Turns Out, Feelings of Loneliness May Not Have Increased During the Pandemic After All

When stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March, one of the biggest concerns was loneliness. The thought was that without being able to see friends and family or even enjoy a quick chat with your fave barista, loneliness would reach an all-time peak. Especially for those who are already at particularly high risk for loneliness like the elderly and people who live alone. But new research shows that feelings of loneliness didn't actually spike at all.

"Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have been essential to slow the spread of the virus, but many leading voices, including from American Psychological Association, voiced the very real concern about what telling people to stay home and alone would do to their feelings of social connection.," says Martina Luchetti, PhD, assistant professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine and lead author of a new study published in the journal American Psychologist. "Contrary to the fear that the lockdowns would lead to a surge in loneliness, we found that overall loneliness did not increase, but rather people felt more supported by others than before the pandemic, even if physically isolated from others."

Dr. Luchetti and her team surveyed 1,545 adults ages 18 to 98 about loneliness three times during 2020. The first time was in late-January/early-February and the survey was unrelated to COVID-19.  They reached out to that same group when the closures began in mid-March and again at the end of April. Reports of loneliness leveled off by the third survey.

"There was a small increase in loneliness among older adults [in the second survey], but it is important to note that older adults reported less loneliness overall compared to younger age groups, even with the small increase. Further, this increase seems to have been temporary because it had leveled off by the assessment at the end of April," says Dr. Luchetti. "There were no differences in the other two groups we examined: Individuals living alone and those with at least one chronic condition felt lonelier at the first survey, but did not increase in loneliness after social distancing measures were implemented."

All of the Zoom workouts, virtual first dates, and digital game nights really paid off. Dr. Luchetti says that this increased effort to communicate with those you can't see in person helped foster a sense of resilience that she and her team believe helped combat loneliness.

"Humans are social creatures and social interaction is critical to our health and well-being. The measures taken to reduce the impact of the pandemic physically cut people off from one another. We had expected that one effect of these measures would be substantial increases in loneliness," says Dr. Luchetti. "From the start of the pandemic, however, there have been anecdotal reports of people calling their family and friends more often and finding creative ways to stay connected. This might explain the increase in perceived support observed in the study and why there were no changes in loneliness."

However, Dr. Luchetti did note that several participants with higher loneliness at the first survey tended to drop out at the follow-up surveys. Molly Rosenberg, MPH, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington, explains that this could skew the results.

"This study had a lot of people drop out between January and April (more than half of the sample), and those who dropped out were more likely to be lonely to begin with," says Dr. Rosenberg. "This could have a large impact on the findings. If they stayed in the study, maybe we would have seen an increase in loneliness after all."

Dr. Rosenberg, co-author of a recent in-review study about COVID-19 loneliness and depression says that the pandemic may change the way researchers look at loneliness. Both studies used variations of the UCLA Loneliness Scale. "It is at least plausible to think that [the scale] might not work in the same way, given how very different everyone’s lives are now—what people think of as ‘feeling isolated’ might be very different now than how they would have thought of it last year," says Dr. Rosenberg.

In her study, Dr. Rosenberg and her colleagues "found strikingly high rates of depression and loneliness in our own nationally representative study in mid-April. Thirty-two percent of our sample reported significant depressive symptoms—that’s nearly four times higher than the eight percent we usually see during recent pre-COVID times," says Dr. Rosenberg. "People with more in-person social and sexual connections had lower depression and loneliness scores compared to those with fewer of those connections. But those who were only able to maintain those connections remotely did not appear to get those same mental health benefits."

However, though the studies found different results Dr. Rosenberg says Dr. Luchetti's research provides "a hopeful picture." Dr. Luchetti says it's important for researchers to keep monitoring COVID-19 loneliness.

"We are going through a crisis where social distancing and isolation are essential to save lives, but this social distancing is not likely to cause loneliness if we see it in the context of that we are all in this together," says Dr. Luchetti. "Yet, we need to remain vigilant and continue to monitor loneliness as the social distancing measures continue. It is possible that resilience may run out at some point."

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