The findings of the study, conducted with the support of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the National Science Fund of Bulgaria, have been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Psychologists from St Petersburg University, together with their colleagues from the University of Plovdiv (Bulgaria), have found out that people are feeling less lonely during the pandemic.

The word ‘loneliness has more widespread negative connotations. Most often it is associated with stress, depression or negative events in life. However, as psychologists stress, in order to communicate with others effectively, you need to be able to spend some time on your own. This phenomenon is called positive loneliness. It is when one needs social contacts, but also needs some time for oneself to replenish the energy and be able to maintain social engagements.

One’s personal assessment of loneliness as positive or negative is largely determined by age, social and cultural context, as well as a number of other factors. That is why researchers chose to study loneliness form a multidimensional perspective as a multifaceted social construct. They assessed the variances in quality of loneliness experiences:

  • family emotional loneliness that describes loneliness related to family interaction
  • non-family emotional loneliness experienced primarily in relationships with friends
  • loneliness in romantic relationships focused on the presence or absence of romantic relationships
  • romantic emotional loneliness that addresses loneliness in existing romantic relationships when one has a romantic partner but is not satisfied with the emotional feedback from him or her
  • general experience of loneliness
  • dependence on communication that describes negative attitudes to the very idea of being alone
  • positive loneliness that reflects attitudes to loneliness as a resource for self-understanding and self-development

Changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic included modifications in social communications and activities such as travelling, participating in public events, and so on. Many researchers expected that loneliness would increase during the pandemic due to reduction in social contacts. However, as psychologists from St Petersburg University found out, the lockdown led to more time spent with family members and, consequently, to closer relations within families. This is reflected in a 5–8% reduction of the levels of loneliness compared to the values obtained before the pandemic.

Contrary to expectations, induced isolation has led to a closer communication within families.

Olga Strizhitskaya, Acting Head of the Department of Developmental Psychology at St Petersburg University, Doctor of Psychology and the author of the study

‘It’s one thing when you see each other in the morning and evening, and quite another when you spend the whole day in each other’s company. Even if you work or study, you still share the same space. Naturally, you start interacting and you build your schedule differently,’ explained Olga Strizhitskaya, Acting Head of the Department of Developmental Psychology at St Petersburg University, Doctor of Psychology and the author of the study.

Psychologists from St Petersburg University began their study of loneliness in 2019, before the emergence of COVID-19 infection. They collected data on the level of loneliness in St Petersburg. Later, during the pandemic, the researchers teamed up with colleagues from Bulgaria and continued the study, focusing on complex analysis of loneliness in different contexts.

In total, about 900 middle-aged and older middle-aged adults (35–59 years old) participated in the study. The researchers used two questionnaires that assess loneliness in different spheres and the quality of loneliness experiences: the Social and Emotional Loneliness Scale (SELSA-S) for adults and older adults; the Multidimensional Inventory of Loneliness Experience; and demographic data. Thus, people aged 35-44 experienced the largest decrease in interactions with friends and colleagues during the pandemic. In this age group, the general feeling of loneliness was most strongly associated with this particular descriptor.

Most people are characterised by a need to spend some time on their own when they voluntary seek solitude. Sometimes, however, there are extreme manifestations: a person either does not want to communicate with people, or, on the contrary, is too dependent on communication.

At the initial stage of the study, we conducted a short survey with about 400 participants from St Petersburg and Bulgaria. When asked ‘Would you like to live in a world where you can never be alone – not for a day, not for an hour?' only one of the respondents answered in the affirmative.

Olga Strizhitskaya, Doctor of Psychology and Acting Head of the Department of Developmental Psychology at St Petersburg University

The research findings suggest that general experience of loneliness, positive loneliness, family emotional loneliness and loneliness in romantic relationships reduced during the pandemic. At the same time, the scores of dependence on communication, non-family emotional relationships and romantic emotional relationships remained practically unchanged.

The researchers found out that in the pre-pandemic sample aged 35–44, general experience of loneliness was predicted by all characteristics of loneliness except loneliness in romantic relationships. Analysis of general experience of loneliness in the pandemic sample showed different results. For middle-aged adults, general experience of loneliness was predicted only by the variable non-family emotional relationships. This suggests a marked drop in the level of loneliness within the family and reduced interactions with friends and colleagues. According to the researchers, induced isolation led to closer interactions at the family level, as more than 60% of the study participants were married or lived with their partner. For others, family relationships were determined by non-romantic interactions with relatives.

For older middle-aged adults (45–59 years old) from the pre-pandemic sample, general experience of loneliness was mainly associated with emotional loneliness in family and non-family interactions. During the pandemic, the predictors of loneliness in this group became more diversified. The overall level of loneliness was predicted by the combination of: dependence on communication; positive loneliness; and family and non-family emotional loneliness. The study findings suggest that older middle-aged adults from the pandemic sample may assess loneliness in different ways. They might experience contradictory tendencies based on the emotional feedback they receive from their close social contacts.

The research findings indicate that the drop in the level of loneliness is associated not only with physical isolation and pandemic-related restrictions, but also to a large extent with the concern for their loved ones.

Facing grave perils, people began to spend more time together, share information and personal impressions, and provide more support to each other. In other words, family relationships became stronger.

The psychologists emphasise that loneliness is reported across all ages and periods of adulthood. However, the variability of loneliness to some extent was explained by personal experience and thus was not directly associated with age. Thus, the pandemic situation may be considered to be a personal situation, since the way one processes this situation is determined by both objective social situations, including real restrictions and personal reactions, attitudes, coping strategies, etc., defined by one’s psychological characteristics.

Psychology as an academic discipline in Russia first emerged at our University. Three research laboratories (Engineering Psychology Laboratory, Social Psychology Laboratory, and Differential Psychology and Anthropology Laboratory) were established in the mid-20th century. This laid foundations for the Leningrad psychological school and the Faculty of Psychology at Leningrad State University. On 19-22 October, St Petersburg University hosted the Ananiev Readings 2021 international conference, timed to coincide with the 55th anniversary of the Faculty of Psychology at St Petersburg University.

According to Olga Strizhitskaya, a complex analysis of loneliness in different contexts is essential in order to effectively work with it. Answers to the questions regarding the spheres in which a person feels lonely and the quality of loneliness experiences will help determine where to find the resource to cope with loneliness and what issues you need to tackle. This is crucial for the analysis of critical situations such as pandemics, as well as their impacts. As the scholars point out, studies of COVID-19-related impacts will not only help to better understand human psychology, but also to prepare for other extreme situations in life. The research shed light on individual reactions to a long-term crisis and identified focal points for maintaining psychological health.

‘Including a question about loneliness to the standard General Health Questionnaire may provide additional useful information about the personality and experiences of a particular individual. In the future, we would like to investigate how loneliness is associated with somatic disorders: with the body’s reactions to illness and with the doctor’s prescriptions,’ concluded Olga Strizhitskaya.