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  • If properly directed, our basic social needs can help us defeat and recover from this growing pandemic. Tweet This
  • Meaning in life has great motivational power. It gives people hope and the personal agency needed to take care of themselves and help others. Tweet This
  • When people are focused on pursuing meaning, they are more inclined to privilege the greater good over immediate self-interest.  Tweet This

Many Americans appear to be struggling with the need for social distancing to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. In cities across the country, people continue to frequent bars, restaurants, cinemas, and gyms despite the recommendations of public health professionals. Young adults, in particular, may not be taking the threat seriously or may not fully appreciate that even if they are fortunate enough to not get very sick, they can spread the virus to others who are more vulnerable. Our social nature is a big part of this problem, but the good news is that if properly directed, our basic social needs can help us defeat and recover from this growing pandemic. 

Humans are inherently a social species, although individuals differ in their level of sociality. Some want to be constantly surrounded by people, whereas others prefer smaller doses of social interaction. But all of us must form and maintain interpersonal relationships. From the basic attachment bond infants form with their mothers to the complex business relationships that drive our economy, humans rely on social connections to survive and thrive.

Notably, social relationships play a central role in giving our lives meaning. In a recent study, my research team asked a diverse sample of American adults to describe in writing what gives their lives meaning.1 The most frequently mentioned source of meaning was family, followed by other close relationships. Similar surveys find the same results. My team has also approached this issue by examining people’s nostalgic memories. When we asked people to describe a cherished personal memory, nearly all individuals offered an experience involving family or other loved ones, and, importantly, engaging in this social-focused nostalgic exercise increased perceptions of meaning in life.2

Other research demonstrates the importance of social relationships for meaning in life by finding that people’s sense of meaning decreases when they are ostracized or socially excluded.3 Similarly, when individuals are made to feel socially included, their sense of meaning increases.4

Importantly—and I can’t emphasize this point enough—meaning in life is more than just feeling socially accepted. Our relationships provide meaning to the extent that they give us an opportunity to matter because believing that one’s life matters is ultimately what generates meaning.5 Humans don’t just want to be in the presence of or liked by others. We want to have a significant role to play in our families and communities. We can be surrounded and treated kindly by others but still feel like we don’t matter. We all need to serve a function—to know that our actions can make a real difference.

This means that the human need for meaning and the social nature of meaning can be used to mobilize our fight against this coronavirus pandemic. Since meaning is really about mattering, we should emphasize to all Americans that the most socially significant thing they can do right now is to follow social distancing recommendations. In addition, even while minimizing social contact, Americans can check on their neighbors, friends, and family, particularly those who are at greatest risk.  

Psychologists and social commentators have expressed concern that the need for social distancing to reduce the rapid spread of Covid-19 has the potential to cause social suffering. Indeed, loneliness can lead to depression and, more broadly, a demotivated psychological state that is harmful for both mental and physical health.6

Making our current situation even more challenging is the fact people are especially in need of social connection when they feel uncertain or anxious. Gathering with others provides psychological comfort. This is one reason it has been so difficult, even though necessary, for churches, synagogues, and mosques to halt religious services during this distressing time. This is again why it is important to emphasize the significance of social distancing measures. It will help people keep their spirits up if they view their social sacrifices as meaningful. 

When people are focused on pursuing meaning, they are more inclined to privilege the greater good over immediate self-interest. 

In our individualistic culture, it is often difficult to get people to look beyond their own desires and sense of entitlement, but when people are focused on pursuing meaning, they are more inclined to privilege the greater good over immediate self-interest. And there is no reason to think young adults need meaning any less than anyone else. We must help them realize that they have a key role to play in this fight.

The biggest lesson I have learned from years of conducting research in existential psychology is that meaning in life has great motivational power. Many people think of meaning is an indicator of well-being. Though that is certainly true, it is much more than that. Meaning inspires and energizes people. It gives them hope and the personal agency needed to take care of themselves and help others. Meaning makes individuals better citizens. Our leaders would benefit from understanding this when instructing Americans on how to respond to this pandemic.

Tips for Combatting Social Isolation

So, how do we combat social isolation at this time?

Take advantage of tech. I’m normally pretty critical of how much people are in front of screens, but as those who do not live near family already know, we are able to use our smartphones, laptops, and tablets to see our loved ones and to share photos and videos with them. A good old-fashioned phone call can also do the trick.

But avoid over-use of social media and use tech judiciously. In the U.S., we are at the early stages of this outbreak, and I’m already seeing many people who could benefit from stepping away from social media. Even in normal times, this is good advice. Websites like Twitter are best in small and infrequent doses.

Use nostalgiaResearch shows that we can turn to cherished memories to help manage loneliness and stress and find guidance for moving forward. Hobbies or activities that help you connect with family and cultural traditions may be especially helpful. Now might be the time to start that quilt or create that scrapbook you’ve imagined, or to take a shot at an old family recipe you’ve been meaning to try. And if you have children at home, this is an opportunity to get them involved and pass on family traditions or work on a project together. 

Keep Exercising. Don’t go to the gym or places where it would be hard to observe social distancing but still try to engage in physical activity. Physical exercise helps people regulate stress, anxiety, and negative moods. Fortunately, you don’t need fancy equipment or a gym membership to get a good workout. And thanks to the internet, it isn’t hard to find all sorts of workouts that can be done at home using little space and no equipment. Get out in nature if you can. Again, just be sure to keep your distance from others. 

Serve Others. Just because you are physically separated from others doesn’t mean you can’t serve others. Check with local churches and charitable organizations to see what their needs are. Call neighbors. If you are young and healthy, maybe there are more vulnerable people around you who could use help getting groceries or other supplies. 

Remember that it is the significant role we play in our social world that gives our lives meaning. Even during times of social distress, we can serve a social purpose by doing our part to help keep those we love and our broader community safe. 

Clay Routledge is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a Faculty Fellow at the Challey Institute of Global Innovation and Growth, and Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. His work uses a range of empirical methods to examine the different ways people seek meaning and how meaning influences motivation and physical, psychological, and social health. 

1. Nelson, T. A., Abeyta, A. A. & Routledge, C. (in press). "What makes life meaningful for theists," Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

2. Routledge C., Arndt, J., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Hart, C., Juhl, J., Vingerhoets, A. J., & Scholtz, W. (2011). The past makes the present meaningful: Nostalgia as an existential resource. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 638-652.

3. Stillman, T. F., Baumeister, R. F., Lambert, N. M., Crescioni, A., DeWall, C., & Fincham, F. D. (2009). Alone and without purpose: Life loses meaning following social exclusion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 686-694.

4. Lambert, N. M., Stillman, T. F., Hicks, J. A., Kamble, S., Baumeister, R. F., & Fincham, F. D. (2013). To belong is to matter: Sense of belonging enhances meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1418-1427.

5. Costin, V., & Vignoles, V. L. (2020). Meaning is about mattering: Evaluating coherence, purpose, and existential mattering as precursors of meaning in life judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118(4), 864–884. 

6. Hawkley, L. C. & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). "Loneliness Matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms." Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40, 218-227.