The Science Behind Why Social Isolation Can Make You Lonely

In a time when we’re all sheltering-in-place, what is social distancing doing to our psyche?

When you think about loneliness, you don’t exactly picture Batman.

Val Kilmer was the leading man of the 1990s, playing Batman, Iceman, Doc Holliday, and Jim Morrison. By 1995, he was raking in $6 million per film. But over the years, Kilmer became a social recluse who now admits to “feeling lonely part of every day.”

Whether you’re a world-famous actor or a grandmother living in Japan, loneliness is a universal human experience. And in a time when we’re all sheltering-in-place, I began to wonder what social distancing could be doing to our psyche. 

So I decided to turn to my friend and prolific writer Laura Entis. She has covered loneliness in its many forms for years. Laura has written all about loneliness, including articles about clinical trials for a loneliness pill, the importance of physical touch, and the impact of boredom on our creative process.

I caught up with Laura to discuss America’s loneliness epidemic, why solitude can help us regulate our emotions, and what we can do in our everyday lives to preserve a sense of meaning and connection. Below is our conversation:

Q: What is loneliness?

LAURA: Loneliness is perceived social isolation, or the gap between what you want your social relationships to be like and how you perceive them to be. While it’s certainly possible to be lonely when you’re alone, the adage “lonely in a crowd” can also be true. If you crave connection but don’t feel close to those around you, even if you’re surrounded by other people — that’s still loneliness. 

Loneliness comes in various shades. Much has been made of the “epidemic” of chronic loneliness —which we’ll get to later — but often, loneliness is a temporary state. The late John Cacioppo, who was a pioneer of loneliness research, described the condition as functioning like an alarm bell. Humans evolved to be social creatures. Loneliness, like hunger or thirst, prompts us to seek a vital resource: connection. 

How bad is the loneliness “epidemic” in this country? Has it gotten worse during the COVID-19 quarantine?

A recent survey by the insurer Cigna found that three out of five American adults identified as lonely last year — an increase of 7% from 2018. Overall, it appears that chronic loneliness rates are getting worse in this country. That’s worrying because unlike temporal loneliness, chronic loneliness leads to a host of negative health outcomes, including an increased risk of developing chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. In a meta-analysis of three million people, which controlled for confounding factors such as demographics and objective isolation, researchers found that loneliness increased the odds of a premature death by 26%. 

On one hand, it’s probably too soon to reliably say whether Covid-19 has increased loneliness levels. According to Douglas Nemecek, a senior medical director at Cigna, we just don’t have the data yet. On the other hand, I find it unlikely that quarantine — in which we’re barred from physically seeing friends and family — hasn’t already had an impact. Nemecek believes the pandemic will have long-term emotional repercussions long after the acute medical crisis has passed. We just don’t know how bad the damage is yet. 

Can you remember a time when you’ve been lonely?

I’ve been chronically lonely once in my life — for about a year, give or take, while I was abroad in Ireland during college. I didn’t know anything about the condition then, but loneliness as a punishing loop — of a craving for connection coupled with a sense of constant threat and the growing belief that social ties are for other people — rings true now. I like the writer Rachel Cusk’s definition, who wrote in one of her novels that loneliness “is when nothing will stick to you, when nothing will thrive around you, when you start to think that you kill things just by being there.”

You’ve written about how scientists are conducting clinical trials for a loneliness pill. Can we really cure loneliness with a pill? 

Researchers often describe chronic loneliness as a vicious cycle. Cacioppo believed this is an adaptive response — humans needed other humans to survive. If a member of the group was ostracized, however, trying to re-enter the social hierarchy too forcefully could lead to violence or an even more dramatic exclusion. Loneliness served as both a prompt to seek out others as well as an antenna constantly scanning for potential social threats.

On a temporary basis, loneliness pushes us to form connections. But when it’s prolonged, it can cause the brain to detect social threats everywhere, even when none exist. In the long-term, chronic loneliness literally changes the brain, making us hypersensitive to any sign of social rejection.

This permanently stressed state isn’t good for our health. Over time, it produces a process called weathering, in which resources are continually diverted to stress and flight responses, making the body less able to repair tissues and fight off infection, among other functions. 

According to Cacioppo and other researchers like Steve Cole, this pattern of retreat and further isolation is really hard to break. That’s where the idea for a loneliness “pill” comes in. 

Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago and John’s widow, is studying the effects of a neurosteroid called pregnenolone, which has been used in the treatment of stress disorders and could potentially ease the brain’s overreaction to social threats. When I spoke with her for the article you mentioned, she emphasized that the goal isn’t to stop people from feeling lonely, but to mitigate its negative effects on the brain and body. 

Honestly, I don’t quite know what to make of this — I wrote about her research over a year ago and am not up-to-date on how the trials have progressed. But treating loneliness like a diagnosable disorder is certainly interesting. If pharmacological treatments work, it could potentially help a lot of people break the cycle of hyper-vigilance and retreat. 

It seems like society doesn’t know the difference between solitude and loneliness. Isn’t it true that solitude can help us regulate emotions, while loneliness dulls them?

Loneliness, or the discrepancy between the social relationships we want and those we believe we have, is a subjective feeling that, by definition, isn’t very pleasant. According to Cacioppo, loneliness is adaptive, just like pain is adaptive. They’re ultimately negative experiences that increase our odds of survival. 

Solitude, on the other hand, is frequently enjoyable, a deliberate choice rather than an unwanted state. Many people are happy spending the majority of their time alone. Being by yourself only transitions into loneliness when the experience sharpens your longing for the company of others.  

Because the lonely brain diverts so much energy to threat detection, other details can get lost. Solitude, on the other hand, often provides the space we need to observe and make connections, either about the external world or about our own feelings and emotions. 

What’s the difference between boredom and loneliness? Are they related? How do they differ?

Like loneliness, boredom is an unpleasant state that nearly everyone experiences at some point in their lives. 

I hadn’t put it together until now, but yes, loneliness and boredom are quite similar, I think! Where loneliness is an unfilled desire for meaningful social connection, boredom is an unfulfilled desire to be engaged with the world. 

According to Peter Toohey, the author of Boredom: A Lively History, boredom can be divided into two central categories. There’s situational boredom, a temporary state that we’re all familiar with, and then there’s existential boredom, which Toohey defines as “an unrelieved sense of emptiness, isolation, and disinterest.” As with loneliness, the former is simply a part of being human. The latter, however, is problematic in a similar way to chronic loneliness: Rather than a passing condition, it can ossify into a fixed state that’s hard to escape. 

Is there a profile on a person you’ve read that you think gives people a sense of what loneliness entails and what its symptoms look like?

They aren’t profiles, but a pair of articles about loneliness in Japan really stuck with me. The first explores how older people in the country who are living alone sometimes go months without interacting with another human. The article does a good job of exploring the societal factors that have contributed to this and is full of devastating details, like this description of the occupants in a large housing complex: 

With no families or visitors to speak of, many older tenants spent weeks or months cocooned in their small apartments, offering little hint of their existence to the world outside their doors. And each year, some of them died without anyone knowing, only to be discovered after their neighbors caught the smell.

The second is a look at an unexpected byproduct of loneliness: elderly Japanese women intentionally getting arrested for shoplifting as a way to access social support and community via jail terms. It really drives home the point that connection is essential, and that we’ll go to desperate lengths to find it. 

And an actual profile that, when I finished it, made me think “Oh no, he’s lonely” is this 2016 piece on Justin Bieber

When we went to Bali, our guide told us this: “We believe everyone is equal. There are no areas for rich people and poor people. Maybe you make some money and decide to build a bigger house, but you stay in the community.” So if someone in the village is grieving, everyone grieves alongside them. Are we experiencing something similar with COVID-19 where it almost feels like a mass, global grieving? 

Hmmm — in some ways, yes? Calling Covid-19 the great equalizer isn’t true, of course. How you experience the pandemic, whether it be illness itself, social distancing measures, or the economic fallout, depends on variables like socioeconomic status, race, age, and geographical location. 

That said, it is true that we are all experiencing some version of this crisis, along with the grief that comes with it. There’s a silver lining to this: Many have found it’s a good time to reach out to others. I’ve talked to people who, as a side-effect of stay-at-home orders, have (remotely) reconnected with old summer camp bunkmates and sorority sisters. People are coming out of the woodwork, in a good way. 

And yet, at a time when so many of our daily structures have disintegrated and we crave the support of friends and family more than ever, we’re barred from physically being with them, which is hard on an individual level. 

How important is touch to comforting fellow human beings in times of crisis? What happens when we are deprived of that physical closeness?

We evolved to live in close proximity with others. Perhaps that’s why physical touch is so powerful. Research has shown it has the ability to lower cortisol levels and ease anxiety. 

James Coan, a psychology professor who runs a lab at the University of Virginia, conducted a series of brain scan studies on the power of hand holding, including one in which participants were put under the threat of mild electric shock. For those who were alone, blood rushed to the prefrontal cortex, fueling threat vigilance and emotional regulation responses. For those able to hold hands with someone they trusted, this wasn’t the case — an indication that physical contact with someone we know and like is enough to keep our anxiety and stress responses from flaring up, even during objectively stressful situations.

Speaking of Bali, I also learned about Nyepi, which is Bali’s Day of Silence. Flights are paused for 24 hours, all the lights are turned off, and everyone is meant to stay indoors. It’s seen as an opportunity to relax, meditate, and look inward. But English-language websites call it “a day of imprisonment” and some published “Nyepi Day survival guides.” Is there research to indicate that loneliness is more prevalent in certain types of places than others?

In her book A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion, the historian Fay Bound Alberti writes that chronic loneliness is a relatively recent concept. Before the 19th century, the word didn’t exist, largely because people’s lives were so intertwined. To survive in a pre-Industrial age meant depending on, and living with, others. 

This, of course, is no longer the case: in the U.S., around a quarter of adults live alone. Under this lens, chronic loneliness is a byproduct of modern-day, capitalistic society, in which we’ve traded community for increased independence. Living alone doesn’t equal loneliness but as Alberti argues, we’ve lost the social fabric that bound us, by necessity, to one another. For people lucky enough to be born into or achieve financial stability, it’s entirely possible to move through the world alone. 

People who are not blessed with financial security tend to have tighter social connections, which help compensate for a lack of socioeconomic surety. As the organizational behavior researcher Gianpiero Petriglieri recently told me for a story I was reporting, “individualism is something you need to be able to afford.” The fewer resources you have available to you independently, the more you are likely to lean on a strong social support system. And, it seems reasonable, the less likely you are to become chronically lonely. 

In this Rolling Stone profile on Elon Musk, the billionaire explains that if he’s not in a romantic relationship, he cannot be happy. He says, “I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me.” How is it possible that someone with so much money, connections, and fame in the world can be lonely? 

Oh man, that’s dark. I think it goes back to the core of what loneliness is — that gulf between the relationships you want and those you feel you have. So maybe Elon, who, as you mention, is ridiculously rich and likely surrounded by lots of people who tell him he’s brilliant, doesn’t feel like anyone truly knows him or that he is capable of having honest, meaningful relationships.

I can’t remember who told me this, but I like it: The difference between loneliness versus solitude often comes down to how secure we feel in our social relationships. If we feel confident and happy about the people in our lives, time alone is something that can be enjoyed — we know that if we need connection we can get it, which allows us to savor being by ourselves. 

But if we don’t feel truly connected to people who “see” and understand us, time spent alone, without the distraction of other people, can be brutal. Maybe that’s what’s going on with Elon? (Although maybe Grimes “sees” him? Unclear.) 

In the same Musk profile, the reporter notes: “It is lonely at the top — but not for everyone. It’s lonely at the top for those who were lonely at the bottom.” What are some practical non-obvious things we can do in our everyday lives to make sure we don’t end up anxious and lonely?

What stuck with me is advice from Steve Cole, whose research suggests that one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of chronic loneliness is to pursue a goal or a sense of purpose larger than yourself, ideally one that requires you to interact and cooperate with other people. Maybe it’s volunteering. Maybe it’s searching for spirituality. Maybe it’s simply completing a meaningful project at work. Focusing on a shared vision — particularly one that you care deeply about — helps distract us from the lonely brain’s hyper-critical loops, allowing us to let our guard down and build new connections. 

I think it also helps to recognize what kind of relationships make us happy and fulfilled. Loneliness only occurs when there’s a discrepancy between the relationships we want and those we feel we have, which is why some people can lead truly solitary lives without being lonely. As long as your relationships are personally satisfying, they’re going to help ease loneliness. And what this looks like will differ dramatically from person to person. 

Finally, if you find yourself feeling lonely, especially now, don’t panic. While it makes sense that researchers and health experts are concerned about the prevalence of chronic loneliness, it’s also possible to go too far in the other direction, pathologizing a state that in its temporary form, is simply part of being human.