Loneliness and the Pandemic

When reading articles about social distancing, as I have been doing since the beginning of lockdown about a year and a half ago, I get the same feeling of whiplash as I do when surfing reviews of Airbnbs. For instance, when planning a trip to Florida recently, I looked into a beach house that was alternatively described as “basically a tool shed with a bed and windows” (one star) and “the quaint bungalow of my dreams” (five stars). While the difference between a toolshed and a dreamy bungalow may just be a matter of perspective, it was hard to believe that the two reviewers were talking about the same place, and in a grim reminder of the power of unreasonable reviewers to make or break businesses now, I did not rent the place—just as I would have gladly forgone lockdown, social distancing, and the rest of the pandemic experience if I had been given any choice in the matter.

According to many gurus, introverts, and naturalists, I am lucky I was not given this choice, because The COVID Experience was just the kind of mandated break period we all needed. In a globalized world characterized by its feverish pace, shallow extraversion, and unrelenting brutality to the environment (which, we were reminded, can be brutal back), the pandemic sent us all to our rooms to reflect on what we have done and who we have become. The resulting reprieve was restoring—most of all for introverts, who claim finally to be living their best lives—or enlightening—especially for those prosperous enough to attend one of the socially distanced luxury wellness retreats popping up at spas, ranches, and yoga studios across the globe. Like the contented Airbnb customer, these masters of solitude recommend social distancing as an experience not to be missed (five stars).

On the opposite extreme from this spiritual messaging are descriptions of lockdown literally as torture (one star). These come from anti-lockdown activist groups as well as from prisoners actually living in solitary confinement; both groups reach for the comparison in an effort to convey the horror of a certain widespread experience. While the difference in perspective between social distancing as a spiritual retreat or brutal imprisonment may be more a matter of privilege than anything, it’s hard to believe that one side isn’t stretching the truth—or at least, not speaking for the majority.

The data on mental illness suggests that the image of solitary confinement is the more accurate one. The National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau have been tracking mental health data since the beginning of the pandemic using Household Pulse Surveys, rapid online screening for depression and anxiety. The trends are alarming. In 2019, only 11% of adults reported symptoms of depression or anxiety. At the beginning of the pandemic, that number skyrocketed to 36% at has remained at 30-40% ever since.

Underpinning this mental health crisis is a growing epidemic of loneliness. According to a report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 36% of all Americans including 61% of young adults feel “serious loneliness.” Furthermore, 43% of adults report an increase in loneliness since the beginning of the pandemic. Loneliness is linked to depression and anxiety in a sticky cobweb of mutually reinforcing causal relationships and has serious consequences for physical health, including increased risk of heart disease and premature death, according to the Center for Disease Control.

With social distancing coming to an end—at least for stretches in between variant outbreaks—we are now in a position to regain some of the social ground lost during the pandemic and find relief from the surging epidemic of loneliness. However, overcoming loneliness is tricky—it requires the cooperation of other people even as it makes people appear more threatening than they are, as we explain below. So to help you establish satisfying social connections in a post-pandemic world, we offer three tips for overcoming loneliness gleaned from the relevant social science research.

1) Clarify your own level of vulnerability to loneliness.

Just as some of us have larger appetites than others—and thus require more food to feel full—some of us have a greater need for social connection. This heightened need for social connection is a beautiful gift but it also leaves the sociable person (to use a phrase common in the research) “vulnerable to loneliness.” For those of us who are vulnerable in this way, we will need a greater amount of social connection to feel sated—i.e., the opposite of lonely—than someone who is less vulnerable.

Your personal level of vulnerability to loneliness is hard-wired into your genes. In a longitudinal study of genetics and loneliness, researchers developed a “loneliness profile” of more than 8000 Dutch twins. Each twin’s profile was based on their level of agreement with six simple statements related to loneliness (one was “I feel lonely”) asked repeatedly over the course of more than a decade. What the researchers discovered is that identical twins’ profiles are about twice as similar as the profiles of fraternal twins—meaning that a greater similarity of genetic material is correlated with similar experiences of loneliness. The heritability of loneliness was estimated at 48%. What this study shows is that some of us come out of the womb more vulnerable to loneliness than others. 

If you inherited an increased risk of loneliness, you probably are aware of this at some level—after all, you’ve been carrying around this vulnerability your entire life. But there are benefits to explicitly naming—and owning—this aspect of your personality. One benefit is reduced shame. If you are aware of your vulnerability only unconsciously, then you may experience it as a kind of neediness or persistent heartache—something that makes you feel different from other people. And it’s easy to feel shame about being different. But as the author and LGBTQ activist Andrew Solomon explain, what makes us different can also be reclaimed as a source of pride. Maybe a hearty appetite for social connection is something you should be proud of rather than ashamed of.

