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David Pace 0:01

Hi, my name is David Pace. 


Alex Barilec 0:05

And I’m Alex Barilec, and this is Pace Yourself, the University of Utah College of Science podcast on wellness. 


David Pace 0:13

So here we are, today we’re going to talk about social wellness. And so I’m going to start out, as we usually do, with the definition and the definition of social wellness that I’ve come up with or that I’ve pulled together means to develop a sense of connection, belonging and a well-developed support system. So I think we should start out with something that I think that’s going on on the macro scale, which is that we’re coming out of a pandemic, which I was pretty trying for a lot of us, and I don’t even think we knew how trying it was. And so let’s talk a little bit about loneliness and the disconnection that’s happened since we all went into lockdown. And now we’re actually trying to navigate that because we don’t even know what the future holds. But there has been a disconnection going on and a sense of loneliness, I think, on the macro level. 


Alex Barilec 1:09

Absolutely. And I love that you framed that way to start, David, because there’s a lot of different areas, Maybe even all of the areas of wellness were tested and tried through the pandemic and we went through this collective traumatic experience that nobody asked for or ever expected they might experience in their life. And I remember at one point seeing a graph about the different areas of wellness and how they, like peaked and spiked throughout time scales of the pandemic. And the one that came later in the pandemic was this social peace. There was just a really long tail of social wellness kind of being fragmented from lockdown and then really struggling to be rebuilt. And this actually prompted the surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, to craft this very long dossier titled The Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in Our Country. And I think that, you know, just kind of like we can’t ignore what’s going on. So we need to talk about like the rise in what he calls diseases of despair, which are anxiety and depression and loneliness and, you know, accidental death from overdose. Like all of these are at a place that have created this mental health crisis that is very widespread. And the report goes so far as to say that the effects of loneliness are like smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which was just totally, holy cow. Really. Yeah. And so this is something that’s kind of like invisible, right? And so hopefully today we can talk about, you know, maybe some of the areas and some of the populations that are really affected. But at the end of the day, we are social creatures and so we all have been affected by this and maybe in ways that as you say, that we’re still just beginning to understand. So hopefully we can give people some ideas of ways to start to rebuild, connection and rebuild community. And so for you, when you think about connection and community as it relates to social wellbeing, where do you usually start? 


David Pace 3:09

Well, it makes me wonder about what connection is and what family means. Really what’s happened for me the last 20 years of my life is that my birth family has become less important to me. That’s not my family in a sense now. And I’ve had to my wife and I together have had to create our own community. And I think that this happened during the pandemic as well on any number of levels. I mean, we suddenly found new communities online, for example, and those communities were critical. They were absolutely vital to keeping us, in a sense connected. So, I guess whenever I’m thinking about social connection, I think first about the terminology that I’m using because we can get locked into notions about, for example, what family is, is that just blood relations? Well, for many populations in this country, refugees, for example, people who have been discriminated against. And I think of, you know, when I was growing up in the coming of age in the eighties, the gay community was forming their own community and that was really interesting to watch because a lot of their families were ambivalent at best at their professed lifestyle. And I think that that is happening a lot in our very fragmented world is that it’s kind of like cable TV. You know, you pick the cable TV channel that reflects you and that you can relate to. And sometimes that’s bad because then, you know, you’re not hearing any information from the other side or from other communities. But yeah, it’s kind of followed that model. I think the cable TV model, which of course is not doing very well right now with streaming, but it’s kind of an interesting way to look at how we connect. We certainly connect through social media. And like I say, that was critical during the pandemic. And I was very grateful for it, as was my wife. 


Alex Barilec 5:25

Totally. I think that, you know, you draw a really good macro point about the change in social dynamics that have taken place over maybe the past 50 years. But that have been, you know, escalated since the pandemic and really since the introduction of the iPhone and social media and information technology on a mass scale over the past 15 years. And something that I think that we used to default to was we used to live in small tribes and groups, and we had our community, our family, and, you know, whether or not we liked them or got along or had common interests or not, we were kind of stuck together more or less. And so now we’re in the opposite end of that spectrum. Like we have ultimate choice. We have, you know, online communities and in person communities. But sometimes that can be really overwhelming because we can choose any which way. How do you possibly choose? And one of the first places that I think about starting when rebuilding connection and community in my life is setting intentional time carved out in my day to just get to know people that I’m interested in better not letting it be like the default like it used to, and really thinking, okay, what are some ways in which I can be intentional about this? And I love how you said that you and your wife really started to have this blossom for you during the pandemic. What were some of the ways that you went about creating a connection or engaging with these communities that were were interesting to you? How did you start doing that? 


