Can We Conquer Loneliness In A Time Of Social Isolation?

Apr 16, 2020

By: Linda Fried | New York Daily News

PHOTO: As the weeks go by, concerns about increasing feelings of loneliness are high, especially among older adults and people living alone.(ShutterStock)

Across the world, many people are now following directives to stay home and to maintain “social distance,” meaning a physical distance of 6 feet from each other,  if they have to go out for essential needs, such as to buy food or medicine. As the weeks go by, concerns about increasing feelings of loneliness are high, especially among older adults and people living alone.  Are there ways to design out loneliness?

Let’s start with a simple question: what is loneliness? Loneliness has been defined by the late John Cacioppo, a professor at the University of Chicago who was a leader in the field of social neuroscience, and his colleagues as a subjective pain that results when there is a lack of three kinds of meaningful, satisfying relationships: intimate relationships; relationships with family and friends; and relationships with a collective entity organized for the public good, whether its objective is civic, cause-based, or religious.

According to a recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults,” 43% of American adults aged 60 and older report feeling lonely – and that was even before we started social distancing. Loneliness is an acute pain, likened to hunger, that signals you are not getting what you need.

And we are learning more and more that loneliness can also harm your health. For example, loneliness is associated with an increased risk (29%) of coronary heart disease and an increased risk (32%) of stroke. Being lonely can also negatively impact cognitive abilities; a 2017 study led by Nancy J. Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist and researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, found that being lonely is associated with the faster progress of cognitive decline among adults over 50.

So, what should we do in a time of enforced isolation that sets up risks for painful loneliness? Here are six quick tips.

First, take care of yourself and maintain your personal balance. Not doing so increases the risk of feeling lonely. So, even if you are sheltering in place, eat nourishing and comforting food each day, listen to music, and read things that nurture your soul. And most of all, exercise each day: Lift a weight 20 times in each arm — even a water bottle will do and go for as brisk a walk as you can twice a day. And do all of this at set times, to create structure, which human beings need.

Second, view your efforts to stay in as altruistic. Sure, we are staying in to be safe and decrease our own likelihood of getting sick, but we are also doing it to protect others. Feel proud of your social generosity and your contribution to the public good in this way.

Third, follow evidence-based guidance about the status of the pandemic and what to do to take care of yourself. Visit websites for credible sources such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and your local or state health departments. They are responsible for protecting and caring for all of us, using the best science and knowledge. Know the facts and avoid fear- or ideology-based recommendations.

Fourth, stay in touch with family and friends. If you have a computer but have never used Skype or Zoom or have never FaceTimed before, this is the moment to ask someone to teach you or go online and follow the instructions. Once you’re connected, share something funny or that you find inspiring. See how neighbors in Italy, all quarantined, are out on their balconies playing music throughout the neighborhood, singing together and even dancing on the balcony.

There are many examples of dedicated people doing caring things right now. Look for these examples and share with others. We all could use a good laugh or an uplifting message right now.

Fifth, make some new friends. Check out social networking sites or chat groups based in your city or neighborhood. Find a way to create an online chat room for your building or community.

Sixth, do things that will make you feel purposeful and proud. All over New York, and all over the U.S., people are doing what Americans do so well: finding ways to help each other and to strengthen our bonds and our trust. This is the time to find innovative approaches to contribute to building our community, our neighborhood, our city and our nation. Find a way to see if anyone in your building, block or neighborhood is sick or otherwise housebound and needs groceries brought to them. Recognize that people are at increased risk due to loss of jobs and income; if you are able, send contributions to neighborhood or city organizations that will ensure food and shelter.

Working together, we will feel less alone and less lonely. This will strengthen our collective wellbeing, which can help resolve the personal hurt of loneliness due to disconnection from the public sphere.

A colleague just came back from South Africa, where the COVID-19 mantra is now “physical distancing but social solidarity.” There are opportunities in the midst of this crisis to come out of this stronger, less lonely, and more resilient as communities, and more inspired by the daily acts of kindness that brought us together.

Fried is dean of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

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