Coming Together While Apart

Empathy and community are themes in social distancing era.

These days, as the term “social distancing” has entered the public lexicon, and as people are forced to work remotely amid the COVID-19 public health crisis, we’re left to wonder about the long-term impact of staying home and virtual communication.

Cathy Chambliss, a professor of psychology, recently shared her thoughts on a podcast with KYW-AM reporter Matt Leon. “People tend to return to baseline, so it’s reasonable to expect that much of how we operate will go back to normal,” she says.

However, “How we work may have changed for good. For many of us, this pandemic period has proven we can work from home. It’s also proven we don’t want to. Withdrawing our freedom to live our normal lives has made that far more valuable,” she says.

Chambliss foresees a greater sense of unity. Recently, her research has focused on “freudenfreude,” which describes the joy people take in the successes of others. This important type of empathy protects us against depression. She and her students have found that freudenfreude increases dramatically when we nurture others, thereby becoming more deeply invested in their lives.

“Luckily, I don’t think social distancing will prevent the expansion of freudenfreude, because every day now, we are almost all being called upon to nurture others more than ever,” she says. “As we succeed, I hope we don’t lose the greater sense of community this weird period of social distancing has so ironically created. Who would have guessed that forced separation could bring us together?” –By Ed Moorhouse