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The Evidence on Loneliness and What to Do About It

Research tells us about the broader effects of social distancing.

misty/Adobe Stock
Source: misty/Adobe Stock

As the government tells huge numbers of Americans to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it’s natural for some people to experience feelings of loneliness—especially those who live alone and may go days without seeing another human in person.

This level of social isolation is certainly unprecedented in our modern society. But there is a significant body of evidence on isolation and loneliness that can help us understand the broader effects of social distancing, and there are some steps we can take to mitigate them.

First, there is ample evidence that shows sustained loneliness is not simply equated with sadness or depression, but leads to larger health implications. Among older adults, loneliness increases the risk of developing dementia, slows down their walking speeds, interferes with their ability to care for themselves, and increases their risk of heart disease and stroke. Loneliness is even associated with dying earlier.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, about a third of people living in industrialized nations experienced loneliness. Data show the condition is not influenced by income, education levels, gender, or ethnicity.

So, what can we do about loneliness? There is a large body of evidence that describes a broad range of interventions to help. One systematic review demonstrates that physical activity can help to reduce levels of loneliness somewhat. (Although there is some question as to whether people who are lonely simply do not exercise.) The authors also question whether it’s physical activity with other people that actually reduces loneliness. In this climate of social distancing, this could mean that going for a walk outside with a friend—of course, while maintaining the prescribed six-foot distance apart—may be an effective way to reduce loneliness.

Another meta-analysis from the University of Chicago looked at a wide range of interventions to address loneliness. Surprisingly, interventions that involved interaction with others, receiving social support, or improving social skills were not the most effective. Instead, what helped the most was therapy for a condition called maladaptive social cognition—essentially negative thoughts about self-worth and how other people perceive you. The article found this is especially true for feelings of loneliness that occur regularly over time.

Given our current crisis situation, clearly, everyone who feels lonely is not suffering from maladaptive social cognition. But focusing on positive thoughts about yourself in a consistent manner may help you to feel a little less lonely.

A third meta-analysis conducted by researchers from Italy and Poland focused on loneliness interventions for older adults. It found that interventions involving technology were among the most effective ways to reduce loneliness and that community-based art programs—such as classes and performances—were also effective at reducing loneliness.

During social distancing, connecting with friends and loved ones via technology is a viable option. Platforms such as Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Meet are all offering free video-conferencing services. A virtual happy hour can be a surprisingly fun way to spend an hour.

Community art programs may be trickier to pull off during the pandemic. But a Google search of online drawing classes or Broadway musicals reveals a wide variety of options to pass the time. Many of these online services are currently offering these programs free of charge. If they don’t help alleviate loneliness, they may at least help pass the time.

The take-home message: Loneliness is a real problem that affects overall well-being and health. While many Americans are being asked to stay home, there are some evidence-based steps you can take to reduce feelings of loneliness.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.