Articles about loneliness during the Covid-19 pandemic have become commonplace now—in fact, psychologists have paid more and more attention to loneliness in the 21st century. I’m not talking here about the loneliness of knowing that each of us is fundamentally separated from others. This universal loneliness is an existential anxiety and part of the human condition. This article focuses on the pain and suffering of those who feel little sense of belonging, who feel little connection with others, and the accompanying pain and suffering.
A Primer on Loneliness
Many scholars, from cultural historians to psychologists, tell us that this form of loneliness today is an “epidemic,” a term that suggests we interpret the condition almost as a biomedical issue, in line with influenza or hypertension. Hawkely and Cacioppo (2015) have stated that loneliness is the “social equivalent” of hunger and thirst. Indeed, neuroscientists tell us that loneliness is rooted in genetics and the physical brain. There are, of course, problems with neurobiological reductionist approaches and much more research is needed. Current descriptions based on brain chemistry tend, for instance, to see loneliness as, essentially, the same experience and pay little attention to nuances or personal experience. And, perhaps more importantly, there is no pill for the problem.
In psychology, loneliness is, by definition, a bad thing. Based on attachment and other psychological theories, and neurobiological discoveries, many psychologists believe that we are hardwired from birth to be in relationships. Those who lack healthy connections—because they are shy, socially awkward, perceive themselves as unattractive, suffer from disabilities, etc—can be plunged into depression and anxiety. Studies have linked loneliness with increases in stress-response hormones, suicidal behaviors, various mental disorders, anger, poor sleep, hypertension, drug and alcohol use, and reduced life expectancy. Concerned about the loneliness epidemic, professionals and community groups have directed interventions to ease loneliness in various populations, the most common of which are the elderly (and, increasingly, youth). Loneliness is, thus, multidimensional, casting its shadow over our thinking, emotions, actions, and physical wellbeing. Some researchers have argued that its health consequences rival obesity or addiction.
This multidimensional aspect is one reason why most psychologists have typically defined loneliness mainly as a subjective experience. In Peplau and Perlman’s (1982) commonly cited definition, loneliness arises when one’s desired and current relationships do meet one’s expectations, with an accompanying “aversive” feeling. We also now know that the severity of loneliness increases as this perceived discrepancy increases.
Today, loneliness is pervasive and increasing. As cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti (2019) suggests, “[Loneliness] has become part of the social fabric. Certainly, it has become a convenient hook on which to hang a number of discontents. Loneliness has become an emotional hold-all: a shorthand for the absence of happiness, for a sense of disconnect, for depression and alienation, for social isolation” (p. i). Alberti even entitled her book, A Biography of Loneliness, suggesting that loneliness has taken on a life of its own.
Philosopher Ben Lazare Mijuskovic (2012) confirms that our concerns about the negative effects of loneliness are valid: “The primal instinct to avoid loneliness, along with the accompanying need for prolonged intimacy, from the cradle to the grave, is the strongest motivational drive in human beings” (p. xxx). Suggesting that loneliness is the most powerful motivational force in human nature is a remarkable statement, and whether we agree with this idea or not, it expresses how powerfully loneliness has stamped itself in the modern world.
Debates on Loneliness
There is debate on whether loneliness is part of the human condition. Alberti (2020) argues that it is more readily understood as a product of our modern world and arose with the Industrial Revolution. Like other problems that emerged 200-plus years ago (such as addiction), loneliness is pinned directly on the fragmentation of society in the Western industrial age. Strengthening this argument is the weakening of religious beliefs. In the old (Western) world, almost everyone believed that God was in Heaven looking out for them. No one could really feel alone with such a sure belief. But the writings of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and, later, Freud led many to believe that their conviction that God was bound intimately in human affairs was less than secure.
On the other hand, those who believe that loneliness is part of the human condition point out that it has always been with us, as far as we know. They point out that the Bible warns, “It is not good that man should be alone,” and writers highlighted loneliness before the industrial revolution, such as Cervantes in Don Quixote (published in 1612). Yet it is the modern world that we find many more works with loneliness themes. Our confusing and chaotic modern world seems to have intensified the problem, and many works since the Industrial Revolution have put a special emphasis on it, including Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Thus, we can say with some confidence that although people have been lonely for millennia, it is the fragmented modern world that has catalyzed its intensity.
Another debate is the relationship between aloneness and loneliness. Some scholars believe that lack of human connection, regardless of the situation, leads to loneliness. However, most psychologists today argue that loneliness is not necessarily about a lack of connection with others. Artists, for instance, have consistently explained that loneliness is essentially a prerequisite for the creative mind. But this aloneness or solitude is not a bad thing. It’s not really about loneliness; it’s about choice, not pathology. And we know that many people who are married with kids, work full time with colleagues, and live in cities are lonely. Their suffering is evidence that they crave connections, and if they do not purposefully take steps to connect with others, their quality of life deteriorates.
Loneliness During Covid-19
Most of the lonely people during Covid-19 were lonely well before 2020. However, we now have evidence that the pandemic seems to have intensified the discrepancy between relationships they would like to have and those they do have. In any case, an easing of social distancing won’t do much to help these people, whose loneliness is chronic. For them, therapy is often the best way to address their suffering.
Others who complain of loneliness during the pandemic suffer from a situational loneliness. As media commentators have pointed out, this sort of loneliness can be eased by keeping in contact with loved ones and friends, even if it means over the internet or keeping 2m from each other.
Studies of loneliness during the pandemic have concluded that certain populations are suffering from loneliness more than others. According to a Canadian study (Nwachukwu et al., 2020), young people were significantly more depressed because of the pandemic than were the elderly. It may be that older people have developed resilience from overcoming financial crashes, war, and other disasters, as well as being more financially secure. This is not to say that the elderly has escaped loneliness. We have sufficient research of those in care homes that they, too, have felt the burden of loneliness from social distancing. But, as a group, they appear to be less effected than youth.