David Pace 6:56

Well, we were forced to do it for one thing. So but even even when we were forced to go online, we had to also make, like you say, intentional decisions about, actually we had to do an inventory, quite frankly, of who our friends were and who our family was, and really make appointments to talk to people. And what was interesting is that our friend base, our community actually expanded in a curious way, which would not have happened without the Internet. So we were talking to people in England, you know, friends, high school friends from my wife’s side of the family that we hadn’t talked to at any length because they lived in England until we got online. So we would spend an hour with these folks, you know, living in Suffolk County. So, I mean, I think the point for us was that we also saw friends that we didn’t didn’t know we might have, like, for example, people in our own neighborhood. I mean, I lived in New York for a while, and the value of living in New York City was that you had a lot of contact with people all the time. You couldn’t get away from it. And so I found that, you know, our next door neighbors, we became really close in terms of, you know, what they were doing and how they were coping and how their kids were doing. And because they were there. And we could meet each other outside, six feet apart, of course. And yeah, so that’s that’s how we managed through it. But I actually I want to know how you did it as well, because I think that there was some residual effects to not having those standard contacts even with the grocery store people, you know, or the mailman or the mailwoman that we are still suffering from a little bit. We’re finding that we we now that we are reintegrating, that we have to really be intentional about the friendships that we want to keep up with in person. It’s a different animal. I don’t know, hw did you guys do it? Yeah, because you did it right after you moved here, right? Isn’t that were the…


Alex Barilec 9:20

I had been here for about three years, but my wife had only been here for about a year. 


David Pace 9:28

So she’s faced with the pandemic in a new space, right? 


Alex Barilec 9:31

Yeah. We were fortunate that we had roommates at the time, very good friends of ours who were the godparents of their children. And, you know, there’s a couple of things that you’re saying that, you know, helped us develop deeper relationships with those individuals, but others in our community as well. And that’s the idea of common interests is is one thing. I think the other, though, is this way of showing up in relationship. And I want to talk briefly about both of those. So when I think about interests, I have different groups or different individuals in my life that help me to explore different things I’m interested in. So like I have a group of people that I like to ski with, I have different people that I like to see live music with. I have others that will sit down and have really deep philosophical questions and discussions with me. I have others that I can talk about books I’m reading with or others that I talk about running with. So I will think of this phrase sometimes like, don’t go to the hardware store for milk. Like no one would ever do that. Right? Or maybe there’s a hardware store that has milk out there that’s going to make me eat my words. But the point is, there are certain people in our lives that maybe we go to for social connection in certain areas that are not actually the best match like there are gentlemen, that I love to ski with that I would never and have never really had deep philosophical conversations with. They’re wonderful people to do one thing with, they’re not wonderful to do something else with. So that’s the first area is just thinking about the structure and the interests that we have. And then the other is how we show up in relationship. And I think that this is the challenging part that we’re still learning maybe as like a muscle to restrengthen after the pandemic. Is it it takes risk in putting yourself out there and being vulnerable and daring to go first in relationship to really develop that deep bond that we are all hardwired for. And I think that that’s kind of the foundation, but that’s also kind of the tricky or the scary part about developing deeper relationships and social connections. 


David Pace 11:50

And yet it’s it’s absolutely critical. I mean, Brené Brown, who we’ve quoted before, says that it’s neurobiologically in there. That’s like you say, is how we’re wired that’s why we’re here is to connect. So my question for you is what causes disconnection other than the pandemic? What’s causing it now? 


Alex Barilec 12:13

So when I was going through and just doing some research on the Surgeon General’s epidemic of loneliness and isolation, he talks a lot in there about social media, actually, and how particularly in the age range of 15 to 24 right now, this cohort of beautiful young souls are engaging 70% less in person than at, you know, different times in the past few decades. So that’s a massive reduction. And they have these four graphs. And if anybody’s interested in checking this out, it’s really a robust resource to help you understand what’s going on socially. They have these four charts and they’re showing decreases in interaction with different groups. And one of them stood out to me immediately, the friend, the time with friends over the past like ten years just plummets, falls off the chart. 


David Pace 13:06

You’re talking person to person. 


Alex Barilec 13:08

Yes. Spending young people spending time with their friends like that, time has just plummeted. And that’s a really important age to be engaging with your friends, to be learning, exploring the world more, and so. 


David Pace 13:21

Getting into trouble, toilet papering your neighbor’s house, all of that is just incredibly important part of our social I mean, I just remember remembering growing up in the seventies, that was just hours and hours and hours with people. 


