When the coronavirus barreled into the U.S. this year, the predominant public health advice for avoiding infection focused on physical isolation: No parties, concerts or sports events. No congregating inside bars or restaurants. No on-site family reunions. No play dates for kids. Just keep away from other people.
Meanwhile, although social scientists supported that medical advice, they feared the required physical distancing would spark another epidemic — one of loneliness, which was already at a high level in the U.S.
“You might expect this would make things much worse,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a neuroscientist and social psychologist at Brigham Young University.
But several new studies suggest that huge increase in loneliness hasn’t come to pass — at least, not yet. And the researchers studying the pandemic’s emotional fallout say humans may have ourselves to thank.
Angelina Sutin, an associate professor of behavioral sciences at Florida State University College of Medicine, was one of a team of researchers who checked in three times between January and late April with more than 1,500 Americans ages 18 to 98. Her team’s survey, which aimed each time to get at measures of loneliness, was recently published online in American Psychologist, a peer-reviewed journal.
“Like most people who study loneliness, we expected loneliness to go up,” Sutin says. “Humans are social creatures. We like to be together. We need to be together.”
Sutin and her colleagues had designed their survey in pre-pandemic days as a one-off look at how loneliness and other aspects of psychological health affect physical health. Respondents filled out a computer questionnaire about whether they felt lonely or isolated, whether they had people to turn to and whether they had preexisting health conditions.
Then came the coronavirus. By mid-March, state and local governments were issuing “shelter in place” rules. And even in many communities where it wasn’t mandated, many people started avoiding face-to-face encounters.
Sutin and her colleagues realized they had a unique opportunity to measure the effects of physicalisolation on loneliness. Between March 18 and 29 they asked those who had participated in their original survey how they were doing now that all those social distancing rules were in place. A month later the researchers checked in with the respondents yet again.
On a loneliness scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being not very lonely and 3 being very lonely, the score was 1.69 in the first survey, 1.71 in the second and 1.71 in the third — no statistically significant difference. “The thing that everybody thought was going to happen didn’t happen,” says Sutin.
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