Embrace guilty pleasures to survive social isolation, says UB psychologist

Woman watching tv while eating popcorn.

Release Date: March 25, 2020

Portrait of UB psychologist Shira Gabriel.
“My advice in this crazy and stressful time is to stop feeling guilty about guilty pleasures. ”
Shira Gabriel, associate professor of psychology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Social distancing helps to slow the spread of COVID-19, but people must also protect themselves from the mental health disorders strongly associated with social isolation, such as depression, anxiety, poor physical health and even suicide, according to a University at Buffalo social psychologist.

The solution? Indulge your guilty pleasures, says Shira Gabriel, associate professor of psychology in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“As a social psychologist who studies the importance of social connections, I am gravely worried about what this social isolation might bring,” says Gabriel. “Luckily, there are easy and fun ways to keep connected and protect ourselves.”

Gabriel’s research suggests that many guilty pleasures may actually help people feel socially connected.

Decades of research suggests that human beings need social connections just as they need oxygen, food and water. Gabriel says this is likely because humans evolved as a species at a time when there were many dangers and the only way to survive was to band together and protect one another.

“We evolved to need one another and when that need isn’t filled we suffer,” she says, adding that we should “stop feeling guilty” and start engaging in the following activities:

  • Dig right into your social media. Post stories of what you are doing. Share your concerns and also your moments of peace. Comment on other people’s posts. And don’t just reach out to the people you are closest to; reach out to your broader social circles. Host a virtual coffee or happy hour on a service like Zoom. Invite your neighbors to a virtual book club.

  • Prepare the foods that you associate with being loved – foods you might call comfort foods. “My research suggests that preparing and eating those foods activates a primitive and implicit feeling of being cared for and loved,” Gabriel says. “The food can fill our need for social connection and protect us from the negative effects of isolation.” Also consider sharing your recipes and pictures of your food online. Try recipes other people post. Make eating and enjoying food a social activity.

  • Take part in all the bizarre and fun new rituals that people are doing with their communities. Draw on your sidewalks with your neighbors. Sing from your balcony. Put pictures of rainbows in your windows. “Our research suggests that these kind of shared activities foster a sense of collective effervescence a feeling of connection mixed with a sensation of sacredness. These experiences of collective effervescence make us feel less lonely and they give our lives meaning and that little extra kick of special. Even if it feels little weird to you, give it a try,” Gabriel says.

  • Turn on the TV and stream your favorite TV show or movie. “My research suggests that we can find symbolic social connections though watching (or reading) narratives. See, at the time when our social systems evolved, there was no need for us to differentiate between real relationships and the symbolic ones that we get through media — because media didn’t exist for early humans! So, our brains never developed that ability. Sure, logically you know that the friends you have on ‘Friends’ are not real, but to your mind they feel real, and our research suggests that they actually can fill your need to belong and make your happier,” Gabriel says.

Gabriel recognizes that people might be dubious about the effectiveness of these recommendations, but her research strongly supports their utility.

“The happiest, healthiest people incorporate symbolic social connections into their lives. Yes, they have ‘real’ friends and social connections, but they also have symbolic ones and the symbolic ones are often just as predictive of wellbeing and happiness,” Gabriel says.

“So my advice in this crazy and stressful time is to stop feeling guilty about guilty pleasures. Let yourself spend time on social media. Eat the foods that make you feel happy. Do silly and seemingly pointless things just because others are doing them. Watch TV whenever you want to.”

Anything else?

“And wash your hands a lot.”

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