Where it comes from, and what to do about it.
“Sometimes when I’m at the grocery store, I pay with cash so I can feel the cashier touch my hand as she gives me my change.” — Carmen Sisson
I read the story holding this lonely text yesterday, and only afterward realized it was written on July 30th, 2018: two years before the pandemic. It now seems eerily ahead of its time.
I have to wonder: how are they doing now, the already lonely, in a world where paying cash is frowned upon, and this simple touch at the grocery store is dangerous contraband?
The number of U.K citizens feeling lonely has trebled in lockdown. 7.4 million lonely hearts, to be exact.
While we stereotypically associate loneliness with the elderly, this enforced period of isolation inverted all our assumptions. Over half of young people aged 16–24 have felt lonely in lockdown here: the highest of any age group. Those with more friends are likely to feel greater “lockdown loneliness”, not those with less.
Lockdown has lasted 104 days.
(I’m counting lockdown as officially ending when the pubs reopened — at a social distance, and needing to book in advance — on the 4th July. A cultural and social treasure, ladies and gentlemen.)
We have missed 21st birthday parties; gone through unexpected breakups; cancelled those interrailing plans and festivals; photoshopped ourselves jokingly into normal graduation pictures, and baked a hell of a lot of bread.
My father went to get his haircut again for the first time in months today, only to hear that his hairdresser’s son, daughter-in-law, and brother have all caught COVID-19 in London and Scarborough. His neighbour has died of it locally.
Face masks are still mandatory on all public transport.
In 2020, the question of loneliness, its long-term impact, and how it can be mitigated, presses us more urgently than ever. What do the decades of psychological research tell us?
Why do I feel loneliness normally?
First of all, social isolation ≠ loneliness. You can be alone without feeling lonely, like mid-enjoying a film or an album; you can also feel lonely at a party, surrounded by people.
Loneliness occurs when the level of human connection and intimacy we are receiving does not match how much we want to receive. It’s a need that must be satisfied to avoid discomfort, with its own pangs: a little like hunger.
Numerous studies show it’s not the quantity of friendships/relationships, but the quality that matters. You may have all your social needs met one day by an hour spent with a close friend: yet not from hours among a whole parade of acquaintances.
Let’s look over what counts as “close”:
- Acquaintances. These are people we “sort of know”. Maybe they’re in your workplace or go to your school, but you don’t know much about them. You’d probably exchange an awkward hello or nod if you locked eyes.
- Casual friends. You choose to spend time with these people: though maybe not that often, and probably in specific contexts. A shared dance class, seminar, or pub crawl can count as this. You can see each other and have fun in groups, but might not be alone together at all.
- Close friends. Now we’re into the realm you text outside of group chats and tag in memes. You know these people well, warts and all, seeing and supporting each other’s hard times beyond the glossy public Instagram. You’d chatter with them happily if you saw them.
- Intimate friends. Also known as your best mates. Rare, precious, and trusted like family, you’ve known each other a while, and/or spend a lot of time together. Remember when they alone saw you cry over that breakup, or you gave them a lift to A&E for their broken ankle? This is “ride or die”, and arguably as strong and true a form of love as a romantic partner. (In healthy and established relationships, your partner counts as one of them!)
My lecturer once explained it to me with a Shrek reference, and I hate that it works: onions. People have layers. The closer you are to someone, the more layers of the onion you’ve peeled away to truly know them.
So while acquaintances and casual friendships can be fun, the real panacea for loneliness is close and intimate friends.
The most important thing is “confidant” status: would you feel able to tell them if you were sad, or had a secret? Would you phone them in an upset or a crisis? Do you feel like you can truly relax, and speak honestly around them?
In situations where you don’t feel valued, wanted, or understood, loneliness is likely to occur: whether you’re around zero people or a hundred. It is that simple.
“But in lockdown, you still have those close and intimate friends, right? Even if they’re not here, right now, none of that has changed. So why are so many more people feeling lonely?”
Why do I feel lockdown lonely?
The thing is, it’s not just loneliness that you’re feeling.
It’s a sense of missing.
Missing: hugs from your friends; laughing at a joke together without a connection lag that ruins it; eating out at a restaurant; that holiday; when Hamilton was still a demo and Obama was laughing at it in the White House; stable employment; sitting down for an iced coffee; libraries; people-watching; music gigs; the gym; hugging your grandad; living without a chronic and pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future.
I could go on.
This is called “ambiguous loss”, and it’s a state of grief. If you’re alive on the planet right now, there’s kinda no way around it for 99% of us. Even if you were plopped in, fresh off the time-travel boat today, you just have to step outside your door, see the facemasks at the bus stop, be confused, have someone explain… and rodeo straight into that confusion followed by grief.
With the loneliness itself: I don’t have any research to draw on here because the situation is fucking unprecedented.
