Excited more about spending a lazy day in at home, than a crazy night out with friends? Well, you’re not alone.
The last few years have seen some seismic societal shifts, from attitudes towards work to our social lives.
In the post-pandemic era, with lockdowns and safety restrictions lifted, nearly half of Americans are still socializing less than in pre-pandemic times.
According to a survey of 2,000 eligible voters in the U.S. conducted for Newsweek in January by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, 42 percent said they are “less sociable” than they were in 2019, while 37 percent said their friends are less sociable now.
So what’s caused this stripping back of social interactions and is it making us more or less happy? Is socialization in America—as we know it—on its way out for good?
Socialization Has Been Declining for Decades
While the pandemic has brought it to the forefront, socialization has been on the decline for longer than you might think, according to Robert D. Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
Putnam—a political scientist and retired Harvard University professor—writes in the book that both visiting friends and having them over has been declining since the 1970s. Putnam also notes a survey by Yankelovich Partners that concluded “the readiness of the average American to make new friends” declined by nearly a third by the 1990s.
Both in 2000 and two decades later in 2020, the author said “visits with friends” was on “the social capital endangered species list.”
According to a January 2023 survey of 3,416 adults in the U.S., conducted by market research firm CivicScience, less than half (43 percent) socialize with friends in person on a daily or weekly basis. Nearly a fifth said they do so less than monthly (19 percent) or rarely/never (16 percent).
Socializing at your local neighborhood bar is also “becoming a thing of the past,” Putnam wrote. He said the frequency with which Americans (both married and single) went out to bars, nightclubs and the like dropped by around 40 to 50 percent over the last decade or two.
Being Flaky Is Now ‘Socially Acceptable’
These trends have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The experience of COVID has made it easy for people to become less reliable simply because at one point, it was the ‘norm’ to not be social and/or not show up or follow through with plans,” Stephanie Robilio, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) at the Agape Treatment Center in Florida, told Newsweek.
Life coach Sam Whittaker agreed that for some it has “been easier to use COVID as an excuse not to go out.”
The pandemic led to “self-discoveries,” Whittaker said, be it a new hobby or realizing that being “a social butterfly” is not as important any more.
“But not everyone can tell their social circle these reasons, so they use COVID as an excuse because it is more socially understandable and acceptable,” he explained.
The Other Thriving ‘Infection’ of the Pandemic: Mental Health
However, increased isolation has brought some unwelcome side effects. Newsweek‘s latest poll found that 30 percent of Americans believe they are more anxious now than they were in 2019, and 36 percent say their overall life is in a worse state now.
Dr. Olalekan Otulana, a general practitioner and addiction specialist physician from the Addiction Advocates group based in the U.K., told Newsweek: “It is no secret that social isolation has a hugely negative impact on developing confidence levels.”
According to a March 2022 report by the World Health Organization, the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide increased by “a massive 25 percent” in the first year of the pandemic.
After nearly two years of us not leaving our homes and “losing the freedom to hug our most loved ones,” this naturally took a toll on a vast proportion of the global population, Otulana said.
Social anxiety—a fear of social situations in which people anticipate negative evaluations by others or think that their presence will make others feel uncomfortable—is a “fast-growing phenomenon,” noted a September 2020 study in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.
The study said “a lifetime prevalence of SAD [social anxiety disorder] of up to 12 percent has been reported in the U.S.” But the actual figure may be higher than current estimates suggest, with a “substantial” proportion of people living with undiagnosed SAD.
Levels of social anxiety may also be rising due to the prevalence of social media.
In the U.S., the average daily time spent on social media was reported to be two hours and three minutes, as of 2022, according to data compiled by Statista, the market and consumer data online platform.
The aforementioned PLOS One study said research has shown that “greater social media usage, increased digital connectivity and visibility, and more options for non-face-to-face communication are associated with higher levels of social anxiety.”
Some studies have suggested that interactions via social media “may displace some face to face relationships,” as people experience “greater control and enjoyment online,” which can lead to social isolation.
Research has shown that “humans are hardwired for connection,” Robilio told Newsweek. But as social isolation became a prominent part of many lives, especially in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, “the solitude that we may sometimes crave as humans became more of a burden, posing an unwarranted weight of social anxiety upon people who may have never felt that way before,” Otulana said.
“Since this anxiety had time to develop and thrive like an infection, the back and forth between not being able to face socializing due to anxiety and having anxiety due to lack of socialization begins and trying to escape the cyclical nature of it all becomes increasingly difficult,” the physician said.
Following a year or two of being isolated, “it is common for depression to take over, which is draining, leads to exhaustion and has left many no longer knowing what to talk about or how to connect in person,” Robilio said.
‘The Increase in Food, Gas, and Services Is One of the Main Reasons Some People Prefer to Stay at Home’
Concerns about money also have an impact on how much Americans socialize.
“The pandemic has brought some devastating effects to fellow Americans, such as losing jobs and businesses,” Whittaker said. “The prices of commodities such as food, gas, and services all increased, which is one main reason why some people prefer to stay at home rather than go out.”
