How Social Distancing Will Help Us Find Happiness

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In 2000, Robert Putnam published his groundbreaking book “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.

Groups like the SAE alumni organization 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 SAE 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.

There are also ways to assist on a local level, as one brother suggests:

“I’m sure that young SAE members who are involved in the community, whether at school or at home, may have older people in their neighborhood. Surely before a pandemic happens they have had short visits with them. The young member could reach out to the nearby elderly with an offer to drop off needed groceries or other things they consume.”

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 relevant now than ever, several weeks into the COVID-19 shutdown.

You’d expect that we would all feel more isolated than ever. Yet somehow, social distancing has cut through the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, making more space for authentic relationships with family, friends and neighbors.

In the words of one brother:

“We can make it through a pandemic such as this by being an SAE & keeping in touch with various brothers we’ve met and know. Those young & old. Maybe they’re just lonesome or depressed due to social distancing. You could provide a phone call, text or email.”

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 selves ... happier.

Right now, connect. Make the call, send the text, mail the card. Reach out to old SAE friends. Reach out to people from your pledge class, your graduation year, or old roommates. When this ends and we can rally again, commit to coming back to campus and have a reunion with your brothers. Plan post-quarantine reunion dinners at your favorite Columbia restaurant. Giving back and connecting with others not only changes us, it changes the world.