The New Social Orbits
The pandemic has transformed the way people make and maintain friendships. The effects could reshape the structure of our social networks and change the way we think about our closest connections.
By Jennifer Latson published January 5, 2021 - last reviewed on January 5, 2021
Adapting Together: In March, Bethany Morrison, 25, of Queens, New York (center) lost her uncle–her mother’s twin brother–when he died suddenly of Covid-19. “It still doesn’t seem real to me. We were very close,” she says. “It was heartbreaking, but our family is pretty strong.” Since the pandemic began, she has tried to limit in-person socializing to no more than three people at a time, often including her close friends Takeisha Sinclair (far left) and Taisha Singer. They've eaten on rooftops, safely visited spas, and celebrated each other's birthdays. The three of them, and a small group of other women with whom Morrison went to high school and college, also take part in a morning devotional she organized via a smartphone app. “A lot of people have lost loved ones," she says, “so I’m choosing comforting topics so people can dig deeper on themes like dealing with depression or adapting to this new normal."
Winter was coming, and Mollie Goldstein was contemplating a new down parka so warm it was essentially a sub-zero sleeping bag with sleeves. It was, she reasoned, the only way she’d be able to keep socializing outdoors in New York, something she did not want to give up even as she continued to prioritize social distancing.
Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, the 40-year-old film editor’s social life had already been radically reconfigured. Happy hours with colleagues and acquaintances were a distant memory. Instead, she was spending more time than ever with her closest friends. She’d formed a sort of “quarantine pod” with two of them, meaning they could hang out inside with each other, but with no one else. As months passed, they’d come to feel like family. “We really got to bond in this way that I don’t think we would have if the number of people we were seeing wasn’t so small,” she says.
Goldstein lives alone and had considered herself an entrenched introvert, so she has been surprised by how much she has missed casual in-person interactions. In the fall, she met two new people, friends of a friend, and considered it the most thrilling moment of 2020. “One of them has a backyard, and we sat spaced apart and had dinner and hit it off, and it was so exciting. I have now hung out with them three times, and every time I felt like I was high,” she says. “It just made me realize more than ever that this is something I like and want and need.”
As the pandemic upends the ways we make and maintain friendships, researchers are beginning to assess the ways it has transformed the structure of our social circles.
On the one hand, people who live with others–partners, families, and roommates–are spending more time together and deepening their bonds. And many are renewing connections with far-flung friends and relatives through regularly scheduled calls and video chats, strengthening old ties even as more recent casual friendships drift away.
On the other hand, people who don’t already have such close relationships are finding it tougher than ever to form them. That could deprive them of the mental and physical benefits of social contact just when they’re most needed. “In times of distress, crisis, or disaster, human resilience depends on the richness and strength of social connections,” says Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar.
We can make meaningful connections with others while keeping a safe distance, however; it may just require a little creativity. And many who took their social networks for granted are making a more deliberate effort to maintain them now. Researchers are hopeful that this renewed appreciation of social ties could persist after the pandemic, bringing us even closer together after the dark winter ends.
A Daily Dose of Connection: Last March 18, as it became clear that coronavirus-related lockdowns would not be just a one- or two-week phase, Kat Doyle, 53, of Rye, New York (third from left) had an idea. She’d been trying to coordinate Zoom sessions with four close friends from college, including (from left) Meredith Poster, Jean Kelly, and Liz DeBenedictis, but timing and online-meeting fatigue were making it hard to schedule. So that morning, she made a three-minute video that she texted to the others. She began with, “Here’s the deal with socially isolating: It’s really isolating, and it’s sad, and we need each other more than ever.” Doyle then challenged each of the women to make a similar video of herself once a week to share with the group. They all agreed and each took responsibility for one weekday. No one has missed a day since. “Some videos are really funny. Some are really serious,” Doyle says, “but mostly it’s about supporting each other.” The group had kept in touch over the years, “but this crisis really drew us all back together again. This has pretty much been my social network for these past eight months,” Doyle says. As for receiving the videos: “It’s the highlight of our day. We’ve all said, let’s not end this.”
People Who Need People
Friendship is an important predictor of happiness and life satisfaction, studies show: It can reduce our risk of illness and prolong our lives. The tighter people are embedded in a network of friends, the less likely they are to become ill, and the faster they recover if they do.
The converse is also true: A lack of social support can trigger an exaggerated biological stress response, causing inflammation that increases the risk of heart disease, among other conditions. Public health experts had concluded that the U.S. was in the midst of a loneliness epidemic even before the coronavirus arrived. “Covid emerged on the backdrop of this remarkable rise of loneliness and alienation and disconnection,” says Edward Brodkin, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-author, with Ashley Pallathra, of Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections. “This has made the problem worse, but it certainly didn’t create it.”
