Long before there was COVID-19, there was loneliness. In recent years, loneliness has been considered a growing public health problem. Even an epidemic. Researchers started sounding the alarm, and some governments started to take action. In 2018, for instance, the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness.
So, what exactly is loneliness?
Well, you’re lonely if you feel lonely. Loneliness is the subjective human experience of not having sufficient social connections. And it seems that many people feel they don’t. In a 2017 survey, the Vancouver Foundation found that nearly a third of people aged 18-24 in that city said that they felt lonely.1 A 2019 study2 by the Angus Reid Institute found that loneliness is a problem for people in Canada, and particularly for people who are members of a visible minority, who are Indigenous, who have mobility challenges and who identify as LGBTQ.
Loneliness is a common experience in communities outside Canada as well. A 2018 survey3 of 20,000 adults in the United States revealed some startling findings about loneliness. Nearly half reported sometimes or always feeling alone (46 per cent) or left out (47 per cent). Similar number said that they felt their relationships were not meaningful (43 per cent) and that they were isolated from others (43 per cent).
One of the main causes of loneliness is social isolation – not having the necessary social connections to keep us from feeling lonely.
It is well understood that human beings are social animals. We are actually hard-wired biologically to be in connection with each other. When we are out of connection, we suffer. And not just the effects of feeling lonely. Social isolation can cause a whole raft of other physical and mental health problems. Depression, anxiety and cognitive decline (in older people) are all associated with social isolation and having fewer social ties. These mental health concerns can make us withdraw from our communities even more, reinforcing our feelings of social isolation. It has also been found that the absence of strong relationships can cause early death. One study found that being socially isolated reduces our lifespan in a way that compares to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.4
Groups who live on the margins of society are at greater risk of being socially excluded and isolated, including the elderly, youth, and people who are unemployed, racialized and otherwise stigmatized.
The good news is, research the world over tells us that loneliness is a reversible condition. Researchers have also found that the main treatment for loneliness is meaningful social connection.
So, what is social connection?
The flipside of social isolation is social connection.
Our social connections include our friends, family, colleagues and community members. We can also get social support from anyone who provides one of the following5:
Someone who is available to listen;
Someone who can give advice in a crisis;
Someone to confide in;
Someone who understands your problems.
Just as social isolation causes health problems, being socially connected can have enormous positive effects on mental health and physical health. Social connection can reduce stress and give one a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging. (Cohen 2004; Thoits 1995). Supportive social ties can have a direct impact on our happiness and can reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones.
Having important and supportive relationships can also have a positive impact in later years, as some research has shown that the risk of dementia is lower in those with good friends and family relationships. For children, some research has shown that even having one good friend can save them from being lonely.
Real social support through connection can be enhanced when people build their skills to communicate well, and to empathize with one another. Communication skills can be learned. And so can empathy. These important skills can be taught and supported at schools, in communities and in workplaces. Even built environments, like buildings, parks and public spaces, can be designed in ways that reduce social isolation and increase community connectedness.
Social connection and COVID-19
We need each other more than ever as we live under the constraints of lock-down due to the pandemic. We need to be deliberate about our social connections because they are no longer built into our daily lives. Phone calls, video calls and other digital technologies offer excellent opportunities for connecting, even when we can’t be in the same room. What is known as “passive” socializing – like listening to others – can foster social connection and reduce social isolation6.
The pandemic can also bring us together in unexpected ways. Canada has been at the forefront of a campaign for caremongering, which has seen members of the community helping one another during these difficult times.
Communities recovering from natural disasters and similar disruptions – like a pandemic – have shown that social connection is a key to being resilient and to bouncing back. Socially connected communities simply respond better to crisis and disaster, and they rebound better afterwards. One example comes from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, where communities with more social ties provided help to family and neighbours, with people literally carrying many elderly people out of harm’s way. The link between social connection and recovery will be especially important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While we are still hoping and waiting for a vaccine for the coronavirus, we already have the medicine to treat the ill effects of loneliness. It’s something you can both take and give by strengthening social ties, sharing how you really feel and building a support network. That medicine is community. Being truly in it together can itself be the cure.