A January 2023 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the consumer price index for all urban consumers rose by 6.5 percent in the year to December 2022. This includes the price of “recreation,” which increased by 5.1 percent.
The first few months of the pandemic also saw record saving by Americans, many of whom who were spending less than usual because of COVID restrictions.
According to the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, “Saving nearly tripled over the first two quarters of 2020, from $1.59 trillion annualized in the first quarter to $4.69 trillion in the second. This was by far the biggest increase in modern history.”
Is Socializing Less Making Us Unhappy or Happier?
Timothy Lyons, director of clinical services at TMS & Brain Health, a brain health center based in Los Angeles, told Newsweek: “There’s an argument to be made that happiness is a passive experience that happens to us, rather than something we expect to achieve. That is a far cry from the implication that we can experience happiness by going after it.
“I think a lot of people look for happiness in social settings, and they assume that participation is the key to it, but they end up less happy in spite of those intentions,” he added.
Lyons said people assume that “less isolation should equal less depression, thus more happiness, but that’s not necessarily how it works.”
He said: “It’s difficult to attribute causality from socialization or lack thereof and the ensuing happiness that can result from this,” adding that it depends on the context and perspectives at play because the pandemic changed what socializing meant for different people.
“When it comes to whether it’s unhappiness decreasing sociability, versus antisocial tendencies increasing unhappiness, it’s a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum–both phenomena have the ability to feed into one another…because individuals differ in what makes them happier as well as what makes them more social,” he said.
Holly Traver, a lecturer at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told Newsweek that socializing with others and feelings of happiness are “closely intertwined.”
While it cannot be definitively stated that one causes the other, researchers believe “the quality of social relationships does impact happiness,” said Traver, who teaches positive psychology, the psychology of mindfulness, social psychology and industrial/organizational psychology at the institute.
Traver agreed with Lyons in that the answer to the “chicken or the egg conundrum” is that “both are correct.”
Staying home became the norm during the pandemic and people adapted to that “new normal.” But this impacted people’s overall mood and emotions, with more feeling anxious and depressed, and having fewer positive emotions.
“When people are unhappy, they don’t feel like doing anything including going out, visiting friends or even being around others. This has really become a vicious negative cycle for some people,” the lecturer said.
Physician Otulana said: “The longer this cycle goes on, the harder it gets to find a way out which can even have negative physical effects.”
Among the studies done on loneliness, some have concluded that there is “a higher risk of heart disease and dementia,” that comes with loneliness, which only makes “the intensity of the anxiety stronger,” he said.
“No matter the reason that the cycle began, unhappiness is undoubtedly a by-product of not being sociable, among any other obstacles everybody encounters throughout life. You can’t ignore the impact that lockdowns and staying away from human interaction had on the ability to socialize naturally, which is probably why the decrease in happiness and sociability began to decline after 2019,” he added.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Given we are where we are now, how can America improve how it feels?
Traver said firstly, people need to “boost positive emotions so they feel like doing things.”
This can look like a variety of activities, from engaging in a mindfulness meditation practice or a physical activity to going for walks outside, reminiscing about fun vacations or outings with family and friends, keeping “a gratitude journal” and smiling more.
“When people engage in these practices to boost their positive emotions, they will want to do more activities and interact more with others. Interacting more with others will, in turn, raise positive emotions…,” she said.
Jackie Ruka, who describes herself as a “professional happyologist and certified Harvard trained success coach,” told Newsweek: “Surrounding yourself with people who lift you up, show care and kindness has a much more profound effect on one’s well-being. They say one happy person affects a thousand. Therefore, one good connection, friend or loved one, has a socially positive degree on another.”
Citing the results of a March 2022 study in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Ruka noted that “spending time with others by choice has the power to fill people with the greatest degree of happiness.”
On the flip side, one of the “lowest degrees of happiness” occurs when you’re “in the company of others not by choice,” said Ruka, who is also the author of Get Happy and Create a Kick-Butt Life!
The author said the findings of Harvard’s long-term study on human happiness suggested that “the key to a good life is a strong correlation of deep relationships” and “long term connection, regardless of the type.”
She added: “Who you see or connect with more regularly that energizes you, may have you socializing less with more people and socializing more deeply with the one you choose more regularly.”
Lyons believes it’s important that we begin to engage in “pro-social behaviors that contribute to feelings of contentment rather than happiness.”
He explained: “Since happiness is a fleeting experience that becomes difficult to replicate, perhaps if we can shoot for contentment, we’ll meet those objectives more often.”
This means that if “being a socialite isn’t your calling,” you can still achieve contentment by looking after yourself. This can mean practicing regular exercise, self-care, your favorite hobby or even your work is a good place to start if it’s something you enjoy. “It really depends on the individual,” he said.
If you have a similar dilemma, let us know via email@example.com. We can ask experts for advice, and your story could be featured on Newsweek.