To reap the full benefits of social connection, research suggests, it helps to have a wide network of friends—up to a point. In the early 1990s, Dunbar proposed the social brain hypothesis, arguing that as primates formed larger social groups over the course of evolution, natural selection favored those with larger brains that could handle the increased processing demands required by a complex social life. Neuroanatomical studies back this theory up, showing a strong correlation between amygdala volume and social network size. With the largest brains, humans have the largest group size—about 150. That's become known as “Dunbar’s number,” and it has proven remarkably stable across cultures and over time. Researchers estimate that Neolithic hunter-gatherer groups were roughly this size—as are many modern hunter-gatherer communities. It has also, Dunbar says, been the maximum size of intentional communities from American utopian societies of the 19th century to the modern Israeli kibbutz.
Even as social media platforms enable us to connect with hundreds or even thousands of other people, studies show that the number of meaningful connections we can manage has stayed the same—after all, our brains haven’t gotten any bigger.
In Dunbar’s model, those 150 connections represent the outer ring of a series of concentric social circles, whose numbers decrease by a factor of three as they become more intimate, giving us about 45 to 50 close friends, 15 closer friends, and roughly five who compose our innermost social ring, including our romantic partner, closest relatives, and best friends.
The circles aren’t static: Casual friendships can evolve into closer ones, while once close friends can drift into an outer ring or drop away entirely. Navigating such a layered social network requires complicated calculations in the best of times, says University of Kansas communication studies professor Jeff Hall, and these are not the best of times.
In a 2019 study, Hall found that it takes 40 to 60 hours to form a casual friendship with a stranger and more than 200 hours of contact for someone to reach your inner circle of 15, which Dunbar calls the “sympathy group” because you can count on them for sympathy and support. These 15 friends represent a minimum collective investment of 3,000 hours, and most of us are loathe to abandon them, Hall says. During the pandemic, people are preserving that investment with calls and Zoom chats instead of drinks or brunch. What many have neglected is the outer circle.
Before the pandemic, Hall says, “about two-thirds of all our interactions on a given day were face-to-face, and the same proportion were with people who were just part of our day-to-day life: at work, at school, at our gym, or in our neighborhood. That was a huge cross-section of people, and a good portion were in the lowest tier of our relationship partners.” Staying home, working remotely, and locked out of churches and gyms, we lost most of our opportunities to interact with those casual connections. “They’re just gone,” Hall says. “Are you going to reach out to the dude from the gym to say, ‘Let’s do a Zoom call’? No. Never. But if you were going to the gym, you might catch up with him regularly.”
Our innermost circles supply the bulk of the emotional and physiological benefits of friendship, but the outer circles matter, too. These so-called weak ties, Hall says, boost our sense of belonging and make us feel connected to a community, contributing to our overall well-being. “This isn’t an either/or equation—it’s both/and. Is it the case that quality interactions with your closest friends and romantic partner predict long life and good health? Yes. Is it the case that casual interactions with weak ties predict long life and good health? Yes.”
A Gradual Return to Routine: Sherri Littlefield, 33, of Brooklyn, New York (second from left) and her husband, Andrew (far left), who had socialized face-to-face with only a few close friends in city parks since the spring, felt their social lives expand a bit when their church reopened its doors in September. “That first Sunday, some people teared up over being able to be back there,” says Sherri, who took on the job of enforcing the required-mask rule at the door. After services, she and Andrew have made a ritual of going out to lunch—above, they’re dining with their pastor, Mark Budenholzer, and his wife, Naomi. It’s time they value because they are not hosting anyone in their apartment yet. “I’m the only person I would consider to be in my ‘pod’ who is traveling into work five days a week on the subway, and I also interact with customers sometimes," says Sherri, who works at Nordstrom. "I don’t want to put others at risk, so I’m just not doing it.”
A Lifetime of Social Shifting
Our relationships change over the course of our lives, and the benefits of friendship vary by age as well. In a 2016 study, University of North Carolina sociologist Kathleen Mullan Harris and colleagues found that the health risks of having too few friends are most pronounced during adolescence and old age. Socially isolated adolescents tend to have higher than normal levels of inflammation, while isolation increases the risk of hypertension in the elderly to an alarming degree–even more than medical conditions such as diabetes.
“It’s long been known that social relationships are really critical to the health of older people because that’s when the number of relationships naturally starts to decline. You may lose your spouse; your children move away; it’s harder to get out,” Harris says. “What’s new is finding that these relationships were just as important in adolescence and young adulthood.”
