The Value of Real Contact
Enhance Your Health with Face-to-Face Interaction
We all live busy lives where there does not seem to be enough time in the day to accomplish all the things we need to do. We crave connection and yet often find ourselves too busy or too exhausted to invest in the friendships we value most. We settle for keeping up with others through social media like Facebook or Twitter. This often adds up to stress and depression. And, indeed, the things we turn to most often in order to help make us more efficient and productive, and even to keep us connected to family and friends, like computers and social media, can often backfire by increasing our sense of anxiety, depression and subjective well-being. Facebook and other forms of social media may provide the instant hit of reinforcement that can so easily become addictive, but it only serves to increase social anxiety and alienation. Mediated social contact is not the same as real face to face social contact.
If we are to thrive in the world we create in the future, we have to remember that our limitless imaginations remain housed in biological containers whose health and welfare may not always be maximized by our ideas of what we want, or what will make us happy. In fact, we are often very wrong about what we want and what will make us happy.
In previous generations, leisure was a benefit available only to the wealthy; the poor toiled day and night. As technology and automation changed the meaning of work for the privileged, idleness came increasingly to characterize the working class, and often came to be regarded as laziness. Being busy became a sign of power, prestige, status and importance. And yet being busy does not always bring health or happiness.
But if increasing technological sophistication, job sharing, productivity and wealth offer renewed prospects for leisure, how can we best use this time to improve personal health, welfare and community building. Luckily, a powerful and simple antidote to the social frustrations that inevitably arise as a consequence of the comparison inherent in social media lies in staying active, both physically and in-person socially, across the lifespan.
Arianna Huffington notes that sleep is nature’s way of healing the body; so too is exercise nature’s way of keeping the body and mind healthy. There are a number of studies showing that exercise prevents and treats mild to moderate depression much more effectively than anti-depressant medication and also works to stave off anxiety. And no drugs are as effective, and pose as few side effects, as exercise, for lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and maintaining bone density.
But physical health is only one important way we can use increased leisure time to improve health and welfare. Even more important for purposes of building and maintaining both personal happiness as well as community welfare is face to face interaction. Old fashioned face to face conversation allows for an expression and communication of emotion that is essential for social and emotional development, as well as sustaining personal connections. The immediate like on facebook or Instagram may provide a fleeting sense of reinforcement, but cannot provide the same kind of soothing comfort that comes from a parent’s hug, a lover’s kiss or a child’s smile. A generation raised on smartphones may eschew such face to face interaction because social media seems faster and easier, but it is also more ephemeral and shallow. One study found that the more “friends” someone has on facebook, the fewer real life confidants the person is likely to have. “Friends” on facebook will not be the support system we all need in life, to provide everything from a ride to the airport to a companion when we need to go for surgery.
Although natural, face to face communication of emotion is hard work, and takes practice. But practice is the action that promises greater health and happiness for everyone who wants to convey the dreams of their soul, the yearnings of their heart, and the brilliance of their ideas through the very concrete tactile reality of our bodies. And those face to face connections are the ones that will lead to happier lives and stronger community ties.
Rose McDermott was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University in 2008–09 and 2015–16. She is the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University.