Alex Barilec 13:36

Yeah. And those are just times that, you have an opportunity to, you know, push your boundaries to explore, to learn about each other. I think some of the people I have the most deep relationships with in my life are the people that I’ve gone through the hardest challenges with. And this can look really differently, right? It could be people that I’ve gone on backcountry ski trips with. It can be people that I’ve talked to about challenges in my life. It can be people that I’ve helped through other challenges or we have some really good friends who just moved to Utah and I moved here, you know, seven years ago and I know what it’s like to move all the way across the country, and it’s really not easy. But I can already see that we’re developing a closer bond. And so it’s those opportunities to learn and grow together. And I want to come back to your question, what gets in the way of this? Like really that screen time, that phone time. I think really is one of the biggest hurdles for us to engage with intentionally in this report. They talked about how people that use social media for 2 hours or more a day were 50% more likely to report feeling lonely than people who use social media 30 minutes or less 


David Pace 14:53

We’re really talking about the shallow side of social media because we were earlier talking about how it connected us all in new ways. But there’s a there’s a flip side to it. 


Alex Barilec 15:03

Yeah, and, you know, the pandemic was something that was novel, right? The word novel was probably used a million times. And it was a novel experience for all of us. And that technology, I mean, I’d never used Zoom before the pandemic, and I can vividly remember sitting in my room with my wife and like 20 other friends from college, just checking in on each other, you know, making sure the world wasn’t flipped upside down because it sure felt like it. But as time has gone on and things have, you know, slowly open and grown and changed, I think we need to remember that we are social beings at are nature. And we have always been and lived in close proximity in small tribes. And there haven’t been like real biological changes in human beings in like 50,000 years. 


David Pace 15:49

50,000 yeah.


Alex Barilec 15:50

Need to be in social contact with one another in-person. We have mirror neurons that are literally built for this. And so, yeah, it is a wonderful tool in many ways, but we have to use it as a tool. Like we don’t carry a hammer around all day long, right. Because everything’s not a nail in the same way that social media is useful, it also can be a real barrier to actual genuine, vulnerable social connection, I think. 


David Pace 16:16

Yeah, And when your hammer is the only tool you’ve got, you’re going to just pound everything, right? So you need more than one tool. 


Alex Barilec 16:24

Something like that. So, you know, there’s other aspects here. And some of the the tools that we were talking about were strategies actually from the NIH that they’re sharing with people across a wide swath of communities to think about rebuilding social connection. And one of those, David, was developing healthy boundaries. Tell me a little bit about how that’s shown up for you in ways in which you found that useful in your life. 


David Pace 16:52

Well, yeah, because there’s I mean, there’s a shadow side to everything I guess, and connecting has its own risks. One of those is if you don’t have proper boundaries and you’ve got a toxic individual in your life, you’re going to be troubled by that. I’m reminded of a quote from the poet Maya Angelou. Let’s see if I can get this right. When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe them. And so people are going to say and perform whatever they’re going to say and perform. And that’s very different than how they behave. And I don’t know, maybe it is media, but I have the tendency to believe what I want to believe about somebody, you know, And so I’m willing to give them one chance, two chances, five hundred and thirty two chances before I finally figure out that they’re bad for me or that I need to jettison them, but that I have to have a really strong boundary that I’m not willing to move for them. So, yeah, I mean, I think it’s the phrase is heaven is other people, hell is other people too. And so you have to kind of keep that in mind. So yeah, in terms of my own ability to draw boundaries, I’m a classic codependent. I’ll admit it. I actually go to a support group for that very reason because I inappropriately attempt to take care of other people in the room. If I’m on a bus and somebody doesn’t look happy, I feel responsible for that. You know, I mean, that’s being kind of extreme, but that’s the classic codependent. So I have to be really careful about that. And I have to keep in mind that connecting can be toxic as well. And but I think also there’s a very emotional we were talking about emotion in the earlier podcast and what unravels connection I think on the emotional level is this fear of disconnection and shame, quite frankly, that if somebody finds out who you are, really, they’re going to be disgusted by you or find that you’re not worthy of connection. And so there’s some work that we have to do there as well. And that’s definitely an inside job. It’s not just about picking up the phone and making a date with somebody. It’s about feeling like you are worthy of connection. And one of the biggest problems that happens after someone dies in your life, some close person, is that you get very possibly depressed and that can settle in very quickly to some of us who, you know, the imposter syndrome, if you will. So I’d like to actually talk a little bit more about that. How do we keep from unraveling our connections by feeling more emotionally healthy? 


