Earlier this fall, in the quaint days when our variants had progressed only an eighth of the way through the Greek alphabet, I made a seemingly impractical trip: I unstuck myself from the couch where I’d been working the previous 18 months, kissed my husband and three children goodbye, and traveled to a DC suburb where, for 10 waking hours, I sat next to my friend on her couch, and worked, and hung out with her three children. Then I commuted six hours home.
After months apart, during which we’d communicated almost solely in sentence fragments on WhatsApp, we had a single hour of child-free chatting over a bottle of wine – at 9 o’clock, we were both too tired to stay awake, so crawled into beds in adjacent rooms. And when the sun rose, we teamed up to shove tiny feet and hands into boots and gloves while, perhaps a little too on-the-nose, Elton John’s I’m Still Standing blasted over the living room speakers, then drove the girls to school. On the relaxation scale, it clocked in closer to “gut renovating your apartment” than “spa”. But those measly 10 hours, full of random, unprompted hugs and the knowledge that we could just exist, in the same place, with no real agenda – Eating takeout! Chatting in a car! Or while doing the dishes! Blowing raspberries on the one-year-old’s tummy as the other one plowed through emails! – replenished a part of my social life that has languished perhaps more than any other lately: a type of socializing that falls under the heading of hanging out.
I don’t know about your 2022, but so far, mine seems allergic to it.
It might be my life stage – as the mother of three children under six, my days have been highly scheduled for ages, with most of my unstructured time spent in the company of people who think the world’s greatest joke is to wear a diaper as a hat. When was the last time I went to a bar and let the night unfold? But sprinkle a little lingering pandemic on to America’s highly isolated family unit, and there’s the death knell of my chillaxing. With Omicron raging in New York right now, sure, I see friends, but mostly outdoors on one of those hyper purposeful, frigid Victorian walks we urbanites have once again started to sprinkle throughout our days, like some modern version of Jane Austen characters out on the heath.
“It’s all scheduled,” one friend said when I lobbed a question out into our WhatsApp chain to see if anyone else was experiencing the same thing. “There’s no space to just be and let conversation flow.”
“It makes all time feel loaded,” another responded. “I avoid people because I’m meant to give an important report.”
To be sure, chillaxing can be seen as a relatively minor casualty of the pandemic – it’s not losing a job, or a family member, or any number of other tragic things that have befallen so many of us – but as a building block of our species, evolved from monkeys who’ll groom each other in groups for hours, it makes us, in a very real sense, human. In the intervening months, those 10 hours with my friend have served as the equivalent of my own personal bowl of Xanax. I think back to our time together, as my unvaccinated two-year-old gets a cough and can’t go to school, or the case counts tick up, yet again, and am calmed. With isolation periods a continued reality for the next few months – perhaps longer, for what has Omicron underscored other than the unpredictability of this virus, and the endless punting of a return to normal? – it seems imperative we all try to prioritize that in-person time, however hard it may be, however effortful.
“We don’t realize how important physical contact – the patting and high fives and laughing together and all these things that people are constantly doing with their friends – is in building and facilitating and servicing relationships,” Robin Dunbar told me when I reached him to get his take on how this time had affected our socializing. “Those kind of things are going on below the horizon of consciousness. It’s hitting this endorphins system in the brain. And if you don’t get those hits, you’re not going to have meaningful or lasting relationships.”
Dunbar is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford, perhaps most famous for his eponymous number, which delineates how many stable relationships he posits a human can sustain. He puts this at around 150, with five or so close friends and concentric circles moving outwards until you get to the periphery of your network. What defines a friend is shapeshifting and complex – which is why he takes with a grain of salt various studies, like one that came out recently from the Survey Center on American Life and was widely circulated, reporting that Americans have markedly fewer close friendships than 30 years ago. (“It often depends on how you ask the question,” he said of the researchers.) But he’s defined them, variably, as someone you’d go over and say hi to if you happened to bump into each other in the airport at three in the morning, or someone you’d feel fine asking favors of, and doing favors for. And having robust social networks, and putting the effort in to maintain them, is critical to our wellbeing.
In his latest book, Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships, out in the US next month, he labels loneliness a “modern killer disease, rapidly replacing all the more usual candidates as the commonest cause of death”. Seeing friends in person improves your mood, lowers stress, can benefit cardiovascular health, and on and on. Conversely, being lonely has been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And it’s not always about heart-to-hearts in the wee hours – sometimes it’s that shared laugh when the four-year-old insists on eating pizza bagels topped with sprinkles for breakfast (her kid, not mine, for the record).
“Singing, dancing, laughter, storytelling, the rituals of religion, eating together, drinking together,” Dunbar listed, “all these things, there’s just something about doing it in the physical presence of a person that seems to ramp the effect up. It’s a weird business, some of the social business we engage in. Laughter is much more intimate that people imagine.” He pointed out that, were you to find yourself in a bar in Ulaanbaatar and someone told a joke in Mongolian, you’d laugh along, too. There are all sorts of little social cues we reflexively respond to when in the presence of other people, and there’s really no substitute. (When I brought up the metaverse, Dunbar snorted.)
Last month was my husband’s birthday. With all of this swirling around in my head, I got him the gift of friendship. Pragmatically, that means a standing monthly reservation at a neighborhood restaurant and the requirement that I not join, because we’ve shared, give or take, the last 672 consecutive dinners (not that anyone’s counting). One friend pointed out that it’s essentially a playdate. But my hope is that once Omicron lets up, this structured time, to be unstructured, will nudge him to make room for the friendships most of us adults crave, and few of us prioritize. It might feel contrived, about as natural as Purell, but one could argue it’s as critical to his wellbeing – or at the very least more so than the other gift I was considering: slippers, pajamas and a book, for hanging out at home.