With the drastic changes in lifestyle that most Americans have faced over the past five months, one might expect major mental health repercussions. Yet, one study on loneliness has found that at least in this area, Americans are proving to be rather resilient.
The study, run by a research team from the Florida State University College of Medicine, was initiated as a cross-sectional survey to examine loneliness, personality and health with data collected in late January/early February. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the researchers seized an opportunity to study, in real time, the effects of the enforced isolation on subjects’ self-reported feelings of loneliness. They re-contacted participants to complete a second and then a third assessment and are currently gathering responses for a fourth.
“At the beginning of March, as the situation was evolving, we thought that maybe we could try to leverage and re-conceptualize the study to track the reactions to the pandemic,” said Martina Luchetti, Ph.D, an assistant professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine and lead author of the study published in the journal American Psychologist. “We changed it to a longitudinal study. We were lucky that we were able to gather this type of information at the right time.”
The results of the first three sections of the study showed that there were no “significant mean-level changes in loneliness across the three assessments” (although this does not rule out the possibility of individual respondents’ increases). Even groups considered to be at risk for loneliness, such as those living alone or with chronic health conditions, did not see an increase in levels during the first two months of the pandemic isolation measures. And, while older adults did see an increase in reported loneliness in March, those numbers leveled off in April.
Resiliency During Unprecedented Times
“My first impression on reading the study,” said William Chopik, Ph.D, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Close Relationships Lab at Michigan State University, “was that this follows what I would have thought, about how resilient people are, even during this unprecedented experience in our lives. There are risk factors and it is not like everyone did well. Some may have gotten more lonely, but maybe some were less lonely. Humans are resilient and that can be a good thing.”
The researchers assessed a nationwide sample of 1,545 adults with an 11-question survey to ascertain levels loneliness on a scale of one to three. The results were consistent with previous findings that about one third of American adults report feelings of loneliness.
“Of the participants that completed all three survey assessments, 34 percent reported a score of two or higher on the loneliness scale,” said Luchetti. “This percentage was stable across the three assessments.”
Perhaps the sensation of being “all in this together” had a nullifying affect on feelings of loneliness. Many participants reported increased social and emotional support which the researchers suggested may have been a result of people spending more time reaching out via video chat and group messaging.
“So, maybe this is indicative of how we can be resourceful during times of emergency,” said Luchetti.
Technology May Be Lifesaver
For all its perceived faults, the onset of technology may be a lifesaver when it comes to human connection.
“There are ways to connect more now and that makes it look different,” said Chopik. “If this pandemic was happening in the 80s, these results might look very different.”
And, as we return in many parts of the country to stricter measures to stop the further spread of the virus, looking at how we understand those connections may be helpful.
“I think the findings of the study highlight that the term ‘social distancing’ is a misnomer,” said Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “What we are being asked to do to slow the spread of the virus is to practice physical distancing. With the help of technology, creativity, and our very human drive for social connection, we can still love and support each other from six feet apart.”
Beyond the immediate, and, with any luck, unique situation of a global shut-down, the study results may also help to shed light on treatments for loneliness.
“The one explanation we gave is that we didn’t see an increase in loneliness so maybe support for people feeling lonely could come from different sources,” said Luchetti. “Maybe it is about people reaching out to each other via the telephone or email or other communication.”
Luchetti and her team are currently running a fourth assessment of the test subjects which may reflect the changing mood in the country as well as the overall fatigue many have shown with the pandemic.
“I would love to see a follow-up as the pandemic stretches on,” said Hendriksen. “The [published] study concluded in mid-April, a time of great change and intensity. Americans rose to the occasion, checking on their vulnerable neighbors and consolidating their ‘quaranteams’ to include those who live alone. Anecdotally, many people in my life noted they felt more connected during this time of transition and uncertainty as they reconnected with people they hadn’t talked to in years. But that intensity is difficult to maintain.”
How the ongoing reaction to the pandemic, from differing state mandates to the resurgence of the virus, to a return to stricter measures, will affect the loneliness quotient remains to be seen.
“In reality,” said Chopik, “this study is about eight weeks long with three time points. The question is what happens after four months or six months. Staying inside for six months is a little different from staying inside for eight weeks.”