In the rugged hilltop towns of central Sardinia, more people live past the age of 100 than almost anywhere else on Earth.
There are a variety of factors at play – good food, fresh mountain air and generous helpings of red wine help, as well as good genes.
But researchers who have studied the region say there is a more striking feature in these communities. The numerous, frequent face-to-face interactions form a pillar of island life: a kiss on the cheek, a hug or a handshake are hourly occurrences.
Those basic niceties seem like gold dust in the barren landscape of post-pandemic human interaction.
Faced with the threat of a deadly virus, the world has communicated for more than a year by phone, video call and text. For every interaction with friends or family, a piece of technology has inserted itself in between, providing us a representation of our favourite people, but always falling short of the real thing.
As the pandemic and lockdown trudged on, and Zoom fatigue began to set in, the longing for what those Sardinian villagers experienced every day grew stronger.
But what is it about face to face interaction that is so special, and what are we losing when we abandon it?
‘It does involve all the senses,’ says Dr. David Crepaz-Keay, head of social inclusion at the Mental Health Foundation.
‘Our relationship with each other, and our relationship with the world around us, is multisensorial. It is about the smell, it is about the feel, it is about all the sounds.
‘Great though the technology is, the images are flat and 2D – there’s no sense of the other person apart from seeing them and hearing their voice.’
While the scientific literature on the effects of mass online communication, like that which the pandemic has forced upon us, is sparse, there’s good evidence that in-person communication increases cooperation, helps foster a sense of solidarity and can even influence how well we learn.
Other studies have shown that the pupil of the human eye can convey an extraordinary amount of information, widening when aroused or undergoing mental effort, which others can pick up on without realising – something that easily becomes lost on a grainy Zoom call with a bad WiFi connection.
‘Our relationships with other people are so multi-dimensional, that your two inch or even seven inch screen doesn’t cut it in quite the same way [as face to face interaction],’ says Dr. Crepaz Keay.
One group that’s been hit particularly hard from the lack of in-person interaction is young people: in a Mental Health Foundation study, respondents in the 18 to 24 age range reported some of the highest levels of isolation and loneliness.
This can seem counterintuitive: why would some of the most online, social media adept groups feel the most isolated?
‘We think maybe that’s because their social networks aren’t as well established as older people,’ says Dr Crepaz Keay.
‘People in their 30s and 40s have social networks that have been established for quite some period of time, whereas younger people are much more fluid.
‘It seems they rely much more on that kind of face to face contact than we would have thought.’
It’s clear that the loss of face to face interaction, replaced with connective technologies like Zoom or FaceTime, can contribute to detrimental mental health – though it’s impossible to separate out from some of the more devastating consequences of the pandemic: an incalculable loss of human life, enormous job insecurity and mass fear.
But for many, being able to access technology provided a vital lifeline throughout the pandemic: access to mental health services, both professional and informal, that would have been impossible 20 years ago were now just a click away.
‘Delivering therapy via technology is highly effective, and just as effective as face to face,’ says Dr. Sarah Bateup, a trained therapist and clinical officer at online therapy provider Oliva.
‘There’s enough evidence of research that tells us it doesn’t really matter how you have therapy – technology is one method, but it’s equally as effective as in person.
‘What’s more important is the therapy – it’s all down to how effective the therapist is.’
When the pandemic started, says Bateup, many people dropped out of their therapy treatments, averse to the idea of moving their sessions online. But as the pandemic wore on, many patients returned to online therapy with their symptoms exacerbated by anxiety or depression.
The evidence for the effectiveness of online therapy is backed up by a number of studies. It seems that for activities with a specific function – like an hour of therapy – the effectiveness isn’t reduced by a lack of in person interaction.
‘In the therapy context, I think because you’ve got two people who are focused on doing a piece of work together, the patient and the therapist for an hour, and there’s a very clear function, it works,’ says Dr. Bateup.
But for more general situations, there might still be something lost: ‘I think most of us would say it’s not the same,’ adds Bateup.
‘Most of us are saying that we want to have a more and more blended life where we can see people and interact in a sort of the best business sense, but also have some time at home.’
One benefit of technology is its ease of use: there are many people who otherwise wouldn’t have therapy or who wouldn’t want to go to an in person session, that can choose online sessions instead.
That ease of connection has been a lifeline for many.
Andrew Harris, as the creator and moderator of a popular mental health support group on Facebook, has seen more than most at how the isolation of the pandemic has left people needing support.
‘We’ve found that everybody, whether they’re male, female, young or old, seems to be struggling a bit,’ says Harris.
‘They tend to come to places [like the group] so they can speak freely away from people on their newsfeed, because they can find it embarrassing to talk in front of their friends.’
It’s the semi-anonymous nature of the group, and the ease with which people can join, which has led to a level of support that might not exist without the social media giant.
‘They feel they can vent without worrying about judgement,’ says Harris.
‘There’s still a stigma – people think that others are going to think the worst of you for admitting that you’re struggling.’
Though the additional members can’t all be put down to the pandemic, Harris has seen a marked increase in group activity since the first lockdown in March 2020.
The technology may not be perfect, and we’re a still a ways off from having perfect 3D holograms of your nearest and dearest, but the benefits of being able to stay connected through the most isolated moments of the pandemic have been invaluable.
‘It’s absolutely clear that for a significant number of people digital connectivity has been a lifesaver,’ says Dr. Crepaz Keay of the Mental Health Foundation.
‘That’s not too much of an exaggeration to say, when it has been the thing that has kept people together while circumstances haven’t permitted anything else.’