How We Learned to Be Lonely
In the early days of the pandemic, many of us got used to solitude. It’s a habit we need to break.
“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Communities can be amazingly resilient after traumas. Londoners banded together during the German Blitz bombings of World War II, and rebuilt the city afterward. When I visited the Thai island of Phuket six months after the 2004 tsunami killed thousands in the region and displaced even more, I found a miraculous recovery in progress, and in many places, little remaining evidence of the tragedy. It was inspirational.
Going from surviving to thriving is crucial for healing and growth after a disaster, and scholars have shown that it can be a common experience. Often, the worst conditions bring out the best in people as they work together for their own recovery and that of their neighbors.
COVID-19 appears to be resistant to this phenomenon, unfortunately. The most salient social feature of the pandemic was how it forced people into isolation; for those fortunate enough not to lose a loved one, the major trauma it created was loneliness. Instead of coming together, emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished. Many people—perhaps including you—are still wandering alone, without the company of friends and loved ones to help rebuild their life.
If your life has not yet gone back to its 2019-era “normal,” you are not alone. In a poll conducted in March 2022 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 59 percent of respondents said they had not fully returned to their pre-pandemic activities.
One of the routines that remains disrupted is work, which for millions of Americans went from a social experience to one of isolation: sitting behind a computer screen, miles away from others. And it probably won’t return to “normal,” especially for office jobs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of people working from home more than tripled from 2019 to 2021. Universal remote work is no longer necessary from a public-health standpoint, yet in 2022, 59 percent of those who say their jobs can mainly be done from home are still working at home all or most of the time. Most are doing this by choice, despite the fact that 60 percent say they feel less connected to their co-workers than they had before the pandemic.
More serious for happiness is that many people now prioritize socializing for fun less than they used to in the “before times.” Friends whom I’ve recently seen for the first time since 2020 tell me they still almost never go to parties or to others’ homes, even though they used to go out frequently before the pandemic. In a poll that the Pew Research Center conducted in May 2022, 21 percent of respondents said that socializing had become more important to them since the coronavirus outbreak, but 35 percent said it had become less important.
Some people are probably seeing their loved ones less because of continued fear of disease. But when I’ve pressed friends for an explanation, the typical response has been, “I just got out of the habit.” This anecdotal evidence is backed up by data: Most respondents in a spring 2022 survey of American adults said they found it harder to form relationships now, and a quarter felt anxious about socializing. Only 9 percent were worried about being physically near others; the biggest source of anxiety (shared by 29 percent) was “not knowing what to say or how to interact.” Many of us have simply forgotten how to be friends.
This growing habitual loneliness is a public-health crisis. Research has consistently shown that isolation is linked to depression and anxiety. It has also been shown to lead to premature mortality, worsen cardiovascular health, increase inflammation, and disrupt hormones and sleep.
This harm is not equally distributed. Researchers at the Institute for Family Studies have found that in America, rates of unhappiness rose from before the pandemic (2012–18) to after the worst phase (2021). However, of those studied, two groups saw their rate of unhappiness rise more significantly than the others: single people and those who did not regularly attend a religious service. People in these groups likely have less automatically programmed social interaction than others.
Children, too, may be especially vulnerable. Kids born during the pandemic missed a crucial window of socialization, and a study of babies in Dublin published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that they are, on average, exhibiting deficits in communication. Compared with those born from 2008 to 2011, they are less likely to say one definite or meaningful word, to point, or to wave bye-bye by 12 months of age. Most of these babies enjoyed less interaction with a variety of people than they would have in the absence of a pandemic. We have no idea what the long-term implications will be.
If habitual loneliness is causing so much misery, why aren’t the habitually lonely taking greater steps to fight it? Why aren’t they insisting on working in person and reconnecting with friends? One possible answer is that, as research has shown, loneliness likely inhibits our executive function, which we need in order to deal with our distress appropriately. Think of a time when you felt very lonely, and instead of doing what you really needed to do—call people, get outside, and be social—you cocooned on the sofa by yourself.
Loneliness, like homelessness or poverty, tends to be self-perpetuating: Much as it is harder to get on your feet once you no longer have a place to sleep and shower, an address, or a phone, social isolation leads to behavior that leads to even more isolation. If you’ve been seeking remote work instead of in-person work for convenience, choosing solitary activities over group ones because of awkwardness, or electing not to reestablish old friendships because of sheer torpor, you may be stuck in a pattern of learned loneliness.
To break out of the cycle, you might need to try an “opposite signal” strategy. Your inertia probably tells you that getting dressed and going to work will be a hassle, and that inviting someone over for dinner will be uncomfortable. You should do these things anyway. Think of it like starting a workout routine after a long sedentary period (another common COVID problem). At first, your system complains bitterly, but if you push through the complaints, you soon find that you can exercise (or socialize) easily, because it has become routine and because you can feel how it improves your life.
There is no law of nature saying that if you wait long enough, you will be happy again. You must proactively manage your own environment. Insist on working in person with others; become a hub for physical gatherings of friends. If your circumstances make COVID a continuing threat—say, if you are immunocompromised—taking the initiative in forming plans that fit your needs is particularly important. I have friends who are very social in their home, for example, but who test all their guests because of their particular health status. In doing so, they are accepting what is really just a minor inconvenience in order to maintain their “friendship chops.”
COVID-19 may well have cut a groove of loneliness into your life. Going with what is easy and convenient in work and friendship cuts that groove deeper, making your isolation harder to escape. But if you can remember the warmth and happiness of your old social self and make a few changes, 2023 can be a year of renewal.