WMany experts believed that the epidemic would lead to unprecedented loneliness among those who survived. Imagine if millions were instructed to remain at home, away from their loved ones and friends.
Two years of research later, experts have found that the pandemic did make Americans slightly more lonely—but loneliness levels were already dire enough to pose a threat to mental and physical health. Here’s what you need to know about loneliness and how to address it in your own life.
Who felt more alone in the aftermath of the pandemic
The differences in loneliness between the European and American populations are very small. One meta-analysis published this year by the American Psychological Association analyzed 34 studies conducted before and during the pandemic that were focused on loneliness, an emotional state distinct from anxiety or depression that signals when social needs aren’t being met. The pandemic saw a 5 percent increase in loneliness, according to researchers.
The increases are “so tiny, and they actually don’t mean anything clinically at all,” says Pamela Qualter, a professor at the University of Manchester in the U.K. who studies loneliness (but who was not involved in the research). “Given that we were all at home for big lengths of time, I think it showed how people are really resilient. They worked out ways to manage that loneliness.”
Even though the increases in loneliness during the pandemic are modest, it is still an issue. One Harvard survey conducted during the pandemic found that 36% of Americans—which includes 61% of young adults ages 18-25—feel lonely frequently or almost all the time.
Research done during the pandemic revealed significant rises in loneliness among those already more at risk, such as low-income individuals and people with mental illnesses. People in their twenties are more isolated than people of middle age.
Julianne Holt–Lunstad is a professor at Brigham Young University who studies loneliness and neurology. There may be multiple causes for young people feeling disconnected from their social circle. She believes that older people might have better skills for dealing with stress in their lives. Young people may also feel pressure to have expanding social circles—a hard bar to clear during a pandemic—and some may struggle if they feel like their relationships fall short. This could explain why social media might make someone feel lonely. “If you see everybody else looking much more social than you are, you may be less satisfied with your own social circumstances.”
An emerging public-health priority
There’s no real silver lining to the pandemic, but many mental-health professionals point to one upside: more people are feeling comfortable talking about mental health and the role that loneliness can play in mental-health disorders. It is being discussed in research as well as conversation.
Researchers who study loneliness say that it hasn’t always received the kind of attention it deserves as a major threat to health. Primary care doctors and even therapists don’t regularly screen their patients for signs of loneliness. This was changing, however, even though the pandemic hit, particularly in the richer regions of the globe. In 2018, the U.K. had its first Minister for Loneliness.
The pandemic, however, accelerated their efforts. Japan followed the U.K.’s lead by also appointing its own inaugural Minister of Loneliness in 2021; the European Commission’s Joint Research Center launched new research efforts during the pandemic into studying loneliness in the E.U.U.S. public-health leaders. The pandemic was triggered by the presence of loneliness, as Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General has repeatedly mentioned it.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, the World Health Organization has begun paying more attention to the issue of loneliness. WHO is considering creating a high-level commission to address social connection, isolation, and loneliness, says Christopher Mikton, a technical officer in WHO’s department of social determinants of health.
The goal is to persuade lawmakers in countries around the world to expand data gathering on loneliness and fund research to enable scientists to understand it better and find ways to address it—and also to hasten the uptake and development of solutions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and peer support.
Despite a growing body of evidence of the importance of loneliness, “we haven’t done very much, and we’ve now decided to really step up our activities in this area,” says Mikton. “This isn’t the kind of soft issue that can be brushed aside. The health impact is serious.”
Health effects of loneliness
An Ipsos poll released February 20, 2021, found that nearly three quarters of Americans felt lonely sometimes. But just because loneliness is common doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. When loneliness persists, affecting someone for weeks or even years, it poses a serious threat to people’s mental and physical health. “I think most people recognize that it impacts our emotional well-being, and maybe even our mental health, but very few people recognize the profound effects that it has on our neurobiology, which influences our long-term health,” says Holt-Lunstad.
Researchers have found that loneliness has a significant impact on the likelihood of an early death. In part, that’s because it’s linked to a striking number of disorders, including cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. It has been shown that loneliness can lead to heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases.
Is there anything you can do to help someone feel lonely?
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, says Michelle Lim, the scientific chair of Ending Loneliness Together, a network of Australian organizations, who also researches loneliness at Swinburne University. Instead, it’s important to find solutions that suit individuals. According to her, for example, some might find it sensible to join a club, but that may not be the case for an introvert or someone suffering from social anxiety.
The key to beating loneliness, she says, is not just increasing the number of people a person sees, but making more fulfilling social connections, including by seeking out relationships with others who are really “your people,” says Lim. She often encourages her young patients to set a goal of improving just one relationship—whether it’s their sibling, parent, or only friend from school. “It’s about building the bond between you and that person,” says Lim. Reducing loneliness “is not just having people around you, but [having] a meaningful relationship with them.”
It’s also important to remember that loneliness is part of being human, “a biological drive…that motivates us to reconnect socially,” and not something to be ashamed about, says Holt-Lunstad. In the short term, she suggests getting busy to distract yourself and enrich your life—like getting out in nature, taking up a creative hobby, or meditating. Holt-Lunstad also recommends maintaining and nurturing relationships with others, especially those she might not have considered. Holt-Lunstad discovered that small acts of kindness, like walking their dog, can make people feel less alone during the epidemic.
“For someone who might be feeling lonely, they don’t need to wait for someone else to contact them or do nice things for them— they can take the initiative,” says Holt-Lunstad. “One of the ways that we can help ourselves is to help others.”
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