The last time anything on this scale happened was the 1918 flu pandemic, and psychology wasn’t even kicking enough back then to give us any data.
(Okay, I’ve found a retrospective one on the general mental health impact, but I warn you it isn’t pretty!)
So here are some personal hypotheses about some of the key contributing factors to the pandemic of specific, lockdown-based loneliness. We’ll find out how much I’m right or wrong in a few years.
- Economic uncertainty straining existing relationships. We’ve all seen the grim stats of domestic violence in lockdown. With chronic levels of unemployment and an ongoing recession, a lot of people are experiencing more anger and mood swings due to stress, uncertainty, and helplessness. This can and does take its sad toll. Some are stuck with their abusers.
- The deficit of human touch. I’ve mentioned this before in May, and it still concerns me perhaps the most. Zoom is not a substitute for a hug.
- Health anxiety making some of us feel rejected. We all know a couple of friends or family members who are squeamish — maybe they have an underlying health condition, maybe they’re particularly anxious — about hanging out with you right now. When one person is eager to meet or embrace, and the other is backing away from this, it’s hard for our brains not to instinctively take that as rejection, however logical we know it is.
- Loss of usual social hotspots for Gen Z/millennials. One of the reasons young people are the loneliest is because they’re the most likely age-group to use exactly the places that have been shut down — schools, clubs, pubs, universities, cafes — to mingle. Their friendships are more heavily reliant on both meeting new people and solidifying friendships here. By middle-age, we tend to have a smaller and more close-knit circle of friends which is more resilient to these losses.
- Scattering of the usual social networks, eg. colleagues. Working from home can be bliss without the commute. Digital meetings are also weird, awkward, and don’t have a water cooler. In a full-time job, you’re used to spending the majority of your day around people who you now only see on a screen. For people who have been furloughed or lost their jobs, this loss of regular small-talk and routine is particularly jarring.
- Being in our heads more. Ah, the weird lockdown dreams. With less to think about and Groundhog Day-Esque similarity between Wednesday and Sunday, the uptick in time spent staying-at-home is a breeding ground for both nostalgia and rumination, making us reminisce fondly on the when we could see all our friends without distance and a mask, and miss them all the more.
What is it doing to my head?
You are motivated by dopamine to seek out social interaction in the same way you are to seek out food or sex.
Serotonin — the “feel good” chemical, released by the drug MDMA — also rewards us with warm, fuzzy feelings after talking with someone. Do you ever smile after an unexpected, good conversation with a stranger? That’s the serotonin doing its magic.
Where do you feel loneliness? In your throat? Your chest?
Before that, it starts in the dorsal raphe nucleus.
The dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) is the brain’s dealer for serotonin if you will. Raphe neurons make serotonin. It’s their main job. (You also make some in your guts!)
What’s interesting is that the DRN is located in your brainstem. Most of your brainstem regulates the bare necessities of life: keeping your heart beating, breathing, blinking. Evolutionary-wise, this drive is hardwired and very, very old. The same motivation to socialize is found in the brains of mice, and very likely those of other animals less studied in labs. (Yes, animals can get lonely and enjoy making friends too. Even ants. New lockdown squad?)
If you haven’t socialized with anyone for a while, MIT neurologists have found that the dorsal raphe nucleus lights up with, essentially, craving. Until you socialize with someone again, you will want to. The intensity of this want is linked to the amount of DRN activity. This is loneliness. A biological nudge to get back out there. (A bit like a supportive, pushy mum.)
When you do, after not speaking to anyone for a while, you experience a greater rush of dopamine and serotonin than you would on a day you didn’t feel lonely.
So when we make jokes about the first post-social distance hug hitting differently, it really is going to hit differently.
We know that loneliness is hard on our mental well-being. According to a study of 21,597 people from fifteen years old to old age: it makes people more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs; increases the risk of depression; increases stress levels, and leads to poorer decision-making. The lonely are also less likely to exercise and rate their overall physical health as poorer.
Yes, it’s a grim picture. But if you’re lonely often in lockdown and only sometimes beforehand, I believe it’s more optimistic. Remember: this is touted as a new normal, but it isn’t normal. These circumstances are practically designed to impose loneliness on everyone in exchange for public health. There’s a difference between not having friends and having them, but being unable to see them.
Loneliness and interconnectedness also fluctuate over the lifespan. You may have felt very lonely in high school, but flourished in a new city, circle, and job; or just the opposite.
For all of us in 2020, loneliness is a companion that creeps up some days and is kept at bay among others. It is your brain’s way of giving you a nudge to say, hey, crazy times right, I want to talk to someone about it — help by listening to and indulging it. Most importantly, show yourself compassion on days you can’t indulge it: this is a normal feeling, and feeling peachy all the time isn’t normal. There are millions in the same situation as you.
All is temporary. All is changeable. Keep the faith.