Interview with Derrick Feldmann

We are Lonely, when Trusted Relationships are Absent

Derrick Feldmann leads Ad Council Edge, an American NGO, which uses the power of communications to tackle the most important issues of our time. They have been fighting pollution and polio, stood up for women at work and helped to stop HIV Aids. Now, they published a global survey on ‘Loneliness’, with the support of NIVEA. We spoke to Derrick about loneliness, where it comes from and how we can help to prevent it.

"Feeling alone is less about being alone physically and more about a lack of an emotional support system or quality and valued relationships."

The rise of the loneliness pandemic

Derrick, loneliness has been in the spotlight of media and societies around the world since a couple of years, some call it a “pandemic”; the UK has even named a ministry of loneliness. From what you found in your study, how would you define loneliness and what happened in our world, that it seems to be on the rise?

Before getting into the definition of loneliness we must first talk about why this issue is important and especially right now in this moment. Research has shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, have better cognitive function, have less depression, and live longer. Similarly, human touch and physical displays of caring have also shown to be important for social connection and bonding, as well as for psychological well-being. However, a lack of deeper relationships with connections may manifest in mental health issues like anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, chronic stress, insomnia, and even cognitive decline later in life.
In our research we tested various definitions of loneliness and discovered that defining loneliness in terms of relationships is key. We define loneliness as lacking trusted and quality relationships. Relationships that are valued, trusted and desired from connections is important for us as human beings and thus when such relationships are absent, we are lonely. The study found that one in five people in the global sample feel lonely on a regular basis.
Qualitative interviews revealed that many think of “feeling alone” as a lack of emotional support, having no one to talk to, or the perception that no one understands them. In other words, feeling alone is less about being alone physically and more about a lack of an emotional support system or quality and valued relationships.
While loneliness can affect anyone at any time, there’s now another lens through which the issue should be examined: the global COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing and isolation measures. People around the world are taking part in social distancing, isolating at home, wearing masks, and refraining from embracing or touching others. The pandemic also has highlighted how the social determinants of health and systemic factors have placed individuals, families, and communities at highest risk.
"Four out of ten 18-34 year old people are feeling loneliness."

Risk factors for loneliness

How can all of us find out, whether we are at risk? What makes us lonely, and who is affected most?

When looking at the complex issue of loneliness, those who experience elements that contribute to it, such as isolation, must also be taken into account. Both feeling alone (or lonely) AND isolated (physical or social) contribute to loneliness. Therefore, people experiencing any of these factors on a regular basis must be looked at in order to truly understand the full picture of loneliness. Over a quarter of the people we surveyed report regularly feeling physically or socially isolated, whether this was their choice or not. So in aggregate, together with those who state, they feel lonely, over a third of people regularly experience at least one of these factors of loneliness. Therefore we call them at risk.
You might be surprised to hear, that not the older people are the ones who suffer more regularly from loneliness – but the younger ones. Four out of ten 18-34 year old people are feeling loneliness. And you might be less surprised to hear – which doesn’t make it less concerning – that you are more likely to be lonely, if you are single, introvert, have a lower income, a disability, a mental health condition, limited mobility and lack a stable job relationship. This doesn’t mean, that you cannot feel lonely, if you are in just the opposite situation of what I just described. But it means, that from a societal point of view, we leave many people behind, if we do not tackle loneliness with these groups.
"Though many are using technology to stay in touch, most admit that nothing can quite replace physical interaction."

Loneliness in times of COVID-19

During this global pandemic, we have all – more or less – been exposed to isolation from our acquaintances, colleagues, friends and in the more severe cases also from our closest relationships. How does this affect our happiness and our well-being?

Trends from the qualitative research were mixed, indicating that the pandemic has had varied effects on loneliness. Some feel more physically isolated due to COVID-19, while others have strengthened some connections during this time. In our qualitative interviews, we heard, that during the pandemic, many are missing physical interactions with family & friends and are longing to see them, face to face or with one another in close proximity. Though many are using technology to stay in touch, most admit that nothing can quite replace physical interaction. For some qualitative interviewees, knowing that everyone is isolated due to the pandemic makes them feel less bothered by isolation; many find that they now feel less pressure to socialize and are embracing the extra free time that they have. Some have even strengthened relationships due to more frequent communication. You also might know friends and family members, who are quite happy, that they can now focus their time on the people, they are really close to, for example, supporting and helping older loved ones that live in the same household and receive care.
However, while anecdotal information from qualitative interviews pointed out, that COVID-19 is drastically increasing feelings of loneliness and isolation, quantitative survey findings showed that the pandemic only contributed slightly to increased isolation (both physical and social) - though not much to loneliness in its definition of a lack of trusted, quality relationships. Nearly a quarter (23%) report always or often feeling alone during the pandemic, which is not much higher compared to 19% pre-pandemic.This indicates, that though the restrictions clearly make it harder to care for your relationships to others, they also cannot dissolve our existing meaningful connections too easily as well. COVID-19 did, however, negatively impact happiness according to our study. Pre-pandemic 57% said they were happy. This dropped to one in four (42%) during the pandemic.
In addition, though general feelings of loneliness did not significantly increase during COVID-19, the number of people who regularly experience at least one factor of loneliness did. Prior to COVID-19 about a third (36%) of the global sample say they regularly experience at least one factor of loneliness. During COVID-19, this group jumped to 44 percent, indicating that a larger population is at risk of loneliness as a result of the pandemic.
"All of these unmet needs result in feelings of loneliness, anxiety and sadness."

How to immune against loneliness

Let`s look at our relationships. What kind of relationships do we need and how many of them do feel happy and immune against loneliness? What holds us off to build them and engage with them?

