Living with loneliness as COVID-19 pandemic rages on

Loneliness has been a pernicious side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world approaches a new year of social distancing and isolation, public health experts are exploring the long-term mental and physical health consequences of loneliness, and offering strategies to help people stay more connected.

Early in the pandemic, Jeremy Nobel, a lecturer at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, launched the Stuck at Home (Together) initiative through his Foundation for Art & Healing. The project encourages people to participate in creative activities and share them with others.

“People are typically embarrassed or ashamed about loneliness because they think it ties to some kind of inadequacy or deficiency on their part,” Nobel said in an article in the January-February 2021 Harvard Magazine. He noted that the collective experience of isolating during COVID-19 may change this perception. “So what’s different about this loneliness is it actually has the potential to be unifying,” he said.

Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology, acknowledged in the Harvard Magazine article that it can be difficult to be the one to reach out to others when you’re feeling lonely. But she recommended making the effort, noting the potential benefits of having someone else who holds you accountable for sticking to healthy habits.

While many people are suffering from the loss of social interaction with “weak tie” relationships, such as work acquaintances and familiar coffee shop workers, the increased time at home may be providing some opportunities for increased connection, Tyler Vanderweele, professor of epidemiology and director of Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, said in the article. Surveys that he and colleagues conducted in January and June showed that participants’ ratings of their close social relationships declined only slightly during the pandemic.

“I think people are reevaluating their lives,” he said, “and trying to find meaning in the midst of what is a very difficult set of circumstances.”

Read the Harvard Magazine article: The Loneliness Pandemic

Learn more

Pandemic may help destigmatize loneliness (Harvard Chan School news)

COVID-19 Mental Health Forum Series

Op-ed: Make room to flourish, even during a pandemic (Harvard Chan School news)