracism or rejection, which now comes fast and furious through electronic communication, so easily sends us into a tailspin.
The importance of this need has not escaped others intent on damaging individuals. In traditional societies, social ostracism was often used as one of the most severe forms of punishment. This effect is more pronounced in younger people, as their rapidly developing brains are more highly sensitized to detect social exclusion.
New Partners in the Digital Age: Youth and Loneliness
It is perhaps for this reason that the Cigna study on loneliness released in January 2020 counterintuitively found that it’s not the elderly, as most anticipate, who are the loneliest in US society, but children and teens. Almost eight of every ten Gen Zers (79 percent) and over seven in ten Millennials (71 percent) are now lonely, compared to half of Baby Boomers (50 percent). This finding is extremely disconcerting, not only because of the suffering of our youngest generations, but also because they gradually replace the oldest and become our new society.
Yet social media-accentuated ostracism continues to surge unchecked while we blithely log on to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. A recent study by Baumeister and his colleagues has found that ostracism even disables some facets of psychological functioning, including a sense of meaningfulness in life. Believe it or not, even feeling rejected by a social group one despises—in another study, participants were manipulated into believing they were being ostracized by the KKK—can be hurtful.
So the next time you are engaged in real-time social interaction and are feeling irritable and about to speak unkindly toward someone, as someone did to my friend’s son in Piemonte, consider that their dialogue with you may be the only one they have with anyone before they return to their isolated existence to avert the coronavirus. The amount of time they ruminate on their interaction with you will likely be much longer than before.
Even before this public health crisis, many people who thought they were free were really meaning to walk freely on this earth, but instead were spending most of their waking hours behind one screen or another (e.g., phone, laptop, TV, etc.). The people in your community have never needed your compassion more than today. You have also likely been more in need of experiencing the reduction in stress that being compassionate toward others produces within you.
About the Author:
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Save the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020. You can find more articles on his weekly blog The Art of Living Free.