Episode 5: Social Engagement



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

Hello and welcome to a special series of the LiveWell Podcast called six feet apart. This is about how to take care of your emotional and social and physical well-being while physically distancing from one another. In other words, how we must act now during the COVID-19 pandemic. My name is Dr. Wendy Slusser, Associate Vice Provost at the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, and I hope you can join us as I interview leaders from around the world about how we can maintain our emotional, social, and physical well-being during these unprecedented times. Today, I’ll be chatting with UCLA Professor of Psychology Dr. Ted Robles. He’s also the Semel HCI EngageWell Pod Co-Leader, we’ll be talking about the psychological impact of quarantine, and how to stay socially engaged while you are six feet apart. So Dr. Ted Robles, thank you so much for coming on to the LiveWell Podcast Special Edition around social well-being and the ramifications of our social well-being in light of our Coronavirus pandemic. You’re an incredible leader for all of us in this subject of social well-being, in academics, and also on our campus as a co-lead of the EngageWell Pod for our Semel HCI Center at UCLA. And I think in light of this pandemic, our social well-being is critical to be cognizant of supporting and we’d like to hear your wisdoms today, so that all of us can manage our current social well-being, and also our long term social well-being in light of what we’re experiencing, which many of us are doing self-quarantining or even being quarantined or being isolated if you are in a hospital with this and you’ve been diagnosed and under treatment for COVID-19.


Dr. Ted Robles  01:57

Thanks for having me on. It’s just unbelievable what kind of unprecedented times we’re living through. And of all the things that have brought this issue of, you know, social isolation and disconnection to public awareness, it’s kind of, this has really brought it into sharp focus, I think over the last couple of weeks. So on one hand, none of us would like to be in this situation at all, and especially the first responders and physicians and patients, obviously. And it’s also potentially an opportunity for us to kind of, you know, with all difficult times grow a little bit closer together and figuring out how to do that is what we all have to do. You know, I keep hearing meeting the moment the term that our governor has been using a lot and it definitely applies in this social well-being space.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:44

And I’d like our listeners to understand what precisely social well-being is compared to emotional well-being. How do you define social well-being?


Dr. Ted Robles  02:53

Well, the way we think of it is the number and quality of the connections that you have with other people. So it’s not the case that if you have 1,000 followers on Instagram that you have really high social well-being. But if you have good quality, close relationships with people who you can talk to, who you can trust, people that you feel close to, people that can do things for you, and that you can do things for, doesn’t have to be 100 people, it doesn’t even have to be maybe 50 people, but playing different roles for different people in the world and having these sort of mutual exchange of support in all its forms. If you have those things you have really good social well-being.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:38

So to summarize that it’s like if you have supportive relationships and love in your life. Is that it kind of a good summation of what you’re describing?


Dr. Ted Robles  03:47

Yeah, absolutely. And people that you can do things with, people that you feel like you can trust, not just romantically, of course, but friendships, co-workers, neighbors and relatives.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:59

Do dogs count?


Dr. Ted Robles  04:01

Dogs definitely count. There is a really interesting study showing that if you are, a  classic thing we do in psychology research is have people give speeches in front of unfriendly audiences. And if you do that with your pet, you have smaller blood pressure responses compared to when you don’t. So yeah, pets count, at least dogs do.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:19

Um, is that cause I’ve heard they have compassion.


Dr. Ted Robles  04:23

So, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot through all of this is the idea that we’re social beings. And our brains are sort of wired to be social, which means that we are designed to operate where we have close others people that we can trust near us around us, sources of warmth, sources of support, and yeah, a pet can do all those things. So because of that, that’s probably one of the reasons, in addition to the cardiovascular fitness that you get from walking your pet; that’s one of the reasons why we think maybe pets have these benefits.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:54

What concerns me is the baseline. Right, when we call a community resilient it means that some people are coming in with higher social well-being than others. And one of the parts that you described as a higher social well-being in people that have people you can confide in or rely on, and the data that I’m aware of was like 25%, or one out of four Americans don’t. They didn’t start out with that kind of baseline. So, one of the other aspects you just described about social well-being is being able to give to others that gives some people a sense of well-being. What would you recommend if you are in a community where you know that there were some isolated people that maybe didn’t have this kind of infrastructure of relationships and partnerships?


