You can be a college student, surrounded by peers. You can be a stay-at-home parent, caring for young children all day. You can have a successful career, a spouse, partner, family and friends. You can be all these things and still feel lonely.
In other words, loneliness is not about being alone. It happens when you feel disconnected from loved ones or when you feel like you’re not seen by those who matter most.
The pandemic increased our loneliness
We were feeling disconnected prior to the pandemic. Two in five Americans reported their social relationships weren’t always meaningful, and one in five said they regularly felt lonely.
Social distancing and lockdowns intensified the problem. Some experts believe the pandemic caused people to question their relationships — and sometimes fractured them altogether. In one poll, 20 percent of Americans lost friends due to disagreements over coronavirus-related issues. Plus, one in five Americans lost a friend or a family member to COVID-19.
AP-NORC survey, March 2021
Who was hardest hit?
In a 2021 survey by Harvard University, called Loneliness in America External Site, 36 percent of American adults reported serious loneliness — feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time” in the wake of the pandemic. Young adults and mothers of young children were hardest hit:
- 61 percent of young adults aged 18–25 and 51 percent of mothers with young children feel lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.”
- 43 percent of young adults, and 47 percent of mothers with young children reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic.
- About half of young adults reported that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.”
- 63 percent of young adults are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, more than any other age group, according to a CDC online survey.
Results from the survey indicate we do little to support young adults who are dealing with the most defining, stressful decisions of their lives, such as whether to attend college, what to do for a career and how to navigate relationships. Added pressures from the pandemic only made these decisions more complex and stressful.
For mothers with young children, the pandemic increased their workloads External Site drastically. While they took on more of the childcare, schooling and domestic work, the pandemic took away the time and ability to have close connections with the people around them.
The mental and physical impact of loneliness
Occasional loneliness is normal. But feeling lonely consistently or over a long period of time can cause us mental and physical harm:
- Loneliness is linked to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
- Loneliness weakens the immune system and increases the risk of developing dementia External Site, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Loneliness has been estimated to shorten a person's life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to smoking 15 cigarettes External Site per day.
Time alone is important too
The pandemic also popularized a new term you may not know you experienced. “Aloneliness” is a word coined by psychologist Robert Coplan and his colleagues at Carleton University, to describe a lack of alone time. Lockdowns forced families to be together 24/7, working from home with a spouse, partner and kids.
Aloneliness is that feeling you get from not spending enough time alone. When you are constantly with other people, you have less time to process emotions or simply relax. One study found that when people had time to sit alone in a room for 15 minutes with no external stimulation, it helped them calm down External Site from high states of anxiety or excitability.
It’s a balancing act, according to researchers. They call it the “paradox of solitude.” Solo time has positive effects, yet too much can negatively impact well-being.
Looking to connect with people more? Start here.
You don’t have to change everything about your life to feel less lonely. Connection can be found by making small changes that will help you feel more engaged:
- Sign up and show up. It may seem obvious. But in the wake of the pandemic, it may also feel strange get out there again. Take a class, join a support group, or join a book club — it can even be virtual. Sign up for an exercise class, art class, or volunteer for a cause you feel passionate about.
- Give it time. It takes time to develop close, meaningful relationships. If you join a group and don’t feel an immediate connection to others, keep showing up. It may take some time.
- Schedule alone time. Relationships need a certain amount of distance, especially when you’re dealing with the monotony of everyday routines. Carve out time for yourself. Likewise, even if you’re an introvert, one or two people can’t be everything to you. Make time to foster healthy friendships outside of your family unit.
- Greet people warmly. Take a hint from our canine companions: Don’t hesitate to let people know you’re happy to see them. Make an effort to greet them when they walk through the door. Even casual acquaintances, like the people you see at the grocery store or the gym, appreciate a warm smile of recognition.
- Have intentional conversations. Without purposeful conversations or a curious mindset, you’ll miss the innermost thoughts and feelings of those around you. If you need help getting started, try conversation-starter card decks, or apps like Presence or Gottman Card Decks.
- Remember that connection is a two-way street. Are you doing all the listening in a conversation? Or are you doing all the talking? Be self-aware enough to know when to listen and when to share. Take time to listen, and thoughtfully respond, not with judgment or solutions to problems, but with empathy and compassion.
- Consider pet ownership. Studies show pets improve heart health External Site, decrease stress and feelings of loneliness. They also increase your opportunities for exercise, socialization and outdoor activities. They are also a lot of responsibility, so study up before committing External Site.
- Get to know your neighbors. Knowing the people next door may help you feel more connected. Yet, a quarter of us don’t know our neighbors External Site. It’s never too late to introduce yourself while getting the mail or when you’re out for a walk.
- Put away the phone. A third of American adults External Site, and nearly half of those aged 18–29, say they are online “almost constantly.” Prioritize in-person connections by deleting or setting time limits on social media.
- Practice self-compassion External Site. Be aware of when you are going through a tough time, and treat yourself with kindness and fairness. Remember the pandemic has not been easy for most people, especially those who have lost loved ones.
Need more help?
If you’ve tried any of the tips for staying connected and don’t feel any better, talk to your personal doctor, or consider scheduling a virtual visit through Doctor On Demand® External Link. Wellmark members can use their smartphone, tablet or computer to see an experienced doctor who can not only treat common conditions like the common cold or physical injuries, but also mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and more. Before scheduling your visit, log in to or register for myWellmark® Opens New Window to check your benefits.
Doctor On Demand physicians do not prescribe Drug Enforcement Administration-controlled substances, and may elect not to treat conditions or prescribe other medications based on what is clinically appropriate. For plans that include benefits for mental health treatment, Doctor On Demand benefits may include treatment for certain psychological conditions, emotional issues and chemical dependency. Services performed by Doctor On Demand psychologists are covered. For more information, call Wellmark at the number on your ID card.
Doctor On Demand by Included Health is a separate company providing an online telehealth solution for Wellmark members. Doctor On Demand® is a registered mark of Doctor On Demand, Inc.
- Time.com — COVID-19 Is Making America's Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse External Site
- News.Harvard.edu— Young adults hardest hit by loneliness during pandemic External Site
- HarvardMagazine.com — The Loneliness Pandemic External Site
- News.Northeastern.edu — THE WORLD IS REOPENING. SO WHY ARE MORE PEOPLE LONELY? External Site
- VerywellMind.com — Loneliness: Causes and Health Consequences External Site
- Wbur.org — Being A Working Mom Is Hard. The Pandemic Made It Even Harder. External Site