COVID-19 and Loneliness

Two new studies bring contradicting results regarding COVID-19 and loneliness.

Posted Nov 22, 2020

 Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the loss of many things. A loss of jobs, a loss of life, a loss of security, a loss of routine. Many people are struggling immensely, and loneliness is an emerging public health threat. But evidence suggests that reality is more complex than that. Two new studies bring in contradicting results on the relations between COVID-19 lockdown and levels of loneliness.  

The U.K. Study vs. the U.S. Study

The first study comes from the U.K. A 2020 study researched the loneliness caused by the lockdown in the United Kingdom. Data collected from March 23rd to April 24th from the COVID-19 Psychological Wellbeing Study was analyzed using logistic regression analysis. The goal was to examine the influence of sociodemographic, social, health, and COVID-19 factors in relation to loneliness.

The study found that people were experiencing increased levels of loneliness overall. Specifically, rates of loneliness were prevalent among those who were in a younger age group, those who are separated or divorced, those who had previous depression, those who have trouble regulating their emotions, and those who are experiencing poor quality sleep due to the pandemic.

In contrast, a U.S. study finds no increase in loneliness during the lockdown. This 2020 study researched the effects of lockdown on specific vulnerable groups. The study focused on American adults three different times: late January/early February 2020, late March, and late April. This study used data from an online Qualtrics survey that was given through Dynata, a panel company for researchers. It consisted of a baseline assessment and two follow-up assessments. 

Findings show that those living alone and people with at least one chronic condition were found to feel lonelier in general, but, unlike the results of the UK study, did not feel any lonelier during the lockdown period. This study did not find a significant increase in loneliness, but rather “remarkable resilience in response to COVID-19”.

How Do We Resolve These Contradictory Findings?

So, with these contradictory findings in mind, has there or hasn’t there been a significant increase in loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown measures?

To answer this question, it’s important to analyze the different methodologies each study utilized. Indeed, of all factors, one salient difference is age. While the British study measured the lockdown reaction of 1964 people with an average participant age of 37.11 years, the American study measured the lockdown reactions of 1,545 people with an average age of 53.68 years. This average age difference of 16.57 years is quite significant. Indeed, both the American and the British studies noted that younger age is a risk factor for increased feelings of loneliness.

Still, why do we see such a difference? Why does it seem that older people are better off?

One explanation for the contradictory results might lie in the adaptation that older singles have for situations of social isolation. This population was definitely included in the US survey and might influence the results substantially.

To explain the logic behind this suggestion, we need to better understand the qualities of the unique population of long-term singles. One important finding of the Happy Singlehood book was that:

"long-term singles become accustomed to seeking opportunities for socializing, hence they have strong social networks around which they typically construct their identities. Thus, even amid criticism, prejudices, or social isolation, a sudden life change is less likely to affect their self-perception and, in turn, their levels of happiness.”

In other words, long-term singles are more equipped to handle extreme changes in their social lives. They are more resilient to extreme changes in their social network because of the tools they have at their disposal.

Therefore, it might well be that the social safety net that older singles form from years of building high-quality social networks and self-worth contributes to them being less influenced by the social isolation of lockdown. Older singles are better equipped to survive such a drastic change in their social lives.

The Lesson

If this explanation is correct, there are significant lessons to be taken from the experience of older singles during the pandemic. Though the reality of social isolation continues to pervade, people deserve to experience social satisfaction despite the cycle of lockdowns. Forming a high-quality social network and prioritizing self-care could help younger people to survive the social isolation, and experience lesser rates of loneliness than older singles are.

This post was written with Abigail Winokur of Yeshiva University and Hebrew University's Rothberg School.