We know from our qualitative interviews, that the ideal relationship is built on mutual trust, love, and respect. It requires, that both sides invest an equal amount of time and effort and communicate frequently. People were very clear about what they want from these relationships. For instance, they want to be able to talk about anything without fear of judgement, they want to know that they can rely on each other in times of need. And for them shared values are very important. Very practically, this means, that they show their care by reaching out and checking in with one another. And in terms of frequent connections, they see the in-person interaction as ideal, because it strengthens the bonds. If people cannot see each other face to face, they see calls or text messages as the next best thing. Overall, these kind of connections should be at least weekly, in their view, for some daily.
You asked, what holds us off to build these connections. Our qualitative interviews revealed a number of factors that would create barriers to strong relationships. Some of the issues mentioned include distance from one another and limited in-person meetings with strong connections where both can support one other with deeper dialogue. For others it was a lack of initiation on both sides - they could have reached out – but they didn`t. And some even commented on past challenges in their relationship where disagreements have not been resolved and continue to get in the way.
Overall, our quantitative findings revealed that people who have others they can count on and confide in are more likely to be happy and less likely to regularly experience factors of loneliness. Those who say they don’t have people they can count on or confide in are more likely to regularly experience factors of loneliness. They are also the ones who say, they aren’t understood, who can`t open up or be their true self and who wish they had deeper relationships with more people. All of these unmet needs result in feelings of loneliness, anxiety and sadness.
"We have to understand, that loneliness comes with inertia to take the initiative and reach out to to others."

The loneliness paradox

During the Corona crisis, most of us are very restrictive in terms of who we see, meet and touch. Did your study reveal, how we would like to interact with other people versus how we interact now? What does this mean for our feelings of loneliness?

Since loneliness is connected to our relationships with close connections, we looked into the approaches taken by those who are lonely versus those who are not alone when they interact with connections. The quantitative survey uncovered that people typically reach out to a connection via phone or text/social media, invite them over to their house or out for a drink or a meal, or drop by their house.
When coping with loneliness, we discovered about two- thirds of people gravitate toward more solo activities, or activities by oneself, such as watching TV, listening to music, or napping. About half reach out to others via technology, followed by connecting in-person. Only a handful of people in the global sample rely on clinical interventions, such as consulting a mental health professional or mentor or taking prescription medication, when feeling a factor of loneliness or isolation. These are important findings, when it comes to discuss how we – as a society or community – can help people affected by loneliness. We have to understand, that loneliness comes with inertia to take the initiative and reach out to to others. Former US Surgeon General and author Vivek Murthy calls this the ‘loneliness paradoxon’. Being together with others can help but taking the initiative is a big barrier.
"If it is the right person, human touch can make someone feel loved, safe, and less alone."

Importance of human touch for our connections

NIVEA has embarked on this commitment to care for human touch and more togetherness. What did you learn in your study about human touch? How important is it for our close connections and our wider circle of the people we interact with?

When feeling alone, it can help you to be in close proximity to or physically touching your spouse, kids or parents. However, for those who regularly feel alone (19%), or those who regularly experience at least one factor of loneliness (36%), the presence or physical touch of others - even close connections - has less of an impact.
In general, when people are feeling alone or lonely, they prefer human touch from someone with a strong relationship. From those, who are less close to them, they prefer being in close proximity instead of actually touching. Touch versus proximity depending on level of connection was also heard in qualitative interviews: Hugging or embracing can greatly impact how a person feels - though it must be from someone they are comfortable with. If it is the right person, human touch can make someone feel loved, safe, and less alone. People mention how it helps them relieve stress, feel cared for and build strong bonds. In summary, human touch is a great tool to reinforce, strengthen and maintain existing strong relationships with connections.
"Nudge those who feel lonely as well as all the others to reach out."

Help to get our of the loneliness crisis

Let`s look at those who are at risk and vulnerable? What did you learn about effective interventions to help them get out of their loneliness crisis? What can we do as a society? What can a brand do to support? And what can all of us do to protect ourselves?

People do a variety of things when they feel alone or isolated, though as I said before about two-thirds gravitate toward more solo activities. Half actually reach out to others via technology, and about one in four connects in-person with someone. And then there is some that go to see a mental health professional or coach. What is important to know, for those who help: About a third of people who regularly experience at least one factor of loneliness are likely to get in touch with others to some extent. They schedule calls or video chats with close family and friends, join a group activity they enjoy, receive phone calls, or talk to their mental health or clinical therapist.
Interventions should educate the public on the real risk factors of loneliness. Leaders and key stakeholders, including brands, should focus on educating and informing those most at risk through cause and social issue marketing efforts about the contributing factors to loneliness. In addition, brands can help promote relationship and connection self-assessments and support or develop campaigns that nudge individuals to communicate with their loved ones. Remember the ‘loneliness paradox’, those who are lonely, tend to stay by themselves. Even if they are active and go out, they gravitate towards ‘solo-activities’. For example, they might go to a concert, but not engage in conversation with others. Or, they may be connected on social media or through a social group but don’t have conversations or a meaningful talk. Brands can help to overcome this. And nudge those who feel lonely as well as all the others to reach out.
As I mentioned earlier, strong relationships are crucial to mitigating feelings of loneliness and isolation. When individuals can accurately assess their own connections and understand how to build stronger, more meaningful relationships - especially after big life events or lifestyle changes - they then have the tools to strengthen their relationships as a way to prevent their own loneliness or isolation.
Derrick Feldmann

Derrick Feldmann

Researcher and advisor for causes and companies on global social issues. He leads research efforts on how causes and companies can drive public interest and engagement for social issues as the Managing Director of Ad Council Edge, the Ad Council’s strategic consulting division that advises during the formative stages of public engagement programs. He is the author of The Corporate Social Mind and Social Movements For Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change.