There's a collective feeling of malaise in the air. No one feels good right now, and it's all we talk about online. We send deadpan tweets, self-effacing Tiktoks, rambling Instagram captions — the medium changes, but the message is the same: Life during the pandemic is a merry-go-round of anxiety, anger, sorrow, and confusion. Why wouldn't it be? In the past year and a half, many have lost loved ones, lost their livelihoods, and have felt lonelier than they could have ever imagined was possible. The future looks grim.
Knowing that others are full of dread too can offer a little solace sometimes. When I'm doom-scrolling through my feeds, the most relatable memes are the ones that reassure me that none of us are okay. But in the end, relatability can only do so much. Angst is a naturally isolating emotion — and pandemic angst already stems from a sense of disconnect from others, amplifying the feeling that there isn't a shared reality to find solid footing on anymore. Maybe when we say the vibes are off, what we really mean is that every person you pass on the street now feels like a glimpse of another dimension behind a glass.
And yet, it feels like our shared struggles should have made for a cohesive community, a common mission. "Some aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been a shared reality," says Dr. Michele Goldman, a psychologist at Columbia Health. "Our lives were turned upside down and what used to make sense no longer does.” For example, she continues, “The way in which we move through the world is different. The losses of our sense of freedom, connection, relationships and everything being put on hold caused collective losses that were a shared experience." So why doesn’t it feel that way?
For one, not everyone experienced the past 17 months in the same way. "It's undeniable that people of colour, especially those from lower socioeconomic statuses, were disproportionately impacted by this pandemic," Goldman says. "Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions also had a different experience than those who are able-bodied and medically healthy." The simultaneous insistence that we're all in this together — both a rallying cry and a comforting promise — and the fact that, actually, many people have felt extremely isolated and abandoned by our government, by leaders, by society during COVID, only exacerbates the cognitive dissonance.
Tiktoker @cyborg.prof explains their realization of this in a video, as someone for whom COVID would be extremely life-threatening. What they miss most about life before the pandemic aren't the coffee shops, but "the privilege of living in a shared reality with people who are around me."
"Through this pandemic I've learned the hard way that a lot of my acquaintances, my colleagues, my friends, my ex-girlfriend… a lot of these people are comfortable living in a world where I either die or I'm isolated indefinitely by myself because I'm disabled and chronically ill," they say in the video.
In another Tiktok, @lolellakoundji describes why talking to other people now can feel surreal:
"There's something so unsettling about going out in public these days," Lakoundji begins, "because there are just some people who, for them, nothing's changed. The pandemic never really happened for them, everything is fine, the climate changing is a hoax, and we just have to vote better next time and everything will work out. And interacting with them is just confusing, because we aren't talking to each other. We don't live in the same reality."
"More and more, I have to grapple with the fact that the world around me is not reality-affirming," she continues.
The U.S. has always been a country rife with ideological rifts; it’s a massive understatement to describe American politics as merely "polarizing." But the national response to COVID has only heightened the disconnect among Americans. Both official policies and cultural attitudes around social distancing, masking, and vaccination have shown a stunning callousness toward human life. This is a nation studded with solipsists, in which too many people are confident that no one else is a real person.It’s not just that we're not all on the same page — we're not even reading the same book.
The psychological impact of feeling that you don't share a reality with your fellow citizens can't be underestimated. It's not just a difference of opinion; shared reality is crucial to wellbeing. Goldman describes the concept as "a commonality of experiences that connects you to the larger world, whether it be a belief, a value, a perception or an emotion. It's this shared experience that reminds us we are connected to another person or group of people in a specific way." Sharing reality doesn't always result in a positive outcome — it can also be how extremely hateful beliefs are affirmed. But, it's the way humans make sense of the world and communicate with each other in a language of common rituals and values.
Shared reality can also make things seem more real. Sharing a happy announcement with others and seeing their enthusiasm reflected back can make you even happier about what's happened, as if their reaction confirms that it's something you should feel joy over. On the other hand, if you share happy news and the response is tepid, that can put a damper on your own excitement.
Recently, my coworkers and I discussed whose face we looked at the most during our video calls. A few of us had the same answer, and we said that we looked at this person because they had the best reactions, the most emotive face; it seemed to reflect exactly what we were feeling during these meetings. It's a small example of the way we seek shared reality in everything we do. It's not enough to just focus on whoever is relaying information in a meeting — if that were the case, we'd only look at the speaker. Instead, it's important to see how those close to us are reacting, and to experience similar emotions together.
Psychologist E. Tory Higgins, author of the book Shared Reality: What Makes Us Strong And Tears Us Apart, contends that sharing experiences in this way is a fundamental human motivation. Babies often point at things not because they need their caretaker to retrieve it, but simply because they want this person to look at it too. The intent is shared excitement, a mutual acknowledgement that they're both perceiving this thing with the same attitude, establishing a reality between them. We even watch strangers eat on Youtube or stream games on Twitch and find delight in their enjoyment, even though we’re experiencing it secondhand. Throughout our lives, we exchange stories of our lives with others in order to form a consistent narrative about the world — whether it's of a just world, a cruel world, a bizarre world, we create some story about the way life works and how we want it to evolve.
This is why a lack of affirmation of our experience — when the vibes are off — can feel so alienating. "If my reality does not align with that of someone else, this conflict can make me question myself, result in feeling opposition to the other, and be especially contentious when trying to have a relationship with someone who sees things differently," says Goldman. When we fail to establish shared reality with others, we feel isolated, and even question our capacity to discern the truth. The sheer chaos of The Dress is a testament of that.
A recent paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science also found that on days when people's political perceptions weren't echoed in a shared reality — as in, their fellow citizens voted for the "wrong" person or expressed approval for the wrong idea — they expressed more happiness in their family relationships than they did when their political perceptions were affirmed by the general consensus. The paper suggests that this shows our need to find validation about reality from somewhere; if my perception of reality isn't confirmed by a broader population, I place greater value on the reassurance that a closer social group can give me.
But the nature of a pandemic means that people are isolated both physically and psychologically. Quarantine has made it harder to find comfort in friends and family. And if the past 17 months have included harsh realizations that close friends and family members don't see reality the way you do, that can only deepen the loneliness and disconnection of social distancing. For some, the pandemic has changed how we relate our identity to other people, and whether we even feel like we belong to a society at all.
Paradoxically, it feels like what connects us right now is that we feel disconnected. There's consensus on not being on the same wavelength; we're all yelling in separate rooms about our private pain. And when I'm shown another Tiktok about not living in a shared reality anymore, for one cynical moment I'm glad that at least the algorithm can validate me.