Dr. Ted Robles  05:45

Well, one of the things that has been sort of a blessing in this time is that we live in an age where you can reach out to people and connect with them more so than you ordinarily would be able to. So, let’s just think about neighborhoods for example. As amusing as the Nextdoor app typically is, when you are sort of reporting on neighbors that are doing unsavory things, it’s also a way to reach out to people who are literally, potentially just a block down from you, which we didn’t really have before. And in this era, where it’s really hard to actually get out of the house and go up to someone’s house, or to someone’s apartment, there are now ways facilitated through technology that you can learn about someone who might be in need, and then you can reach out. If there was anything that I think is sort of the most important thing in these times, it’s to find ways to think about other people and what they’re going through. And there’s all sorts of ways we can do that now. I’ve seen on Twitter, for instance, people saying, you know, I am isolated, or it’s my birthday, and I have no one to spend it with. And they are actually getting people sort of providing support, wishing happy birthday, and you know, maybe one out of those 100 interactions leads to something, but it’s one more than there used to be the day before. And so you know, we’ve talked a lot about the challenges and threats that come from social networking and social media, and this is presenting a really interesting time where that actually is a great tool that we can make use of.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:17

Yeah, that neighborhood app actually helps me find my dog that had been taken from in front of CVS Pharmacy while I was printing some photographs for my husband.


Dr. Ted Robles  07:27

Oh wow.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:28

And I think shamed whoever had taken the dog.


Dr. Ted Robles  07:31



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:31

To inform the store that the dog had been left at the shelter. But yeah, it was a moment of togetherness because I was sobbing in front of CVS. Coming out, finding, discovering my dog was gone, and so many people hugged me. This is before the coronavirus epidemic, or pandemic, but anyway, would I love those hugs now.


Dr. Ted Robles  07:56



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:57

Miss those hugs. You know, one of the things that I’m curious about is that, you know, there is research that shows, of course, that social well-being is one of the strongest predictors of positive health. So it’s paramount that all of us, in this day and age where we want to stay healthy, that this pandemic is raising the bar to where health is equivalent to wealth in our countries.


Dr. Ted Robles  08:20

Yeah, absolutely.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  08:20

Or supersedes it. What do we do in this situation that we can help promote our own personal social well-being and others.


Dr. Ted Robles  08:29

So it’s interesting, because this is, again, another time where if we needed to think about others, to preserve our own personal health, this is that time. And so the way I think about it is like this. There’s a couple of these, these are preprints. So, they’re sort of research still in the early stages where they’ve done surveys of individuals, and these are all cross sectional. So you know, who knows if this would hold up. But across three different surveys, I think one was in the US and two were in Germany. People who reported like thinking more about others, they were more likely to endorse that they intended to stay in the house, basically. So that they intended to do the things that are being asked of them in terms of staying home and not going out as much. And the people who were less inclined to think about others were…they were more inclined to, at least report, that they’re not going to heed those messages as much. And I think a lot of the positive, more effective messages that I’m seeing from public health departments focus on let’s do this together. We’re in this together. Let’s help stop this pandemic together. Really emphasizing that you’ve got to think about your neighbor who’s not necessarily older but who has a chronic medical condition and what the consequences of you’re not listening to the orders to shelter in place or stay at home. Like, what are the consequences for that other person? What are the consequences for your friend who’s a physician who is on the front line and is already overwhelmed. Do you want to add to that? And I think really the biggest thing for in terms of public health, and we can talk more about what happens, you know, in terms of when UCLA gets back into session and later. But in terms of public health, keeping other people in mind is really, really critical. It’s very easy to become self-interested in this time and the challenges is how do you make sure you’re doing things that are for the long term benefit of everybody and thinking about other people is really critical.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  10:28

That’s really a wise and compassionate suggestion. I’m thinking that it’s almost like a checklist. My experience with preparedness, working with California State of Maternal and Child Health, preparedness is that you have to take care of yourself and your family first, and then you can take care of others. And that’s the advice for first responders. In light of the fact that this is a public health emergency, I think we need to be considering all of us as first responders. That we all have the capacity to make a difference to each other. And so being selfless, or being you know, as you so nicely shared with us this wonderful, quick, rapid review article that I’d like us to move on and talk about. But the appeals to altruism, I think is a critical piece that this group of researchers that wrote this article describes. This article is called The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence, and it was published in Lancet. Can you summarize this article and say what your thoughts are on it?


