The remote working and self-isolation pandemic has not gone away for many of us: a huge number of people continue to feel lonely. What exactly did they feel then, and some even now?
Some people do not suffer from loneliness in the traditional sense of the word. They are happy with the number of people they have in their lives, they socialise with them often enough, so they cannot be called ‘socially lonely’. They are also satisfied with the level of intimacy of these connections, so they are not “emotionally lonely”. Still, research shows that they may feel lonely and isolated from society.
Thus, during the first wave of the pandemic, New York University sociologists Eric Klinenberg and Jenny K. Ley conducted a study among the people who many thought should feel most isolated – those who live alone. The researchers interviewed 55 people between the ages of 20 and 86. They reported their findings in “Alone: Social distance, physical loneliness and structural isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic”, published in the journal Social Problems.
Each of the 55 interviewees lived alone, but were not socially isolated: actively communicating via Zoom, FaceTime and other social media. Moreover, according to Klinenberg and Lee, almost all communicated with friends or family more often than usual. Sometimes the conversations were even longer and more frank than before the covid. Nevertheless, they felt marginalised, isolated and lonely.
1. ABANDONED BY SOCIETY
During the interviews, respondents shared what kind of support they needed during their difficult time of isolation. Contrary to the widespread media perceptions of unhappy people with no social or emotional support, many responded that they did not need it at all. They did not feel abandoned by their friends or families, but experienced ‘structural isolation’, the feeling that the state had left them to their own devices.
Many interviewees had experienced financial difficulties. They might have lost their jobs or a significant part of their income and would therefore like more permanent material support from the government. As before the coronavirus, government support was aimed more at helping couples and families – despite the fact that single people are more financially vulnerable as they tend not to have a ‘spare’ partner’s income in case of job loss.
Moreover, people living as a couple were subject to less restrictive anti-coronavirus measures: they could see their partner even if he or she lived elsewhere. Single people without partners had no exceptions: they could not see a friend or relative or anyone else.
2. “FAMILIAR STRANGERS”
During the pandemic, lonely people missed the pleasant ritual of meeting other people every day, such as over a cup of their favourite morning coffee. They confessed that they used to exchange pleasantries with people around them, even if they did not know their names. Just meeting, either with total strangers or with “familiar strangers” was something that singles said they particularly missed.
3. PHYSICAL LONELINESS
People living alone tended to keep in touch with others virtually, but remained physically lonely. “Sometimes this feeling of physical loneliness was excruciating,” Klinenberg and Ley write. In this vein, the researchers looked at the story of a man in his sixties who had recently lost his wife, with whom he had lived for more than 30 years. He missed her occasional comments on TV programmes and conversations at dinner.
So, people living alone during the pandemic may have felt abandoned by the state, lacked physical contact and missed meeting the same people, albeit strangers, in cafes every day. Despite this, according to Klinenberg and Lee, some respondents found a newfound confidence after going through months of uncertainty alone. The ability to cope with personal and material problems alone became a source of strength for them.