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As we practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness has become a pressing issue. But new science suggests we can fulfill our social needs through methods that don’t involve people. 

“People can feel connected through all sorts of means,” says one of study authors Elaine Paravati in a press release. The new study from the University at Buffalo showed that listening to our favorite music or indulging in comfort food can bring the same social satisfaction as spending time in person with a friend.

Research has long found that the happiest people are those who feel they have strong social support in their lives. However, most of that research has focused on people’s romantic partnerships or close friendships. More recently, studies have begun to show that people can meet their social needs in nontraditional ways, through different kinds of social behaviors. But most of us still assume that in person social interaction is more fulfilling.

What fills the social fuel tank?

To investigate, the authors created a new measure they called the “Social Fuel Tank.” They told study participants that they could fill this tank with different types of “fuel.” These social strategies could mean all sorts of things. Maybe it meant being in a large group, spending time with family, or watching TV. The participants were encouraged to report which strategies they used and how much those helped them feel a sense of belonging. 

The 173 study participants were students at a large state university. In their reports, they chose from 17 possible activities. The median number of strategies they used to fill their social fuel tank was 7. Among traditional strategies, the most popular were spending time with a romantic partner, family or friends. The most popular nontraditional methods were listening to music or watching TV. Other nontraditional methods included watching movies, eating favorite foods, time with pets, gaming, reading books and following celebrities. 

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When participants had a full social fuel tank, they felt less lonely, more socially included and connected, better about themselves and more satisfied in their lives. It did not matter how many different strategies they used to achieve this, as long as the social fuel tank was full. 

Since participants used a mixture of strategies, the researchers also analyzed the data for traditional and nontraditional social activities separately. It turned out that both types of activities made participants feel connected and like they belonged. The best effect was found when people used both types of strategies in tandem.

“There’s a basic need for social connections, just as we have a basic need for food,” said Shina Gabriel, professor of psychology and another of the study authors in the press release. “The longer you go without those sorts of connections, the lower the fuel tank, and that’s when people start to get anxious, nervous or depressed, because they lack needed resources. What’s important is not how you’re filling the social fuel tank, but that your social fuel tank is getting filled.”

What does this mean for us? 

This is great news for those who are dealing with a loss of in person interaction with others during COVID-19. The study gives hope that there are a variety of ways to fill the social fuel tank. This is also good news for introverts or those who feel criticized for using nontraditional ways of meeting their social needs. The satisfaction one person gets from engaging with a book is as effective as another person’s social time at a party. 

This may help to explain another recent finding: that screen time does not impair elementary school aged children’s social skills. Screen time has been understood as something kids do instead of being social, but this study calls that into question. According to the social fuel tank model, when children seek screen time they may be trying to be social after all.

Does that mean our kids will finally succeed in their efforts to gain unlimited screen time? Wise parents will remember that the social fuel tank was fullest when people used a variety of strategies. Still, the findings make room for different styles of living.

“We live in a society where people are questioned if they’re not in a romantic relationship, if they decide not to have children, or they don’t like attending parties,” Gabriel explains. “There are implicit messages that these people are doing something wrong. That can be detrimental to them. The message we want to give to people, and that our data suggest, is that that’s just not true… These are real ways of feeling connected that are very important to people.”

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