Covid-19 Pandemic-Induced Loneliness
The world is facing a global public health crisis for over a year now. Billions of people are repeatedly quarantined in their homes, as nations go into lockdown to implement social distancing in an effort to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus. As a result, mental distress associated with feelings of loneliness increased dramatically in the population, especially among those who were already isolated and experiencing loneliness before the pandemic hit.
"Out of the blue, the pandemic strikes – our job is gone, along with any financial security we may have had – our partner, child, mother, father, ... is dead – our identity has evaporated. Suddenly, we have lost our life purpose and our connections with others. We find ourselves totally isolated from the rest of the world. No one visits. Much less writes. No one seems to care whether we are alive or dead."
Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is both complex and personal to each individual and affects all age groups. It is a pervasive problem in modern societies, and its incidence was already on the rise before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our individualized lifestyle, partly due to socio-demographic shifts – smaller households, later marriages, increased life expectancy coupled with greater professional and educational mobility – is in fact, conducive to social isolation and increased loneliness. In 2019, a national survey conducted by health insurer Cigna found that 61 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely.
More recently, loneliness has been recognized as a serious public health problem with a myriad of negative effects on physical and mental health. According to a 2010 analysis of 148 studies by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Utah, loneliness exceeds the health risks associated with obesity, inactivity, excessive alcohol or tobacco use (more than 15 cigarettes per day), and air pollution.
Loneliness is not monolithic therefore its treatment is multidimensional. Jeremy Nobel, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, distinguishes three types of loneliness: 1) Interpersonal loneliness “Like, ‘Do I have a friend? Do I have someone I can tell my troubles to?’” 2) Existential loneliness; “Do I fit into the universe? Does my life have any meaning, purpose, weight, value, mission?” 3) Societal loneliness: “If I enter a room, is my arrival both expected and welcomed?”.
It is essential to differentiate between these three types of loneliness and their respective origins to apply the most appropriate treatment. Some people may experience a combination of one or more of these conditions and need to be managed accordingly.
First, what most people have in mind when they think of loneliness is what Jeremy Nobel calls interpersonal loneliness, which is defined as the self-perceived gap between our actual social connectedness and the one we aspire to have. This type of loneliness – which pertains to everyday interpersonal relationships – is based on a perceived lack of social connection and can be resolved by efforts to communicate, care and bond. The durable response to interpersonal loneliness is to establish and maintain a healthy support system.
The evaporation of "weak ties" played a key role in triggering the widespread feeling of loneliness during the pandemic. Sociologists, call "weak ties" the informal interactions we have with low-stakes acquaintances and strangers, such as neighbors, delivery people, dog walkers, and others we encounter on a normal day. Interactions with "weak ties" can be just as effective in providing us with a sense of well-being and belonging as stronger ties with family and close friends. Research has shown that people with both strong and weak tie networks are less likely to feel lonely than those with only strong ties. Each individual conversation with a stranger or weak tie is not necessarily exceptional, but it does help to build a sense of trust and community.
Second, existential loneliness deserves to be clearly separated from the other two types of loneliness. Existential loneliness is related to the nature of our existence and stems from the realization that every human being is fundamentally alone, resulting in feelings of emptiness, sadness and longing. It is an inevitable component of the human experience that overshadows every other aspects of our lives and calls for solutions that are found within ourselves. This unquenched longing tends to become more intense during life challenges, such as the loss of a loved one through death or divorce and leads to a questioning of the meaning of life. Existential loneliness compounded by hardships requires treatment that first addresses the loss or lack of meaning, after which the feeling of loneliness per se can be tackled. Existential loneliness cannot be overcome by love alone or by any other type of social interaction. No matter how much we enjoy the company of others in solid relationships, we will always feel a certain residual emptiness in some way or another.
Third, societal loneliness: societal inclusion is a human right for all. Beyond race, class, and gender preference, societal exclusion affects countless people, including those who do not meet beauty standards, people with disabilities or mental illnesses, and even the elderly... Social stigma is a key factor in social marginalization, which is subjective and rooted in ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. The expression of social exclusion can take many forms, often through ambiguous attitudes that may go unnoticed at first, such as refusal to look someone in the eye or the "silent treatment" – causing a feeling of societal loneliness. Acknowledging our own experiences of exclusion paves the way for empathetic understanding and dialogue, and ultimately for healing and social reform.
Among these three types of loneliness, do you recognize a type that you may have felt? Were you able to cope with it satisfactorily? What lessons have you learned from these experiences and how might they change your approach to loneliness in the future?
The pandemic will eventually end, and two important lessons emerge: 1) the importance of emotional preparedness to cope with loneliness in times of crisis – as this sudden cataclysmic turn of events has brought home the startling reality – how to live with ourselves? and 2) the fact that healthy and robust psychosocial well-being is the cornerstone of public health.