How to Beat Loneliness In the Time of Social Distancing
Relationships with others are vital to your well-being, science shows — yet we’ve never been farther apart. Here’s how to forge the bonds you need, even in these distanced times, to be healthy, happy, and hopeful.
The close ties you have with your friends, family, and colleagues not only enrich your life but actually strengthen and extend it. A growing body of research shows that social connections help people flourish emotionally and physically, and that without them, your health can suffer, along with your mental and cognitive abilities.
“Relationships provide meaning and a sense of purpose to your life,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a psychology and neuroscience professor at Brigham Young University, who has studied loneliness extensively. “We are hardwired to gravitate toward authentic human connection, and quality interaction can have a powerful impact on us,” says Vivek Murthy, M.D., a former surgeon general and the author of Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World (Buy It, $28, bookshop.org).
Yet a surprisingly high number of us are lacking social connection — and this was true long before the coronavirus pandemic forced us into isolation, experts say. In a Cigna study earlier this year, 61 percent of U.S. adults reported being lonely, up 7 percent from 2018. Loneliness can be found across all age groups and communities, says Dr. Murthy. During a nationwide listening tour as surgeon general, he heard stories of loneliness from college students, singles and married couples, older adults, and even members of Congress. “All these people were struggling with it,” he says. “The more I delved into the research, the more I came to realize that loneliness is both extremely common and extremely consequential to our health.”
The Loneliness & Wellness Connection
The distress that loneliness makes you feel can have serious ramifications for your body and mind. “Humans are social beings. Throughout history, being part of a group has been crucial for our survival, providing protection and safety,” says Holt-Lunstad. “When you lack proximity to others, your brain becomes much more alert. You’re looking out for threats and challenges. This state of alert may lead to stress and increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammation.” (Related: What Are the Psychological Impacts of Social Distancing?)
If that stress is chronic, the effects on the body can be profound. A report released this year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found evidence linking loneliness to cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, and dementia. Other studies show that people who are lonely are at greater risk of anxiety and depression, says Dr. Murthy. And it can shorten your life span: “Loneliness is associated with a 26 percent increased risk for earlier death,” says Holt-Lunstad.
Connection, on the other hand, helps keep you strong. Just knowing that you have people you can count on increases survival by 35 percent, according to Holt-Lunstad. And having different kinds of relationships — friends, close family members, neighbors, workout pals — seems to bolster the immune system. “One study from Carnegie Mellon University showed that having a diversity of relationships makes you less susceptible to a cold virus and upper respiratory illness,” she says. “Social connection is one of those under-appreciated factors that has a tremendous amount of influence over us.”
How to Cope with Loneliness During Coronavirus
Although we can’t be together physically at the moment, experts see this as a time to reassess and put a renewed emphasis on our relationships. “Crises can help us focus — they bring clarity to our lives,”says Dr. Murthy. “Being separate from others has made us realize how much we need one another. My hope is that we come out of this with a stronger commitment to one another.”
In the meantime, here’s how to build a sense of togetherness now and overcome with loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic.
Change Your Outlook
“Instead of thinking of being stuck at home as a negative, look at it as an opportunity,” says Dan Buettner, the author of Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100 (Buy It, $28, bookshop.org), who has studied areas of the world where people live the longest. “Spend quality time with whoever is at home with you, whether that’s your spouse, kids, or parents, and really get to know them on a deeper level.” (Related: What Quarantining In a Foreign Country While Living In a Van Taught Me About Being Alone)
Use the Power of 15
To beat loneliness during coronavirus, call or FaceTime someone you care about for 15 minutes a day, suggests Dr. Murthy. “That’s a powerful way to build connection into your daily life,” he says. “Eliminate all distractions and really focus on the other person. Be fully present, listen deeply, and share openly. There’s something really magical and powerful about that kind of experience.”
Cultivate Different Types of Relationships
We need three kinds of connections in our lives, says Dr. Murthy: people who know us well, like a spouse or a best friend; a circle of friends with whom we can spend evenings or weekends or go on vacations; and a community of people who share our interests or passions, like a volunteer group or a workout community. To cope with loneliness during coronavirus, make a point to build connections in each of these areas. (If you're not sure how to do that, follow these tips on how to make friends as an adult.)
“We are, by nature, social primates, so it makes sense that being with other people helps us feel happier,” says Laurie Santos, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Yale University and the host of The Happiness Lab podcast. “There is also evidence that being around others makes the good events in life a little better.”
Spending time together is beneficial, and sharing activities can provide an even bigger boost, research shows. The key is to actively seek out ways to connect. “People are engaging in lots of intentional activities like Zoom dinners and socially distanced hikes with friends,” says Santos. “If we’re creative, social isolation doesn’t have to mean social disconnection.”
Or, organize socially distanced happy hours, Buettner suggests. “It’s a good way to cultivate relationships with your neighbors.” You can also start a “quaranteam,” a group who quarantine together even if they don’t live together. “It means you all observe safe practices and don’t have interactions outside your bubble,” says Dr. Murthy. “That way, you can get together to strengthen your connection.” (You can even pick up one of these hobbies with your pals.)
Help Others — and Yourself
Service is a great antidote to loneliness, says Dr. Murthy. Plus, research shows that doing things for others makes us happier, says Santos. “Check on a neighbor and see if you can pick up groceries for them,” says Dr. Murthy. “Call a friend you know is struggling with anxiety or depression. There are all kinds of ways we can help people during this difficult time.”
Make the Most of Online Workouts
Just 20 minutes of exercise at moderate intensity will get your mood-enhancing brain chemicals pumping, science finds — but the domino effect on your sense of well-being doesn’t stop there. “These same chemicals increase the pleasure you get from talking to, laughing with, and working with people — even if you’re communicating remotely — and that often builds a greater sense of trust between us,” explains psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., the author of The Joy of Movement (Buy It, $25, bookshop.org). “Physical activity makes it easier for us to transcend ourselves and feel connected to something much bigger, like our communities.” (P.S. here's why you should exercise even if you're not in the mood.)
Thanks to social media and other live-streamed, realtime workout routines, we can meet up with friends for a hit of connection during the coronavirus pandemic. Studios like Barry’s Bootcamp and celeb trainers like Charlee Atkins offer Instagram Live sessions, sites like BurnAlong let you join instructors, and Peloton brings live classes and leaderboards to your built-in screen as you cycle.
Share a Meal with Your Quaranteam
“Eating provides three opportunities a day to bond with the people who are important to us,” says Buettner. “In Blue Zones, people make the eating ritual sacred. It’s nonnegotiable, especially the midday meal. That’s the time where the family comes together and downloads their day. It’s about sharing the human experience with others who care about them."
"One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that people have the opportunity to relearn the art of cooking at home, which gives us a chance to de-stress and bond," he says. "You are downshifting in preparation for the meal so that on a hormonal level, you’re ready to eat without the stress hormone cortisol interfering with your digestion. Research shows that people who eat with their families tend to eat slower and healthier than they would if they were alone.”
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.
Shape Magazine, October 2020 issue