The COVID-19 pandemic has seen multiple lockdowns in multiple countries as governments have tried to limit transmission – and a new study uses those lockdowns to look at how we experience isolation and feelings of loneliness.
What's clear is that we all experience being on our own differently. For some people, it can be damaging to their mental and physical health; for others, the chance to have their own space and personal time is a real positive.
The study involved 70 participants aged between 17 and 73, and it highlights the need to look at loneliness across generations. In other words, It's not just the elderly that are at risk from the harm that can come from loneliness.
"Lockdown was an extraordinary event and presented a fascinating opportunity to explore how people of all ages experience loneliness," says psychologist Rowena Leary from the University of York in the UK.
"One of the most striking findings of our study was how different people are, with individuals experiencing the same situations as hell or bliss."
The study volunteers answered a series of open questions about lockdown and their responses to it – including high and low points – and their use of social media. While they weren't asked to write about being alone specifically, the topic often came up.
In addition, the participants were asked to indicate how often they felt lonely during lockdown: never, rarely, sometimes (the most common response), or often. The researchers then analyzed and coded the varying responses, identifying three key types of loneliness mentioned in the 'low point' section of the questionnaire.
They were social loneliness (a lack of contact with friends and family), emotional loneliness (a lack of close connections such as romantic partnerships), and existential loneliness (feeling entirely separate from other people).
The stories mentioned missing physical contact like hugs, and having to cancel social events. In the 'high point' sections, however, there were also mentions of the benefits of solitude, including getting closer to nature and not having to please other people.
"Existential loneliness is often brought on by contemplation of death or dying, which likely explains why many people experienced it during the pandemic," says Leary.
"This is an interesting type of loneliness because there is no obvious way – such as providing opportunities to socialize – to help people who are experiencing it."
Some figures suggest loneliness affects the wellbeing of as many as 3 in 10 people, and the UK even has a Minister for Loneliness to tackle the problem. As well as being harmful to mental health, loneliness is also linked to poorer cardiovascular health and impaired immunity.
To help people experiencing issues related to loneliness, scientists need to better understand it, which is where studies like this one come in. It's a complex emotion, and it can be difficult for people to admit to.
The researchers suggest that further studies of people who enjoy solitude could provide clues as to how others could be protected from the negative impacts of loneliness – perhaps through relatively simple and straightforward coping strategies.
"COVID has shown us on a grand scale that it isn't always possible for people to be with others," says psychologist Kathryn Asbury from the University of York.
"It seems important to identify strategies for coping with being alone – maybe even benefiting from it sometimes – and to consider how we can help diverse individuals to learn and use such strategies."
The research has been published in the Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.