A 25-year-old woman in therapy tells me: “My mum ends up meeting and talking to her friends more than I do! It feels like people of my age don’t want to make any effort to meet in person or invest in relationships. A lot of my friends spend all their weekend watching a show or just sending memes. I can’t figure if I am expecting too much or whether people just don’t prioritise social relationships amidst social media and work. It makes me feel sad and I wonder if I overinvest and then constantly feel disappointed.”
Over the last six-eight months, a lot of young people, including teenagers, have been talking about this. I hear this less and less from people who are in their 40s and 50s. What’s also interesting is that more women in therapy sessions seem to bring this up compared to men. Men talk about it in the context of loneliness and women bring it up in the context of loss and a longing for social connection. Female clients often wonder if they are overinvesting in relationships or if they have unrealistic expectations when it comes to relationships.
All these concerns point to a larger question of “social fitness”, a term I first read about in the book The Good Life And How To Live It, by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. From therapy sessions and my work as a consultant with organisations, it is becoming clearer that the pandemic’s impact and hybrid work have taken a toll on social fitness. The effects are beginning to show in the disconnection, lack of community and helplessness that people are experiencing.
A huge part of social fitness is interpersonal relationships, whether it’s your family, friendships that matter, activity friends, mentors, colleagues at work, neighbours, acquaintances, or your community—be it a book/movie club you are part of, an exercise class or, sometimes, the people you know from your apartment complex or children’s school. Our social fitness has to do with recognising that each relationship serves a purpose. All these relationships, in their own way, offer us comfort, familiarity, a sense of belonging, warmth, a feeling of being seen, heard and understood, and the ability to have fun together.
With advances in technology, however, we are interacting much more on text and watching curated versions of our friends, acquaintances, even strangers’ lives, via scrolling. Yet we don’t really know what people may be feeling, experiencing or struggling with in their personal lives.
Moreover, the last couple of years have seen some sense of social inertia creep in. Add to this the work pressure, the seemingly increased number of hours people put in at work, and expectations. All this is leading to a sense of lethargy, a feeling of being wired and tired that makes it harder to make plans and even go out and meet people.
But like with any form of fitness, we need to prioritise social fitness and recognise that working on it on a regular basis can help us deal with the disconnection, lethargy and malaise that’s slowly becoming part of our lives.
We seem to forget that whatever gets most of our attention is what grows and takes up most of our mind space. Keeping that in mind, we need to make intentional choices, investing attention, time and mindfulness when it comes to relationships that matter. A spontaneous or planned uninterrupted phone call or an in-person meeting both allow us an opportunity to experience presence, feel connected, and, at the same time, offer a chance to nourish and deepen social relationships. Begin by building time in your calendar for social fitness and the returns in the form of joy, connection, satisfaction will allow for the foundation of a good life.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.