Dr. Ted Robles  11:38

Yeah, sure. So this was an attempt by these researchers, who actually don’t know, to kind of look at all the available literature that exists on the psychological impacts of quarantine. And in particular, they use a specific definition of quarantine which is, “if you’re sick, being separated from others,” which they distinguish from isolation which is, “if you’re in contact with sick people, you need to stay away from others as well.” So it is a very specific context, right, where it’s people who are sick and what they should do to minimize their exposure to other people. And so, while that doesn’t generalize to like, your experience or my experience right now, it’s very similar, because we’re not supposed to have close contact with other people. And so, what they did is they reviewed both the qualitative literature and then also really large studies. I was really impressed to see that there were studies of several 1000 people. And they wanted to see what were the impacts on emotional well-being: symptoms of depression, symptoms of PTSD, and what predicts how people are going to do? So, are there certain factors, like demographics, that matter, or what we might call individual differences that matter, like personality factors and that kind of thing. So, I think one of the takeaways was that probably the big sociodemographic factor that’s important is that if you’re under resourced in some way, quarantine is going to be much more challenging. So, if you’re lower income, have less access to resources, and also if you come into the experience with pre-existing mental health concerns. So, if you have a history of depression or previous trauma exposure, those are going to be things that are going to put you at greater risk for more psychological harm from the quarantine experience. And then they go through to describe factors that could potentially promote, you know, doing well. So, shorter quarantines matter. Having access to resources, so making sure you have sufficient supplies to get you through the quarantine. But also, they do talk a little bit about the motivations for quarantine being important, and if you can appeal to altruism, that might be a really important factor in helping people keep motivated to stay away from others. And so, even though this situation is a little bit different, these are people who are actively sick. Although not, I guess, now that I realize that some of these larger studies included people who were subject to quarantine, but they weren’t actually sick. The broader point for all of us right now is that there are things that can make shelter in place and safer at home more reasonable and manageable. And we have to figure out ways to incorporate that in how we are, you know, I’ll just loosely use the term “quarantining” ourselves.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:19

So, how do you appeal to people’s sense of altruism? How would you frame that?


Dr. Ted Robles  14:25

So again, the idea being that we’re doing this together, it’s very counterintuitive. Right, because one of the big reasons that we are social beings is because there is safety in numbers. So, if you think about way back in evolution, the way we protected ourselves from another tribe threatening us, or a stampede of wild animals, was we banded together literally, physically and defended ourselves and defended our turf. And that’s not quite the same here because I can’t huddle with you and feel safe. But I mean, I can huddle with my family, but even the other people who I care about, I cannot be with them. At the same time, you can create that feeling of togetherness. And I think that’s what a lot of the, again, effective messaging is doing. I went to a restaurant the other day to pick up some take-out, and on the door was a “We’re in this Together” poster. That was the very first thing that I could see. And you can still encourage people to feel a sense of togetherness, even with this separateness. So that’s kind of one of the big things, is that everything that we’re doing is for our collective benefit. And that’s sort of what altruism is. I guess the second thing would be—and this is where the social media, I think, has been really valuable—is hearing stories from physicians, from nurses, from patients who have been directly affected and knowing what they’re going through. I think that’s probably been one of the most impactful things, at least for me personally this week from the things I’ve been reading. And it’s what keeps me motivated to do the things that I’m doing. Is knowing that there are people who are putting their lives on the line and that I need to do something for them. One of those things is by making sure their lives don’t get any more difficult. Just hearing those stories has been very important. Again, the idea of keeping other people in mind. It’s much more easy to be altruistic when you know what people are going through. You know, while we should all measure our exposure to all the COVID-19 stuff that’s happening, this is a human disaster and knowing what human stories are—it is really important to keep us motivated to do what we’re doing. So I think those two things are important. They are sort of what the public health structures can message. And then just understanding the actual lived experiences of other people that can help create this empathy and altruism.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:51

That’s really useful. So, if we had to do like a checklist for people, how do you improve your social well-being or maintain it? One, make sure you’re taking care of yourself in a healthful way, and your family or close loved ones or your animals. Two would be to read or listen to stories of frontline workers that are actually confronting this pandemic and what they’re doing about it so that you know what they’re up against. Three would be what can you do for them? And what’s most important, simplest thing which is also what would be for yourself, is to stay home.


