For months we’ve been reading warnings that the coronavirus pandemic could make us lonely. But now researchers have good news: People are more resilient than we thought. A new study published in American Psychologist has found that social distancing has not led to more loneliness.
For the nationwide study by Florida State University College of Medicine, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 people before and during stay-at-home orders. This was part of a larger study on how we are reacting psychologically to the Covid-19. But because feeling lonely in particular is a known health risk, leading to higher rates of disease or death, the researchers felt it deserved attention.
"There has been a lot of worry that loneliness would increase dramatically because of the social distancing guidelines and restrictions," said lead author Martina Luchetti, an assistant professor at the College of Medicine in a press release. "Contrary to this fear, we found that overall loneliness did not increase. Instead, people felt more supported by others than before the pandemic.”
That’s surprising at first, but it aligns with some other recent research on how people can meet their social needs even without other people. And virtual eye contact can also give people a genuine sense of connection. But Luchetti felt it may have something to do with a sense of community. “Even while physically isolated, the feeling of increased social support and of being in this together may help limit increases in loneliness," she said.
Participants reported how lonely they felt.
Study participants were recruited from all over America and were adults between the ages of 18 and 98. The first survey was done in early February before the U.S. was widely considering the coronavirus to be a threat. But once the pandemic arrived, the researchers ran a survey in mid-March during the period of 15-days of social distancing announced by the White House. Then, they ran a second survey in late April, after people had been home for a while and as guidelines were set to expire.
Remarkably, older adults reported less loneliness than younger ones, although they did feel lonely temporarily at the start of stay-at-home. This held true for individuals who lived alone or had a chronic health condition. Perhaps that’s because they already felt lonelier than most people do. But it’s still good news that social distancing did not make it worse.
Prior to the pandemic surveys, studies had found that 35 percent of adults 45 and older reported feeling lonely, and 43 percent of those over age 60 reported feeling lonely. Other research has shown that younger adults are actually lonelier than the older age group.
Nonetheless, people did well when facing social distancing during stay-at-home orders. "Despite a small increase among some individuals, we found overall remarkable resilience in response to COVID-19," said Angelina Sutin, associate professor of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine and senior author in the press release.
Social distancing may be hard, but we are creative and resilient.
Loneliness is a problem, but we can handle it
Experts have been very worried about how social distancing would impact our mental health. Feeling lonely is considered a key risk factor both for medical and psychological problems; it makes sense to be concerned. According to Luchetti, "Even these transient feelings of loneliness can have a negative effect on health, meaning there could be dangerous unintended consequences if loneliness increases in response to the restrictive measures taken as a result of the pandemic."
But even with all the concern, Americans are showing just how resilient they are. And that’s something we often forget: that we have a long history of facing difficulty with resourcefulness. From the widely reported virtual high school, college, and family reunions to the increased phone calls to Grandma, people found ways to connect. Suburban teenagers even had “social distancing tailgates.” They borrowed their parents’ SUVs, parked six feet apart, and sat in trunks shielded by partially closed doors.
"Just knowing that you are not alone and that everyone is going through the same restrictions and difficulties may be enough in the short term to keep feelings of loneliness down," Sutin said.
It may come as a surprise that overall people actually felt more supported socially during their separation due to stay-at-home orders, but it should not. Humans respond to stress by trying to connect and are innately creative about it. Given that we could face more lockdowns from Covid-19 or future pandemics, knowing that we can do it is very encouraging.
An earlier version of this article was published on Forbes.com.
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