According to the study, binge-watching a television show, cooking comfort foods and other “guilty pleasures” are just as fulfilling as intimate relationships and quality time with family.
Study co-author Professor Shira Gabriel is an expert in social psychology. She explained that the findings are particularly relevant today, as people are lacking direct social connections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think people realize that these non-traditional connections are as beneficial as we found in our research,” said Professor Gabriel. “Don’t feel guilty, because we found that these strategies are fine as long as they work for you.”
Study co-author and UB graduate student Elaine Paravati added that all of the non-traditional social strategies examined in the analysis predicted positive outcomes.
“People can feel connected through all sorts of means. We found that more traditional strategies, like spending time with a friend in person, doesn’t necessarily work better for people than non-traditional strategies, like listening to a favorite musician,” said Paravati. “In fact, using a combination of both of these types of strategies predicted the best outcomes, so it might be especially helpful to have a variety of things you do in your life to help you feel connected to others.”
For decades, Professor Gabriel has been studying the importance of non-traditional social strategies, such as reading fiction novels or settling in for hours of television drama.
While traditional social strategies, like interpersonal relationships or group memberships, have been extensively studied, they have never been empirically compared with non-traditional social strategies. The new study provides the first evidence that activities such as watching television and listening to music can be just as useful as other traditional means of fulfillment.
The research was focused on the responses of 173 individuals to questions about their well-being and social connections. The data was used to calculate a measurement inspired by previous research, which the team calls the “social fuel tank.”
“There’s a basic need for social connections, just as we have a basic need for food,” said Professor Gabriel. “The longer you go without those sorts of connections, the lower the fuel tank, and that’s when people start to get anxious, nervous or depressed, because they lack needed resources.”
“What’s important is not how you’re filling the social fuel tank, but that your social fuel tank is getting filled.”
The participants reported using as many as 17 different strategies to fulfill their social needs, including both traditional and non-traditional social strategies.
“This is especially relevant now, with social distancing guidelines changing the ways people connect with others,” said Paravati. “We can utilize these non-traditional strategies to help us feel connected, fulfilled, and find more meaning in our lives, even as we safely practice social distancing.”
“We live in a society where people are questioned if they’re not in a romantic relationship, if they decide not to have children, or they don’t like attending parties,” said Professor Gabriel. “There are implicit messages that these people are doing something wrong. That can be detrimental to them.”
“The message we want to give to people, and that our data suggest, is that that’s just not true.”
The study is published in the journal Self and Identity.