Another surprise was that while having more friends was correlated with better health in both old age and adolescence, there was no such correlation for middle-aged adults. What mattered for this cohort, Harris found, was the quality of relationships–whether close connections were a source of support or stress. Network size made no difference.
For the most part, middle-aged people have already filled the rings of their social network. Young adults, however, don’t acquire their full complement of 150 until they are in their mid-20s, Dunbar says. Kids and teens, who are just beginning to build their networks, may be missing out on valuable opportunities to acquire social skills right now.
“That’s why we and all primates have a long childhood and adolescence,” Dunbar says. “The skills you have to learn for this complicated social world are so enormous that you can’t just pre-program them.” But he’s not worried about a lifelong deficit in social skills for kids coming of age today. “They’re about as robust as you can imagine; they’ll bounce back. It’s not that they won’t have adverse consequences, but I think these will be recoverable. If you have no social contact at all, kids don’t really recover. But here you’re having some social interaction, even if it’s mostly with adults or your dreaded siblings.”
It's during the stages of adolescence and young adulthood that many people make their closest and most enduring connections, often in high school hallways and college dorms. But the high school and college experience looks very different now, Hall says. “A college freshman is not meeting nearly as many people. Some students are living at home. And those opportunities to develop relationships aren’t going to come back. That may be a loss that’s not recoverable.”
Single adults may also be struggling socially during the pandemic, but it’s not because they didn’t have wide social networks before lockdowns. “There is a myth that single people are not socially skilled or that they’re isolated because they live alone,” Hall says. “In fact, research shows that single people socialize outside the home at a much higher rate than people who are married with children. They go to events, they join clubs, they do community service—more so than people in relationships. But that’s the key: They’re social outside the home. During the pandemic, they don’t have that outlet. So for people who were extremely social, this is a huge loss.”
Older people who live alone are at even greater risk, Hall believes. Those who aren’t digitally savvy may be cut off from their connections, and those who have become entrenched in loneliness are less likely to make new friends. “When loneliness is functioning well, it pushes you to make a plan and meet new people. But when it becomes chronic, it does the opposite. Chronically lonely people discount the value of reaching out to others and show the people in their social networks nonverbal behaviors that suggest they want to be left alone. It becomes a dysregulated system.”
Sticking With the Program: Terell Cullum, 17, of Valley Stream, New York, planned to be participating in national competitions with his varsity track team in 2020. That hasn’t happened, but he's remained committed to the program, running on his local track every morning before online classes and again every afternoon. He and two other classmates, including Elias Bonhomme, at back above, have been hanging out together in person, but have avoided seeing larger groups face-to-face out of concern for unintentionally spreading the coronavirus to elderly members of their families. Cullum says that they've actually found some social freedom in the new limitations: “In school, there are always boxes, like, ‘Oh, you’re an athlete,’ and that’s all. There’s not enough room to expand yourself. Now I find more of myself in what I like to do, because I don’t have to be in one box. Since we’re virtual, I can plan my day around me.”
Connecting Around Covid
When the pandemic began, Ashley Daniel became active in an online gaming group in which she knew almost no one. “It was organized by one of my friends from college, and I had met some of the other people in it, but I didn’t know anyone well enough to say, ‘Hey, let’s hang out and get a beer,’” says the 27-year-old, who lives with her husband in Houston. “Fast-forward to the pandemic, and this group almost immediately became the Saturday night thing.”
After hours of virtual gaming nearly every week for more than eight months, she feels a real connection with her fellow players. “I know a lot about them, and we talk about personal things,” she says. “One person reached out and said, ‘We should go to concerts together, when that’s a thing again.’”
Video calls–and old-fashioned phone calls–have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, as people work to stay connected, but there are relatively few avenues for meeting new people right now. “Friendship depends so much on easy access, routine, and closeness that the idea of saying, ‘Today I’m going to make a friend,’ seems really out there. In normal circumstances, you meet a ton of people, learn the ones you enjoy spending time with, and then to a few of those, you say, ‘Let’s hang out outside of this environment,’” Hall says. “Online dating has become commonplace, but the idea of going on 30 friendship dates to winnow it down to one new friend–that has not taken hold.”
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, though, and three computer science students at Cornell have built a social platform called Quarantine Buddy to connect people with similar interests for virtual conversations. It has attracted thousands so far, from teens to seniors.
Still, it can be awkward to chat with a stranger at length without an activity to take the pressure off. That’s why online gaming groups have become so popular: Gamers spend a lot of time together while bonding over a shared activity. “The research is not really encouraging for the quality of those relationships over time, but they’re better than nothing,” Hall says.
