Safe But Disconnected?
Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone—just as Joni Mitchell sang? At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us probably felt that way: Suddenly, spontaneous meetings with others were a thing of the past. We moved our lives into our own four walls and reduced our social contacts. Many parts of our daily lives that we had previously taken for granted were now different.
At first, some of us were perhaps quite happy that we no longer had to commute to the office and instead found time to bake banana bread. There was also a sense of solidarity, and of "we're in this together." Still, can you really be together when so many people are alone? After all, this forced retreat deprived us of one of our basic needs: human contact! Humans are social animals; we simply cannot live without others. This is why loneliness is such a terrible feeling, and prolonged periods of loneliness threaten our mental and physical health.
While the pandemic and the unprecedented physical distancing measures taken to combat it clearly brought about more social isolation, this does not have to imply more loneliness. Loneliness is more complex as it describes the subjective feeling that we are lacking social connection—either because we do not spend enough time with others or because the relationships we have do not feel meaningful enough. Thus, loneliness is also shaped by the needs, attitudes, and expectations of the individual person.
Media coverage often made it out to be a proven fact that loneliness increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, decrying a pandemic of loneliness following on its heels. However, from looking at empirical studies on this, it was quite difficult to conclude whether this was true. Some investigations, especially from the first months of 2020, reported that people felt less lonely. But other researchers had found the opposite. Also, it was hard to compare these studies because they had been carried out at different times in different countries with different groups of people, and measured loneliness in different ways.
Therefore, we decided to approach this question more systematically: Our international team gathered all international studies that had analyzed changes in loneliness from before to during the pandemic. My colleagues and I critically reviewed these original papers in many ways—for example, with regard to their design, how they had recruited participants, and which questionnaires they had used. Finally, we summarized all suitable studies in a statistical way. Most of them had queried the same participants before the onset of the pandemic and again at some point during it. In total, we were able to analyze 34 studies from around the world that together included more than 200,000 people.
Indeed, Loneliness Increased
It increased, but not by that much and not always. And, as the pandemic drags on, the consequences of this overall small increase are not yet foreseeable. Even before the pandemic, loneliness was a "normal" part of life that most people experience at some point. Like hunger or thirst, you can understand the painful feeling of loneliness as a signal that something is missing. It could be a relief to know that many other people are feeling the same way right now—and that loneliness is nothing shameful, but a non-pathological reaction to changed life circumstances. You can take this dissatisfaction as a driving force to reach out to others again and to think about how to re-establish (emotional) closeness and connection.
Of course, some particularly vulnerable persons need to be given extra support. And, the pandemic does not affect everyone in the same way concerning other areas of life, such as wage losses and financial difficulties. It is therefore important to remember that the main finding of our study, the small increase, was just an average of changes in loneliness—so there are also people in the community who have experienced very large increases in loneliness. This is another reason why it is important to keep loneliness on the radar as a major health issue. We hope that a growing awareness of social needs can reduce any stigma attached to loneliness and also open up new possibilities for action.
For Further Reading
Ernst, M., Niederer, D., Werner, A. M., Czaja, S. J., Mikton, C., Ong, A. D., Rosen, T., Brähler, E., & Beutel, M. E. (2022). Loneliness before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review with meta-analysis. American Psychologist, 77(5), 660–677. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0001005. (Freely available via https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2022-59604-001.html)
Mareike Ernst is a postdoctoral researcher and psychotherapist in training at the University Medical Center Mainz, Germany. Her research focuses on loneliness and suicide prevention in different populations.