- Watching TV shows, reading books, and listening to music can fulfill social connection, according to new research.
- Healthy people tend to use both traditional and nontraditional social techniques to feel connected.
- Nontraditional social strategies can help people reflect on the relationships they have and the people they miss.
Has the pandemic got you watching reruns of your favorite TV shows, listening to your favorite songs on repeat, or reading the same book again?
According to recent research, your behavior makes sense — especially during this time when we’re all practicing physical distancing.
Researchers at the University at Buffalo report that nontraditional social strategies, such as those referred to as “guilty pleasures,” can fulfill critical social needs in a similar way that family connections, romantic relationships, or social support systems do.
“Our brains are not wired to differentiate between real relationships and the kind of connections we feel to the social worlds presented in books and TV shows. Now is the time to take advantage of that. Don’t feel guilty about rewatching your favorite show or bingeing a new one. It may actually be good for you,” Shira Gabriel, PhD, professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the paper, told Healthline.
Dr. Gabriel has studied the significance of nontraditional social strategies for more than 10 years. Her current research is the first to examine and compare traditional and nontraditional social strategies and their effectiveness.
She and colleagues asked more than 170 participants questions about their well-being and social connections. Their answers were evaluated based on something they call a “social fuel tank.”
Participants reported as many as 17 different ways in which they fill their “social tanks.” Most noted both traditional and nontraditional social strategies.
“There are many ways to [fulfill] the need for social connection. Our society puts so much pressure on people to get married and have kids and that is great — if it is what makes you happy. But there are other ways to live a connected and happy life, and we shouldn’t make people feel guilty about them. You aren’t failing if you choose alternative ways to connect,” Gabriel said.
She added that healthy people tend to use both nontraditional and traditional social techniques, and that everyone has their own ideal blend of ways to socially connect.
Good but not as good
Krystine Batcho, PhD, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York, said Gabriel’s research is informative and relative, particularly during stay-at-home orders.
However, she said it’s important to note that original research on the topic found a substantial difference between traditional and nontraditional ways of remaining connected.
“The traditional ways of being social (e.g., family, romantic partner) were used to feel connected by many more people and more often than were nontraditional ways (e.g., reading books). More importantly, traditional connections were stronger predictors of well-being,” Batcho told Healthline.
She said that remaining isolated or socially distant and relying on activities such as watching TV, eating favorite foods, or gaming aren’t long-term substitutes for actual interactions with other people.
But during this time of physical distancing, since many traditional ways of connecting aren’t possible, nontraditional means of connecting are a good substitute.
“While we need to socially distance, watching our favorite shows, reading books, and listening to our favorite music can keep us feeling anchored in the life that’s been temporarily suspended,” Batcho said.
“By reminding us that our life goes on, remaining engaged in familiar activities reminds us also that so do our relationships,” she said. “Just as we can still watch our favorite show or listen to our favorite music, we can count on our friends and relatives to be there for us, even at a distance for now.”
Feeling nostalgic for people
While spending more time away from others, Batcho said it can be helpful to reflect on your relationships. Watching shows, reading books, and listening to music can encourage this reflection.
“Familiar activities and pleasures fulfill our social needs to some extent by giving us ways of connecting and receiving virtual social support. By providing vicarious social interactions, they remind us that we are not alone,” she said.
Nontraditional social strategies also help us remember how much we love and need the people we’re separated from.
“Connecting from a distance heightens our desire for face-to-face social togetherness, preparing us to engage more fully in our relationships once we return to the lives we had before. With the images they present, film and music sustain us with faith in that return,” Batcho said.
For instance, when we listen to a love song, we enjoy the romance vicariously. By identifying with the lovers in the song, we feel loved, and the love we have for another is refreshed and revitalized, she explained.
Films, shows, and music also initiate the social-emotional experience of nostalgia.
“Nostalgic memories are most often ‘peopled.’ We remember the people who have meant so much to us and to our lives. Social distancing is a powerful trigger for such nostalgic memories. Watching reruns or listening to songs we enjoyed in the past revives the positive feelings we had when we shared such good times with friends and relatives. We can relive those satisfying social interactions we had when we watched the shows originally,” Batcho said.
Because nostalgia is a soft, caring emotion, it can help repair wounded relationships and strengthen healthy ones.
“The nostalgia that comes with watching reruns, etc., can fulfill our social needs to some degree by helping us rediscover our identity and worth in our social network,” she said.
Whether you prefer traditional or nontraditional social strategies, Gabriel said the pandemic is the perfect time to embrace new ways to connect.
“If something makes you feel connected and happy, then do it. If you start to feel unhappy, try new things,” she said.
“Weird and silly behaviors that tie you to others (like cheering out your window at 7 p.m. every night or putting rainbows on your door) are great. They can make you feel like you are a part of something bigger than yourself and that makes us happy and content,” Gabriel said.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.
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