For non-gamers, there are Zoom, FaceTime, and their ilk, and for those, experts say, we should be grateful. “Is it enough? Well, it has to be enough because that’s what we have now with the way things are,” says Pallathra, the co-author of Missing Each Other. “Eventually we’ll go back to having broader options. But for now, we can make our relationships work online, even though it’s not ideal. Think of it on a gradient: A video call might be more beneficial than a phone call, but a phone call is better than nothing. Even Facebook messaging can be good. But if you can manage an outdoor, distanced interaction, that’s probably best.”
Routine contact, in any form, is important for maintaining a friendship, Hall says, especially if we have meaningful conversations. That doesn’t necessarily imply intense or serious talks, though. Research shows that two forms of conversation are especially effective at bringing people closer: catching up and joking around. “Meaningful conversation does not have to be dire. It can be fun,” Hall says. “If we use this time to build routines with friends and family that are high-value, like checking in regularly, that is good news and we can hope that those routines will stay after the pandemic subsides.”
Some of the most powerful ways to connect can be achieved only in person, of course. Touch is the most effective bonding tool of all, Dunbar says, as it triggers endorphins that light up the brain’s reward system, giving us a social high. Importantly, touch also activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, calming us down and curbing our stress response. That’s why other primates spend so much time grooming each other, and why humans have evolved into a species of huggers.
But other behaviors trigger the endorphin system, too–especially laughing, singing, dancing, telling stories, and sharing a meal, although some translate to the virtual world better than others. The best? Singing, according to Dunbar. “It works like magic in face-to-face life,” he says, and since you don't really need to socially interact while doing it, singing can deliver good feelings online as well. “What gives you the buzz is the synchrony of it,” he says. After all, in a chorus, people typically stand in a line facing out, and don’t really see the people they're singing with. “Laughter is very good, too, but it’s harder to engineer. Physically being in the same room still makes a difference–it’s harder to tell a joke on Zoom.”
Evidence is emerging that people are putting in the effort to connect, even with all of today’s challenges. Florida State University researchers surveyed more than 2,000 people between the ages of 18 and 98 in late January, before the pandemic hit the U.S., and again in late March and late April, when stay-at-home policies had gone into effect. The data revealed no significant changes in loneliness; instead, people reported feeling more supported by others during the pandemic. Lead author Martina Luchetti speculated that knowing everyone was in the same boat might have mitigated the effects of isolation.
Humanity is a highly resilient species. A century ago, it withstood a similar trial during the Spanish Flu epidemic. “The human race wasn’t destroyed socially by the Spanish Flu, despite the fact that the effective shutdown–though less formal than today’s–was similar to what we’re seeing now,” Dunbar says. “When the pandemic ends, the first thing that will happen is that we will make a big effort to get our relationships back up and running.”
Jennifer Latson is the author of The Boy Who Loved Too Much.
Why Friendships Matter
Evidence for the significance of friends in our lives has been growing. In fact, because of changing demographics and evolving needs, friends almost have to play a more important role in our lives now. The good news is that they are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve.
A spouse or a grown child can’t be at the center of your life when you don’t have either, and around the world fewer people are marrying. But we can all value our friends if we want to, regardless of their or our marital, relationship, or parental status.
As Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has pointed out, the number of older people who need sustained help with the tasks of everyday life is growing rapidly, but the availability of family members who can care for them lags far behind. Today, many older people have no living spouse or grown children, and even those who do sometimes find that family are unable or unwilling to help. But they may have friends—and any friend willing to step in should be accorded all the benefits, protections, and accommodations typically accorded to a spouse.
During the pandemic, many people, particularly single people living alone, have missed seeing friends. Policymakers who designed rules to control the spread of the virus did not always acknowledge that until challenged to do better. When Australia was under quarantine in April, people who wanted to see their friends were told that it wasn’t a good idea and given a list of apps instead. Asked about romantic partners, though, the Chief Health Officer said, “We have no desire to penalize individuals who are staying with or meeting their partners if they don’t usually reside together. We’ll be making an exemption.” Single people successfully lobbied for change, forcing an acknowledgment of their own significance.
Values are changing, too. A study by Henri Santos and colleagues tracked the rise of individualism in 78 nations over a half-century, including the valuing of friends over the valuing of family. Their findings suggest that in 74 percent of the nations with relevant data, more people over time are valuing friends more highly, relative to how highly they value family.
The nuclear family has been on the decline for some time. It is being supplanted by all sorts of creative living arrangements, some of which put friends not just in our hearts but in our homes. The growing significance of friendship may well be one of the most important cultural changes of our time. —Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.
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