COVID-19 Has Not (Yet) Caused a Flood of Loneliness Among Americans
The coronavirus pandemic and its social distancing, work-from-home implications had many experts worry that Americans would become overwhelmed with loneliness. While mental health and loneliness have definitely worsened, people are surprisingly good at staying connected, studies show.
Many of us have realized the importance of face-to-face and in-person interactions over the last few months. The coronavirus pandemic has sent people home from work and school, cancelled all concerts, large events and parties, and caused serious isolation feelings for so many individuals.
Many experts had concerns that social distancing, although crucial for public safety, would severely hurt Americans’ health. While overall mental health has not been great lately, studies have shown that people are getting more creative and intentional when it comes to connecting with coworkers, friends and family—even distantly.
A Lonely Hypothesis
The U.S. already has high levels of loneliness, and social scientists worried that social distancing (although the right move) would have a bad effect on Americans.
One NPR article explains, though, that Americans have actually been much more resilient and intentional in building relationships during the pandemic.
“You might expect this would make things much worse,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a neuroscientist and social psychologist at Brigham Young University.
Actually, a handful of studies have shown that a huge increase in loneliness has not occurred—at least not yet. Researchers studying the pandemic’s emotional effects say humans might be responsible for this somewhat positive response.
One study conducted by researchers at Florida State University College of Medicine checked in three times between January and late April with 1,500 Americans, aged 18 to 98. The team’s survey looked at measures of loneliness.
“Like most people who study loneliness, we expected loneliness to go up,” said the research lead, Angelina Sutin. “Humans are social creatures. We Like to be together. We need to be together.”
Sutin and her colleagues designed their survey before the pandemic started as a one-off look at how loneliness and other aspects of psychological health affect physical health. Respondents answered questions about if they felt lonely or isolated, if they had people to turn to and whether they had preexisting health conditions.
When the pandemic began, and after most people quarantined with stay-at-home orders most of March, Sutin and her team decided to study how this pandemic would affect loneliness. For the month of March, they asked the same participants how they were doing with social distancing rules. In April, the team reached out to participants again.
On a loneliness scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being “not very lonely” and 3 being “very lonely,” the score was 1.69 in the first survey, 1.71 in the second and 1.71 in the third. This means the researchers saw no statistically significant change. “The thing that everybody thought was going to happen didn’t happen,” said Sutin.
The being said, the article notes that there was some variation among participants. Some people reported feeling newly lonely, and other felt less lonely over time. Researchers said they found no racial differences in responses but did find some differences among age groups.
People 65 and older tend to be less lonely than the 18- to 64-year-old age group. Loneliness in the 65 and older group went from 16 percent in the first survey to 21 percent in the second and back to 18 percent in the third.
Like any study, there are limitations to the findings. For example, Sutin and her team did not capture responses from people who do not have Internet connection, for example. They did not gather as many responses from people with lower incomes or who live in rural communities.
Why Are Americans Doing…Better than Expected?
While these results may be surprising, they also make some sense. As the pandemic shut down businesses, sent people to the hospital and caused widespread anxiety, people are banding together and supporting one another.
“I was seeing a real outpouring of communities really trying to band together and look out for neighbors and for those who might be most vulnerable,” said Holt-Lunstad, “and there was the hope that that would mitigate some of the effects of what was going on.”
Generally, in many instances of community trauma, people tend to rely on one another even harder.
Other studies have reflected Americans’ resilience. For example, researchers at John Hopkins University published a research letter in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, citing a national survey done between April and May of 2018. In the survey, 11 percent of U.S. adults reported being lonely. The Hopkins researchers did their own national survey this past April in 2020 and found that 13.8 percent of respondents said they were lonely—only a slight increase, scientists say.
There is still quite a bit of research to be done about why Americans have seemed so resilient in recent months during the pandemic. While there are no confirmed answers, some experts do have some ideas.
For one, people tend to seek solidarity among peers and work colleagues during times like these—even if that is over Zoom over FaceTime. Additionally, the “fear of missing out” anxiety that usually accompanies social media is not really prevalent right now, and many people are not doing much or posting about it.
People have even realized the importance of some of their relationships recently and made more of an effort to connect with people, even through the screen, on the phone or six feet apart. Employers are getting creative with ways to check-in with employees, encourage team bonding and develop company culture online. “Walking meetings” are growing in popularity so colleagues can exercise, get some fresh air and conduct a meeting—safely.
Many experts agree that not enough research has been done to measure loneliness among low income families and rural communities.
Plus, while loneliness does relate to depression and anxiety in many ways, they are two different human experiences. Experts have noted an increase in depression and anxiety among Americans over the last few months among all ages—which is cause for concern.
Live-stream weddings, drive-by birthday parties, virtual happy hours and online Zoom meetings might not be the most ideal way Americans want to live their social lives. While the pandemic has really strained many of us emotionally and mentally, studies have shown that we are able to foster relationships better than we might think—and that is a potential silver lining to all of this.