Another benefit of acknowledging your vulnerability to loneliness is that it allows you to plan around it. If you live alone, this might mean planning ahead to make sure you are around people on the weekends. For work, it could mean choosing to go into the office rather than working from home. While there are many ways of working out the details, what’s important is that you live in a way that honors your own inbuilt need for social connection.

2) Do nothing with someone.

Unfortunately, seeking satisfying social connections is not as straightforward as, say, planning a nutritious meal. Whereas a grocery store contains everything you need to relieve hunger pangs, overcoming loneliness requires the participation of other people. Fortunately, just doing nothing with someone can count for a lot. 

Loneliness researchers draw a distinction between “active socializing” and “passive socializing.” With active socializing, the purpose of social activity is to interact with other people. Examples are meeting a friend for coffee or going to a party. With passive socializing, there is no focused social activity that draws you together. When you live with other people, passive socializing happens naturally when, for instance, one person cleans dishes in the kitchen while another watches television in an adjacent den. With the percentage of adults living alone steadily increasing since 1960, there are indications of a compensatory increase in active socializing. For instance, more young adults are meeting up for coffee than ever before. Lacking social connection at home, many solo dwellers are going out to find it—or at least were going out before COVID kept us at home.

While this rise in active socializing is good in itself, it can also be exhausting—especially for the lonely. In Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, loneliness researcher Emily White summarizes her interviews with persons who claim to live with “chronic loneliness.” One common theme of these conversations is a longing for the ease of passive socialization and corresponding exhaustion related to the demands—both logistical and interpersonal—of active socializing. One lonely subject describes how he rescheduled a lunch five times only to find himself just as lonely as soon as it was over. Based on similar experiences, another bemoans ‘the second job’ of having a social life.

If you identify with this perspective, consider focusing on passive socializing for a change. If you live alone, you can dramatically increase the amount of passive socializing in your life by getting a roommate. This is not to imply that all passive socializing is created equal: doing nothing with people you like is much more satisfying than doing nothing with people you don’t like (or even worse, with people who don’t like you). If getting a roommate isn’t realistic for you, there are other ways to find passive socialization. The most obvious is to invite a friend over for an evening of doing nothing together. While there may be an adjustment period as you let go of the expectation of constant chitchat, you will eventually settle into a cozy and comfortable silence. And this kind of passive connection generates rather than consumes social energy.

 3) Don’t be so prickly. 

When porcupines feel threatened, they instinctively raise their quills. This defensive posture equally holds predators and potential mates at a safe distance. In what has been described as “the porcupine effect,” lonely people behave similarly. As both neuroimaging research and eye-tracking technology have demonstrated, lonely people have an attentional bias towards social threats. When viewing short videos that juxtapose scenes of social threats (e.g., bullying) with warm social exchanges (e.g., friends laughing), lonely people’s brains show increased activation in the regions that process threats compared with non-lonely subjects, and lonely people linger on the threatening scenes longer than non-lonely subjects do. Remembering these studies, it is helpful to realize that if the world seems like a more threatening place than it used to, this perception may not only be because of the deadly diseases, raging wildfires, and assaults on democracy we all lived through during the past year—it could also be that you have been lonely and are experiencing the perceptual distortions of a porcupine effect.

Since the porcupine effect motivates standoffish behavior, you can counteract it by intentionally trying to be open. “Open” does not mean trying to be the life of the party or acting happy when you really feel sad. By driving a wedge between your inner and outer reality, this pseudo-openness is likely only to magnify feelings of disconnection. For overcoming loneliness, “fake it till you make it” is not a promising strategy. A much better mantra is: “speak your own truth.” You might say, “I’ve been feeling a little disconnected from people recently and I’m actually feeling that way right now. Have you ever felt that way before?” By being open and honest about your own experience—even experiences of loneliness—you give people a chance to connect with the real you. And as you establish authentic connections, the porcupine effect will naturally fade. 

One final thing to remember about the porcupine effect—and loneliness more generally—is that it is widespread and other people have been changed by the prolonged isolation as well. So if other people seem pricklier than you remember, this may be not only a cognitive distortion of your own Porcupine Effect but also a behavioral symptom of theirs. Try not to take it personally. The truth is, our society is like a prickle of scared porcupines emerging from our dark dens after an extremely challenging winter, and if we need to eye each other suspiciously for a while before we are ready to lay down our quills, this much is only to be expected. It may take some time to remember that other people, while sometimes spiky, are also our greatest source of comfort.

 

Daniel Crow, Ph.D., is a staff writer and clinical intern for Matone Counseling and Testing. He earned a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin and is completing his Master’s in Counseling from Wake Forest University.