Dr. Ted Robles  17:32



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:33

If you can.


Dr. Ted Robles  17:33

Right, right.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:35

Or minimize your exposure outside.


Dr. Ted Robles  17:37

So the other one I would add is that, which we haven’t talked about, is finding ways to connect with everybody that you usually connect with. And so everything from…so it’s been adorable to do this for my children because, you know, they’re not able to be with their friends at school. My right when I picked up my daughter on the last day before school closed, she was coming down the stairs. And then she was taking awhile with her friends and I was getting kind of annoyed. I was talking to a parent and I’m like, what are they doing? Why are they taking so long? And then they all did this really big group hug, which I’d never seen before. It was really touching. And so in over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been trying to arrange Google Hangouts for my daughter and some of her friends. And then the same for my kindergarten age son as well. And those have been kind of adorable to watch because you know, you or I never did anything like that. And just to see this sort of six-year-old in front of an iPad saying, what do you want to talk about, is really, really adorable. But doing that is also really important. You know, checking in, there’s still ways you can do it. I know, Chris, my colleague talked about doing virtual happy hours. All those things are still very much available. Fortunately, given our technological age, imagine if this was 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, it would be much tougher.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:52

It’s true. It’s very true. So, for our students who are coming back to classes this quarter, what would be some of the steps they could do?


Dr. Ted Robles  19:03

It’s been, I tried to put myself in their shoes. And I—it’s just so hard, especially the seniors—I think they’ve been really hard to think about because these are students where they were looking forward to their last quarter, to graduation, to walking across the dice to get their diploma, Visa, or these last experiences, whether it’s a banquet or something, and just that that will be missing and lost is really, really heartbreaking. I think I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t want to underestimate it if I were many of my colleagues working with students. That they’ve had a significant chunk of their life that they’re just not going to have right now. And then I think about other students where, you know, probably for those of us with privilege, you know, like professors, when we think about our kids coming home from college, I mean besides the usual kind of adolescent annoyance and stuff like that, perhaps it feels like it’s going to be a reasonably comfortable experience, right. But that’s not necessarily the case for other students were anything from limited access to internet, to very different expectations about what children are supposed to do when they’re at home, even if they’re adults. There’s a lot of students that are going to be running up against these major challenges, and this is already after having to uproot themselves from their dorm, or from their apartment. In some cases, fly back to the countries where they’re from. And so I think having a significant amount of, for faculty I should say, having a significant amount of empathy again for their experiences is really critical. Now what about for this for students themselves? I mean, just the amount of stuff that they’ve had to go through over the last couple of weeks is more than any one of us at that stage of our lives would have wanted to go through in a lifetime. I think what’s important for students as we come back together is, you know I always do this with students at the beginning of quarter where, you know, I let them know if there’s anything that you think is going to be an obstacle to succeeding in this particular class, let me know up front because maybe there’s ways I can be of help. Sort of giving study tips given a certain circumstance or just knowing what it is upfront that that’s critical. And I think students should feel like they can do that part of that, as faculty, need to give students a space to let us know what they’ve been facing and what they think they’re going to face over the next three months. And students have to be willing to do that, too. So, I think that’s probably the biggest piece of advice, is to really let your faculty know, like what it is that you’re facing now. What the uncertainties that are weighing over your head are as they relate to how you’re going to do this quarter. Because I think it’s very easy for us to kind of go, I don’t want to bother my professor, he or she is still trying to figure out this Zoom thing. He or she looks really stressed out trying to figure out how CCLE works. And it can be— and there’s already a power differential anyway, so it can be very easy not to disclose things that would be very important factors in their academic success.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:13

That’s very practical advice. Really appreciate it. So, I guess two questions. One, what keeps you up at night?


