Does corona make us more lonely?

Published on: 29 September 2020

“People are not missing friendly little chats so much, but real, meaningful connection”


October 1 is the first day of Anti-Loneliness Week. How lonely are people living in the Netherlands? And has the corona crisis increased those feelings? Professor of sociology at the Free University of Amsterdam, Theo van Tilburg says:” Nearly one in three Dutch people missed a close connection with others during the pandemic.”


Experiencing a sense of emptiness. Missing people you feel connected to, that you can rely on. Or just needing to socialize. Everyone, young and old, feels lonely sometimes. Sometimes for a short time, sometimes longer. Big changes in life – such as a divorce, losing your job, a move, a birth or a death – can make people feel like they have to fend for themselves.

Bouts of loneliness are part of life, however, and are not necessarily damaging. But long-term loneliness can have serious consequences. “People who are lonely for long periods of time, can get into a negative spiral that becomes more and more difficult to break out of,” explains professor of sociology Theo van Tilburg from the Free University of Amsterdam. “Long-term loneliness may lead to depression, alcohol-addiction, cardiovascular diseases, sleeping problems and a lowered immune system.”


Difference between wishes and reality

Contrary to what is often thought, loneliness is not always related to a lack of friends or social contacts. Loneliness happens when there is a difference between the desired situation and reality, in terms of relationships and social contact. So, you may be lonely because you have fewer social contacts than you want, but also because the social contacts you do have do not meet your wishes or expectations. A lack of social contacts is sometimes called social loneliness. Missing a deeper, emotional connection, is what we call emotional loneliness.

Loneliness is not always related to a lack of friends or social contacts

The number

How lonely are we, in the Netherlands? Last year, 9 percent of the Dutch population age 15 or older experienced strong feelings of loneliness. 26 percent felt somewhat lonely and the remaining 66 percent was not lonely. Single people in general and single parents, felt lonely more often than couples and kids living at home. A third of people over 75 felt somewhat lonely and 9 percent feels very lonely. This was shown by numbers from the CBS. There is increasingly more attention on loneliness among young people, the last few years. Dutch numbers are not available yet, but based on Flemish and other international research, it is estimated that between 3 and 10 percent of youth is chronically lonely.


No loneliness epidemic

But is there really a “loneliness epidemic” going on, as sometimes suggested by the media? All things considered, the Netherlands has had reasonably stable numbers for years. Long-term research by the Free University of Amsterdam, which Theo van Tilburg conducted in collaboration with sociologist Biance Suanet, showed that today’s seniors even feel a little less lonely than older people did over twenty years ago. The researchers suspect that older people are feeling like they have a bit more of a grip on their lives now. They are more educated, they often have a partner and more - varied – social contacts. The chance of becoming lonely at a later age has slightly decreased on the individual level. But on the collective level, loneliness is still a growing problem, because the number of older people is increasing. Above the age of 75, the chance of loneliness increases, because the chance of illness, disabilities and the loss of loved ones increases.


And then corona showed up

What has the effect of corona been? Did the pandemic make the Netherlands more lonely? The report 'Welbevinden ten tijde van Corona' (Wellbeing during corona times) by the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau showed that nearly one in three Dutch people indicated that they felt emotionally lonely during the corona crisis.

Striking: the number of people that felt socially lonely stayed the same, but the number of people that was dealing with emotional loneliness rose. From 21 percent in 2019, this percentage rose to 26 percent in the past few months. People that were 75 or older felt lonelier than other age groups during the corona crisis. The portion of lonely people in that age group more than doubled in one year: from 16 percent in 2019, to nearly 37 percent in 2020.


“Particularly older people living alone, have been missing, not so much the friendly little chats, but mostly the deeper connection with others,” says Theo van Tilburg. “People that live with a partner, kids or other housemates, at least still have intimate contact in a smaller circle.” Also connected to emotional loneliness was the loss of loved ones who deceased, a general sense of threat, less trust in institutions and lack of help.


The feeling that you matter

“Being isolated and having less social contact for a while was not necessarily the biggest problem for everyone during the lockdown. People that understood the situation temporarily adjusted their visiting and social contact. It also helped that everyone was in the same unpleasant boat.” But the period after the restrictions were eased turned out to be more complicated for many vulnerable groups, because the clarity and solidarity disappeared. And that is a situation that is still continuing.

Van Tilburg: “The fact that a portion of society has now seemingly picked up where it left off, while others still cannot participate may increase their sense of loneliness. We should all be alert to that. A sense of meaningfulness, a feeling that you matter, that you belong to something, that is very important for people’s wellbeing.”


So, how do we go on from here? According to van Tilburg, it is important that the long-term effects of the corona measures are carefully monitored - for all groups in society. “Research is showing that people should focus especially on decreasing emotional loneliness now; not on facilitating Zoom meetings, or sending flowers to seniors, but on facilitating real, intimate connections. People are not missing the friendly chat with the neighbor so much, but a hug and a real talk with someone they are close to.”