Shelter-in-place orders and physical distancing have not led to an overall increase in loneliness among Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, according to new research published Monday by the American Psychological Association (APA).
This finding was unexpected, say the study’s authors.
“We were surprised by the overall remarkable resilience in response to COVID-19,” says Martina Luchetti, the study’s lead author and a behavioral scientist at Florida State University, in a released statement. “The pandemic is something that everyone is going through, and 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.”
That doesn’t meant loneliness has stopped being a public health concern. Even before the pandemic, loneliness was recognized as being widespread and potentially harmful to health. Chronic loneliness is associated, for example, with a weakened immune system, greater inflammation, higher levels of stress hormones, and an increased risk of chronic disease, including heart disease and stroke.
In one survey conducted last year, three in five American adults (61 percent) reported that they sometimes feel lonely. And, although loneliness and social isolation can become more acute with age, young adults are not immune to such experiences. In that same survey, almost 79 percent of the respondents from the Gen Z generation and 71 percent of millennials reported feeling lonely.
Three sets of surveys
The new study involves three different surveys taken of the same representative sample of 1,545 Americans aged 18 to 98. These people were originally surveyed in late January and early February as part of a study on loneliness. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic was widely acknowledged. The survey had participants fill out a questionnaire that measures overall loneliness as well as two distinct aspects of it: feeling isolated and perceptions of social disconnectedness.
Luchitti and her colleagues decided to survey the participants again in March, right after President Trump declared a national emergency and the White House announced its “15 days to Slow the Spread” campaign. A third survey was done in late April, after shelter-in-place and other restrictions imposed by most state and local governments had been in place for almost a month.
No significant change in the average loneliness scores was observed across the three surveys. In fact, between the first and second surveys, the participants reported feeling slightly less isolated. Their perceptions of having social support also increased.
People in groups considered more at risk for loneliness — those with chronic health conditions and those living alone — had higher loneliness scores in the first survey than the other participants, but those scores did not increase during the pandemic.
Older adults showed a slight upturn in feelings of loneliness at the outset of the pandemic-related social restrictions in March, but then no change in April. Yet, even with that increase, they reported lower levels of loneliness than younger adults.
“Within the context of a pandemic that requires social distancing for the greater good people are able to feel that everyone is in this together,” the researchers write. “This feeling, even when physically isolated, may help to keep feelings of loneliness in check.”
The study’s findings are not much different from those of another survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University and published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). It found that although Americans’ overall psychological distress had increased significantly during the pandemic, feelings of loneliness had risen only slightly, from 11 percent in 2018 to 13.8 percent in 2020.
Still a worry
The current study comes with caveats. Most notably, a significant number of people who took part in the initial survey did not complete the third one. Those people tended to have higher loneliness scores, so their dropping out may have impacted the study’s findings.
It’s also important to keep in mind, Luchetti and her colleagues stress, that although the average level of loneliness among the participants did not alter during the COVID-19 pandemic, that doesn’t mean feelings of loneliness remained unchanged for individuals.
“There still could be significant individual differences in change,” they write. “That is, some individuals may increase substantially in loneliness and others may decrease substantially in loneliness, and thus overall there was no change at the sample level.”
“Even within vulnerable groups, there is likely to be variability in loneliness responses to COVID-19,” they add.
“We need to remain vigilant and continue to monitor loneliness as the social distancing measures continue,” Luchetti told Well+Good reporter Kara Jillian Brown. “It is possible that resilience may run out at some point.”
FMI: The study was published in the American Psychologist, a journal published by the American Psychological Association.