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The loneliness epidemic and the power of connection

This month the Ad Council released a report called Loneliness, Isolation and Human Touch: A Global Perspective on COVID-19. With all that’s going on in the world right now, you might wonder why the Ad Council’s executives chose to focus on loneliness, and what that has to do with the industry. The answer: Past research has shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community will be happier, have fewer health problems, have better cognitive function, have less depression and live longer—while a lack of deeper relationships may manifest in mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, chronic stress, insomnia and even cognitive decline later in life.

This means that at a key moment in the history of our country, when millions of us are isolating ourselves to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of how lonely we feel —and how we feel connected – or unconnected – with each other — is a critical one to understand. Here are the three takeaways from the Ad Council’s research on using the power of communication to foster authentic connections at scale during this unprecedented time.

1. COVID-19 has not led to an increase in loneliness.

 It would be easy to assume that the isolation so many of us have experienced since March would lead to an increase in loneliness on a global scale. Research shows this isn’t the case. So what’s going on?

For one thing, studies show that it’s important to distinguish between isolation and loneliness. Isolation is a contributing factor to loneliness, but it’s just one factor. Those who report feeling lonely are more likely to be single, introverted, experience less physical contact, lack strong social contact and have a higher rate of mental health conditions. The research does confirm a slight increase in feelings of isolation since the beginning of COVID-19, but no increase in reported feelings of loneliness.

2. The pandemic has led to an increase in those who experience contributing factors to loneliness.

 In researchers’ global sample, 36% say they regularly experience at least one of the contributing factors of loneliness, and that number has increased to 44% during the COVID-19 pandemic  

3. Technology can help people maintain the substantive relationships that are critical to combating loneliness.

The research concludes that although many of us deeply miss the physical contact and social activities that used to make up our lives — hugging a friend outside a coffee shop, shaking hands with a colleague at social gatherings — these moments don’t seem to combat loneliness, at least not on their own. And group activities, surprisingly, were not shown to diminish feelings of loneliness — it was personal and meaningful one-on-one interactions that were critical. In other words, this study reaffirms that authentic connection is all about quality over quantity.

So what can we do? Here’s where you come in. In order to maintain and support strong relationships, 73% of respondents typically connect via technology, such as texting or engaging with each other on social media. Seventy-three percent! In these never before seen times all of us must ask ourselves what we can do in our community to develop new normal, socially safe activities, and deeper relationships that can be maintained and supported.

This effort will look different for each of us, but the goal is the same: What are we doing, every day, to bring people together and make our new normal lives as normal as they possibly can be – for every single one of us!

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