Digital technology has been an increasing part of our social lives for decades now, and it’s brought plenty of pros and cons to it. While quality social relationships are one of the biggest predictors of emotional and physical health, the definition of “quality” is sometimes at odds with our online behavior. But in the midst of COVID-19, technological connections have become more crucial than ever and can feel more like a lifeline than a supplement. For many during this time, they are the only option for family, friends, and coworkers to stay in contact at all.
But as anyone who has sat through a glitchy, awkward video conference knows, not all online interactions are created equal — and some can be downright stressful. Behavioral science has taught us quite a bit about how to maximize the quality of our social connections for the most emotional benefit, and in this time of living more of our lives online than ever, we can apply those same principles to our digital lives. Here are some ways to get the most out of your online interactions and be emotionally fulfilled by them, rather than being left drained.
Make fewer pronouncements, and ask more questions
One reason that social media interactions can leave people feeling unfulfilled is that the interactions themselves are often more passive than active. People scroll through idly, clicking “like” here and there, without really engaging in a back-and-forth, more organic conversation. The same is true when you spend time crafting the perfect pronouncement about your day, expecting approval rather than any true engagement. So, where you would have made a declaration, ask a question to get people talking instead. Where you would have just clicked “like,” make a comment that spurs another response.
Let yourself be vulnerable
Spending 20 minutes on the perfectly posed selfie (or the perfectly-imperfect photo of your kitchen table) may give you a brief mood boost, but it doesn’t typically let you feel more connected to others, as it is more of a narration of an experience than an experience itself. Ask yourself, are you doing more performing or more being? Are you doing more curating, or more connecting? Authentic interactions with others require at least a little bit of vulnerability. So why not let the “real” you show up a little more?
Aim for community
Loneliness is not just feeling disconnected from other individuals, but it is also feeling like you are detached from a sense of community. And COVID-19 has cut off not just individual in-person conversations, but it’s also taken away the usual opportunities to feel part of something bigger than yourself — what we previously got from simple greetings in an elevator or idle chit-chat with someone at the neighborhood coffee shop. So, seek out online experiences that make you feel part of something larger — from attending live concerts or trivia nights, to joining your neighborhood or apartment listserv or a social media group that reflects an interest of yours.
A fundamental reason why relationships and community are so emotionally meaningful is that they allow us to help each other. Not only does helping someone else make us more interconnected with them by building a mutually trusting relationship, it also gives us a mood boost as the helpers. Think about ways that the Internet can bring this about. From opportunities to donate time, money, or goods, to social media groups that highlight which local businesses could use support, to texting to check on an older neighbor, it’s a win-win when you use technology to support someone else.
Remember lower-tech options still exist
In this era of Zoom-everything, it’s easy to feel the pressure to constantly use video when in reality, sometimes a regular, old-fashioned phone call brings an intimacy all its own. It may bring clarity free from online glitches, or it just may allow you to let go of worrying about what your background (or hair!) look like. With all the apps and innovations, it’s still possible just to talk on a landline — and even watch a movie together or enjoy a cup of coffee while doing so. Don’t let advancements intimidate you into forgetting the old, perhaps more comfortable, options.
Take time to make the settings work for you
Different video conferencing platforms have different layouts and options. For many of us, having to see ourselves as we are talking is exhausting and even distressing, so play with the settings to change it. Take time to figure out ways to get most comfortable in with the position of your phone or laptop, and the screen arrangement of the people that you’re talking to. The more you can personalize it all to suit your own tastes, the more at ease you’ll be to enjoy yourself. And though it may take some extra time to do so, the investment is well worth it, as online meetings don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Understand your limits
One thing I’ve heard from my clients is that all this online socializing may sometimes get to be too much. Especially if you are more introverted, or feel weighed down by other professional or home responsibilities, that third Zoom happy hour this week may just be more than you feel like doing. It can be hard to say no when you don’t have a ready excuse — after all, where else do you have to be? But overburdening yourself past the point of feeling comfortable doesn’t do anyone any favors. So, be respectful of your limits, and say “no” when needed (“I’ll have to catch the next one — to be honest, I’m a bit burnt out on video conferences this week, but have fun!”).
Dr. Andrea is a psychologist and author of the upcoming book “DETOX YOUR THOUGHTS: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover the Life You’ve Always Wanted.” She has spent more than twenty years studying, teaching, and practicing the science of thoughts, emotions, and behavior. She has been interviewed by NPR, CNN, Today, and Good Morning America, and has been published by the New York Times, USA Today, Glamour, Self, and Refinery 29. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and lives in the Washington, DC area.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider.