The pandemic has had a big impact on loneliness. Especially for those who live alone, lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing, and lack of social gatherings all made loneliness a huge health threat. Now, as the world re-opens and we become more comfortable with gathering in groups, seeing friends, and finding our new normal, those feelings of loneliness may still be hanging on.
It turns out there is a physiological response to loneliness. Research has found that lonely people have unusually low numbers of a type of immune myeloid cell that makes them vulnerable to viral infections and unusually high numbers of a different type of myeloid cell that causes inflammation. Several studies show that inflammation is linked to loneliness.
Additionally, these two types of myeloid cells can affect our brain, causing behaviours like social withdrawal, feelings of suspicion towards the outside world, and a tendency to act more defensively. This means that loneliness can cause our cells to increase and inflame, which later affects our behaviours and ultimately can make us more withdrawn, which makes us more lonely. It becomes a vicious feedback loop called the myeloid response. Even when we can increase our social interaction, the myeloid response does not turn off.
Loneliness is on the rise in the western world. In both Europe and the US, anywhere between 30%-60% of the population self-identify as lonely. In 2018, after a commission came out of the UK stating that over 9 million citizens (about 14% of their population) were lonely, the UK appointed a Minister of Loneliness. Add Covid-19 protocols like social distancing and limited social interaction, and the number of lonely people can only grow. Seniors aren’t the only generation affected. In a 2018 study, young people aged 16-24 were reported as the loneliest age group. Since the pandemic has moved school online and extracurricular activities like sports are less available, young people are likely to show an increase in loneliness due to Covid-19.
Loneliness is bad for us. Loneliness poses a significant health threat, rivalling obesity in terms of health consequences. Studies show that dealing with chronic loneliness can shorten your life by 15 years, equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Plus, a 2017 study discovered a link between loneliness and cancer mortality, showing that loneliness can make cancer treatments less effective. There are well-documented connections between loneliness and mental illness such as anxiety and depression and an increased risk for Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and resistance to infection.
Unfortunately, throwing us in a room full of other humans and asking us to hang out won’t cure the loneliness brought about by the pandemic. But kindness can.
Dr. Sonja Lubomirsky and other researchers conducted a study of 159 participants who were asked to perform prosocial behaviours such as acts of kindness to see the effects of social interactions on cells associated with loneliness. The study found that participants tasked with doing acts of kindness for individuals or their community reported lower levels of loneliness and a decreased myeloid response. Doing acts of kindness changed their cells and decreased inflammation.
Dr. Lubomirsky also found that participants who did acts of kindness online had the same benefits as those who did theirs in person. In that case, writing a positive restaurant review, connecting with a friend over Zoom, or sending a thank you message can help combat the myeloid response. (Stay tuned for SeeKindness e-cards that you can send around the world!)
I write a lot about how kindness is a powerful tool for social change and individual health and well-being. Now we know that acts of kindness can affect us on a cellular level. Until scientists create a vaccine for loneliness, acts of kindness can be our first line of defence. Share your acts of kindness on our world map and cure loneliness with us, one act of kindness at a time!