Alex Barilec 20:07

Yeah, well, you know, as a people pleaser myself, I can very much relate. You know, to what you’re sharing. 


David Pace 20:14

And vulnerability is scary, too. And you have to be vulnerable to be connected. Right? 


Alex Barilec 20:19

You do. And so when you think about, you know, imposter syndrome or being vulnerable and leaning in, one of the things that I like to think about is this kind of a mantra. I’m thinking about putting myself out there and developing new relationships with people and cultivating intentionally. A social support network is, Do I feel trusted and supported, and do I see that the person that I am engaging with really wants the best for me? And I think one of the best ways to do that is through people that celebrate your successes, like people that want to see you be successful, those people are just magnetic in our world. And so when we think about being vulnerable, if you think, hey, if this person celebrates me for the good things I’m doing, that’s a really good sign of a healthy individual and someone that you might be able to develop a healthy relationship with. And you talked earlier about boundaries. And I think I want to come back to that for a second because boundaries with unhealthy people are super important, but you can also have boundaries with healthy people as well, because something we are talking about with the emotional wellness piece was you had to be a friend to yourself first and that looks like protecting your time and making sure you’re taking care of yourself so you can extend yourself to others. And one of the tools for people that are maybe like, okay, David, Alex, I know I need to say no, but I don’t know how to do it is there’s two tricks that I use. One, I often won’t say the word no. If someone’s like, Hey, do you want to grab drinks or do you want to come out with some of us after work and be like, you know what, I’d love to, but I’ve got this commitment tonight to my wife or to my friends. I’d love to join you next time. I didn’t use the word no at all, right? I was like, I would love to, but it’s not going to happen today. The other thing that I use is remembering to separate the no from the individual. So saying no to an experience or an opportunity or time is not personal. It’s not saying no to you, David. It’s saying no to this time together with remembering and keeping in mind that there is a yes in the future. So those are two things that I think are tools that I like to bring to my mind as mantras for developing healthy social connections. 


David Pace 22:38

Now to piggyback on that as we close out here, I think that with really aggressive people sometimes no is a complete answer. You should not feel obligated to explain yourself. And sometimes I’ve had to do that. And that’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s much better to be able to do, you know, keep it civil, if you will, because it feels uncivil to say no. Having said that, yes is also a complete sentence. So let’s all say yes as often as we can and know when needed. 


Alex Barilec 23:14

Yes, it is. And so, you know, like we’ve done with many of these other episodes, I think we like to, you know, have a wide ranging application of tools and ideas. But I always like to boil it down to if you take nothing else from this, if you’re still having a challenge of strengthening your ability to create strong social connections, I think there I would say a few things. One is just continue to take small steps every day. Like, you know, maybe it’s just asking somebody in passing a little bit more than, how’s your day going? Or the reverse is true. And I love to do this for people when they ask, How are you doing? I love to actually tell them and maybe like in a shortened frame, but I don’t just say good. I actually tell them like, you know what, I’m feeling a little this today. I’m feeling great or I’m feeling a little afraid. So taking small steps in conversation. But if you’re thinking of, developing the social skills, and these are skills. So for people that might be more introverted, which I actually happen to be one of them, I might be social, but I’m actually quite introverted. These are skills to develop and those skills look like being curious, actually listening deeply, not just listening to respond. A magic trick is asking open ended questions. So like who, what, where? Those questions will elicit a lot of information and people love to talk about themselves. And the final thing is really, I think people that are ready to take the next step is risk sharing a little bit more about yourself.


David Pace 24:46

And like Brené Brown says, and we like to quote her on occasion; vulnerability, which is what’s keeping us from connecting the fear of vulnerability is not a weakness, but it is our greatest measure of courage in the end. So do you have anything else to say to sign off here? 


Alex Barilec 25:05

You know, in the end, we really do need each other. When I find myself, you know, confused or maybe not feeling great about the world around me, I sometimes just come back to what we were talking about in emotional wellness is just like remembering to be kind because everyone is fighting a battle that we don’t know what it looks like on their internal world or, you know, in so many different ways. But at the end of the day too, like, what are we doing here on this planet to get all existential, right? Like, we’re all here together and we really need one another to figure it out and to steward a better future that our hearts know is possible and reconnecting with one another with those those things in mind, I think, is just the basic levels of human love and kindness. 


David Pace 25:54

Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s not only neuro-biological, but it’s let’s say it, it’s also a spiritual practice that we do every day. So nicely done. I hope you like me today because I like you. 


Alex Barilec 26:08

Always a pleasure, David. 


David Pace 26:09

All right. We’ll talk to you next time. 


Alex Barilec 26:11

Take care.