Dr. Ted Robles  22:22

Well, so that’s what’s one. What’s the second one?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  22:26

How, as a community in Los Angeles, what what your what your hope is for ah, what’s your vision, like utopic vision.


Dr. Ted Robles  22:36

Right, right. I mean, the number one thing, you know, we’re here during spring break. And I had always figured just looking at the numbers, you know, look at these logarithmic plots that, you know, this was going to be the start of the worst week in terms of death and cases and impact to society. And what scares me is what that’s going to—I guess what scares me is next week. You know, I, somebody had a really nice tweet that was like, if you thought that this week was bad, just wait to the end of this week. And so what keeps me up at night is just what’s going to be happening to our physicians or nurses or health care system, or patients, older adults, younger adults, in the next couple of weeks. You know, over where you are it’s just terrifying to think about what next week is going to look like. And so in some ways, it would be nice if time could stretch on for a long time. And it already feels like, it has right, like this feels like last week feels like a year ago. But that’s what keeps me up is I just worry about the loss of life and the impact for others. So with the utopian vision…I will say one of the really, there’s sort of two things I think about which is the air right now is really quite something here in LA. You know, every time I’m out walking the dog or walking the kids or running after the kids, and I take a deep breath. I’m like, wow, this is…it’s kind of amazing how this feels in my lungs, because the air pollution has just plummeted here. Now, I’m not saying that this kind of pandemic should be what we do in order to sort of get air like this. But imagine a world where we slow down just a little bit. It’s not that, but it would be nice, right? So that sort of thing number one. Thing number two is I’ve seen so many more of my neighbors than I have seen in a long time because we don’t have anywhere to go. And I hope that that sort of, being able to see neighbors, have conversations that are a little bit more, or a little bit less than six feet away. I hope that that can continue and as well as for everybody. It’s a shame that it takes something like this for that to happen, but maybe this is what we needed to shake ourselves from our isolation and our hustle and bustle.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  24:56

That’s, those are two really lovely observations and it seems that we should all be taking on a moment in our day to think about what we find that’s different and kind of the silver lining.


Dr. Ted Robles  25:10

Right, right. It’s hard to think about silver linings right now knowing what’s coming, but you know, we have to hold on to something right?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  25:17

And I mean, I know during, in the history of medicine the major breakthroughs for surgery took place during war time. And so, we might have some major breakthroughs not just only related to medicine, but other aspects of our lives. That includes social well-being, emotional well-being, physical well-being so very, very into spiritual well-being. I think I’d like to end this with part of a Maya Angelo poem because it has to do with Alone. Lying, thinking. Last night. How to find my soul a home. Where water is not thirsty. And bread loaf is not stone. I came up with one thing. And I don’t believe I’m wrong. That nobody, But nobody, Can make it out here alone. Alone, all alone. Nobody, but nobody, Can make it out here alone. Now if you listen closely. I’ll tell you what I know. Storm clouds are gathering. The wind is gonna blow. The race of man is suffering. And I can hear the moan, ‘Cause nobody, But nobody, Can make it out here alone. 


Dr. Ted Robles  26:25

That’s really something. Yeah.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:26

Shes an amazing poet, sums it up.


Dr. Ted Robles  26:29

Exactly. Everybody’s in this together in some way.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:33

Ted, thank you for all your wisdoms. All your incredible brainpower on this. We’re going to be airing this, but we’re also going to be sending out other Bruin posts that will address some of these key points you brought up. You’re just an incredible treasure for this campus and our community. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.


Dr. Ted Robles  26:53

Well, thank you for being the hub for various wisdoms. I appreciate, the you know, all the energy that you’re putting into this. So…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:58

Thank you. Thanks. Well, it gives me, as you said when you enhance your social well-being, giving is one of the big steps on my end. So thanks.  Thank you for tuning in to six feet apart. A special series of the LiveWell podcast. Today’s episode was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To stay up to date with the rest of the episodes in this special series and to get more information on maintaining your emotional, physical and social well-being during COVID-19, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcasts. Thank you and stay remote.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *