A Loneliness Epidemic
Quarantine is harder without our normal distractions from everyday loneliness.
Posted April 29, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
I'm pleased to offer an insightful guest post from psychologist and colleague Patrick Lockwood. In a discussion, he offered the intriguing suggestion that the loneliness people are feeling in quarantine and COVID-related isolation is nothing new but is exacerbated as we have exhausted the "normal" techniques we use to numb ourselves to the everyday loneliness that people constantly cope with. It was a compelling thought, and I asked him to expound on it for my readers. Patrick may be contacted through his website or on Twitter @PsychPLockwood.
We are in a longstanding loneliness epidemic in this country(1). The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to face a problem we didn’t see coming: the actual emptiness in our lives.
Research shows a relationship between loneliness and increased risk of emotional and medical problems(2,3), and even increased mortality risk (4). For a more detailed review of the consequences of loneliness, see this other post by Dr. Ali. To be perfectly fair, the causal link between loneliness and physical/mental health outcomes is tenuous, so take that discussion with a grain of salt. Regardless, we know that loneliness is not good for us because we’re an inherently social species and built to be connected.
Loneliness is typically a twofold problem. First, loneliness is the result of perceived unimportance (5). We need to “feel” like we matter to one another. We all know exactly what it feels like to be in a room full of people and not know anyone and feel somewhat lonely and out of place. Many times in romantic relationships people feel lonely when their partner is avoiding sexual or emotional intimacy, even though the two live under the same roof. So, in many ways, the quality of the relationship, less so the physical proximity, matters for understanding loneliness. Dozens of psychological variables impact our perceived importance: shame, guilt, trauma, abuse, neglect, attachment insecurity, cultural mismatches in values in relationships, and many more.
Second, loneliness is the result of a lack of self-understanding, specifically understanding our unique needs for connection. Lack of self-awareness is a common condition across mental health struggles. Our needs for connection are multifaceted. We’re all built differently. Practically speaking, there are hundreds of variables that can affect the way we process being separate from other people: personality (introversion vs. extroversion), habits/hobbies, culture, context, extant mental health issues, to name a few.
Once we understand our needs and we feel important, we tend to act on them and get our needs met.
Now that I’ve given my take on loneliness, let me offer a 3-part theory about the interaction between loneliness and our ever-changing psychosocial landscape:
- Life is stressful. Even though (overall) our world in the US is much better than it has ever been (prior to the pandemic), people seem to be much more stressed out. For the last 10 years in the US more and more people are working, and working overtime (even when we’re away from work). We live in a very fast-paced society, often with mismatching employee-manager perception of optimal job demands or workflows, which often results in disengagement and burnout. There’s also significant political stress in the US, with never-ending arguments about conservative vs. liberal policies, Donald Trump’s latest tweets, and upcoming elections.
- We often cope poorly with stress, for example sometimes relying on instant alleviation of distress via “checking out” by spending lots of time on social media; what people call “escapism.” There are plenty of ways to engage in escapism, the most common examples are drugs, social media, overworking, streaming service overuse (e.g. “binge-watching”), and excessive video game use. If we’re spending more time using escapist skills, how much time is left over for in-person relationships? This is not to rehash the highly contested “smartphone addiction” hypotheses. It’s simpler than that: We have great instant gratification tools, which are low cost in the short term (emotional cost is low compared to investing in a person). It’s reasonable to want an easier way to cope, but at what long term cost?
- If we are “escaping” too much, then maybe we have devalued our in-person relationships. More time online or in the bar, less time with close friends/family/romantic partners building quality relationships. For example, if you’re a regular in the online tribalism game (i.e., politics or religion or philosophical or economic ideology wars), then this online life can become a significant part of your socializing. We don’t see it happen. Slowly and subtly over time, we put more importance on our escapism habits, which automatically detracts from our real-life relationships. With this shift towards an online life for many, plus all of the stress mentioned above, and other forms of escapism…it seems like COVID-19 left us in a weird place. We were once able to distract ourselves with hobbies, the bar (superficial because of intoxication), vacations, social media, or overly packed work schedules before, but now we can't. Those distractions were great when we could balance them out with easy access to real people. Now some are feeling the pain (loneliness), wanting more out of their less than satisfying connections (due to absence of depth and perceived importance).
If we are slowly/subtly focusing too much on distractions and workplaces, and too little on optimal in-person connection (the core of our psychosocial survival needs), then maybe we are running on a connection deficit, possibly worsening quarantine life for many. Fear also seems to play a role here, like we are afraid that we can’t survive being lonely. I’ve written about fear, and how unrealistic/mismanaged fear makes our society a worse place to live and easily leads to escapist coping. The bigger issue is the loneliness though.
What’s the upside?
Is social media bad? Not at all; in fact, it has a number of upsides. We can also feel connected via Zoom or a phone call even if it’s not ideal, face-to-face connection. What does this all mean? I don’t know. It’s just a theory. Some elements apply to some people, but not all. Plenty of people have healthy relationships with alcohol, video games, sex, social media, and other escapist tools.
My hopeful take is this: We can come out the other side of this epidemic in a better psychological state. We can choose to take our loneliness and escapism issues seriously, and might even find the cure for the loneliness epidemic: real connection.