If you’re suffering from loneliness, or you know someone who is, here are a few tips:
Realize that one-size-fits-all interventions don’t work very well—The subjective nature of loneliness suggests tailoring interventions to the specific individual. Indeed, research suggests that merely increasing social contact—encouraging young people to join the dragon-boat club or arranging card games for the elderly—may not be enough. Despite some support (Masi et al., 2011), enhancing social support, increasing social skills, and increasing opportunities have been found to be only minimal effective. Compared with these coping strategies, Hawkley and Cacioppo (2015) concluded that addressing perceptions of social threat, an individual factor, is a more effective tactic. Unnecessarily interpreting social contact as a big threat is damaging; the best approach is to gain some perspective of the pandemic and not reduce human contact to a potentially deadly encounter.
Develop personally meaningful connections—As mentioned above, social contact, in itself, is not the answer. Rather, meaningful relationships are key. Steffens and colleagues (2016) concluded that interventions for the elderly had to be personally meaningful for the individual. “In this regard [ie, social interventions], practical interventions should focus on helping retirees to maintain their sense of purpose and belonging by assisting them to connect to groups and communities that are meaningful to who they are” (p. 7).
Reinvent yourself (if needed)—The loneliness for some people seems tied to how they make sense of themselves. For example, a study of US military veterans (Stein, 2017) suggests that, at least for veterans, loneliness is tied to their identity. Lonely veterans don’t believe that they can make connections in the civilian world because only other veterans can understand what they are suffering from. Again, it’s not that they lack the opportunities for social contact. It’s because they believe they can find no meaningful relationships in their daily lives. Working with veterans for more than a decade, I’ve learned that helping them live personally meaningful lives demands that they see themselves as human beings, rather than just soldiers.
Overcome self-centeredness—Even married with kids, and working all day with colleagues, a self-centered person suffers the pain of loneliness. This is likely why activities such as volunteering (for a personally meaningful cause) have been shown to ease loneliness, as any number of internet posts during the pandemic have described.
Talk about being lonely—Talking about personal loneliness is a challenge for many people. There is a stigma attached to the experience, which makes most of us uncomfortable even bringing the topic up. But we can learn from literary writers who help us appreciate how they have dealt with loneliness by exploring it as a theme in their work. We don’t need a writer’s dexterity with language; talking to family and trusted friends is effective.
Loneliness is complex. The experience of loneliness of a child who has lost their mother is different from the loneliness of a child who has no friends, as Weiss (1973) pointed out. What is common about all lonely people, however, is that they crave meaningful relationships and a sense of belonging.
Easing loneliness seems to be about entering into meaningful connections with others. Barriers to achieving this goal—shyness, poor social skills, warped social believes such as “I’m different,” etc—need to be overcome. But overcoming barriers is not good enough. The key is to develop authentic connections.
In any case, the pangs of loneliness are a warning that we need to do something to change our behaviors and way of making sense of self and the world. Left unattended, loneliness leads to deteriorating physical and mental health.
Alberti, F. B. (2019). A biography of loneliness: The history of an emotion. Oxford University Press.
Alberti, F. B. (2020). Loneliness is a modern invention. Understanding that history can help us through this pandemic. Time [online]. Retrieved from https://time.com/5828736/loneliness-coronavirus-history/
Courtin, E., & Knapp, M. (2017). Social isolation, loneliness and health in old age: A scoping review. Health and Social Care in the Community, 25(3), 799–812. Doi: 10.1111/hsc.12311. (First published online 2015)
Gibson, H. B. (2000). Loneliness in Later Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Doi: 10.1057/9780230510203_4
Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals Review of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218–227. Doi: 10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8
Hawkins-Elder, H., Milfont, T. L., & Hammond, M. D. (2017). Who are the lonely? A typology of loneliness in New Zealand. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 52(4), 357–364. Doi: 10.1177/0004867417718944
Heinrich, L. M., & Gullone, E. (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26(6), 695–718.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. Doi: 10.1177/1745691614568352
Johnson, J. K., Stewart, A. L., Acree, M., Napoles, A. M., Flatt, J. D., Max, W. B., & Gregorich, S. E. (2020). A community choir intervention to promote well-being among diverse older adults: Results from the Community of Voices trial. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 75(3), 549–559. Doi: 10.1093/geronb/gby132
Masi, C. M., Chen, H., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2011). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3), 219–266. Doi: 10.1177/1088868310377394
Mijuskovic, B. L. (2012). Loneliness in philosophy, psychology, and literature (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.
Nwachukwu, I., Nkire, N., Shalaby, R., Hrabok, M., Vuong, W., Gusnowski, A. … Agyapong, V. I. O. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic: Age-related differences in measures of stress, anxiety and depression in Canada. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(17), E6366. Doi: 10.3390/ijerph17176366
Perlman, D., & Peplau, A. (1981). Toward a social psychology of loneliness. In Duck, R., & Glmour, R. (Eds.), Personal relationships in disorder (pp. 31–56). London: Academic Press.
Steffens, N. K., Cruwys, T., Haslam, C., Jetten, J., & Haslam, S. A. (2016). Social group memberships in retirement are associated with reduced risk of premature death: Evidence from a longitudinal cohort study. BMJ Open, 6, e010164. Doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-010164
Stein, J. Y. (2017). The veteran’s loneliness: Emergence, facets, and implications for interventions. In L. Rudolf (Ed.), Psychology of Loneliness (pp. 1–36). Nova Science Publishers.
Weiss, R. S. (1973). Loneliness: The experience of emotional and social isolation. Cambridge: MIT Press.