First on CNN: Most people feel socially connected as Covid-19 precautions ease, but many still need support, survey finds
For nearly two decades, Kristin Friberg has been a librarian with the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey, where one of her many roles is to lead local book groups. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, she worried about the book club participants who had become friends over the years and the library regulars who would often stop in just to talk.
“It was sad for all of us thinking, like, ‘What’s everybody doing?’ and ‘Hope everybody’s OK,’ ” she said. The library “feels to me like a very tight-knit public community space, and I think it’s really an essential component of a lot of people’s lives that often gets overlooked.”
Friberg and other library staffers made phone calls to check on people when they could and tried their best to find creative ways to reach others, including online book club meetings and outdoor story times.
When in-person activities started to pick up again, Friberg said, it was a relief to see some familiar faces – and it was a push to continue to find innovative ways for the library to connect the community.
“It’s definitely broadened our mindset,” she said. “It has certainly expanded it to add another dimension to it: trying harder to reach people who may not be coming into the library. Because it’s not only the physical space that’s a vital source of connection. I think that’s become pretty clear.”
Lots of research has been done on links between loneliness, social connection, health and well-being, but a new international survey by the analytics firm Gallup and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, aims to shed some light on exactly how connected people feel and how they connect with others.
They found that most people around the world feel a sense of social connection as Covid-19 precautions ease, but many still need support or help from others – and the factors that drive feelings of connection vary by country.
The report is a glimpse into how people have adapted to pandemic-related changes, said Telli Davoodi, a senior social science researcher at Gallup and lead researcher on the project.
“The data is very hopeful and suggests that we have figured out ways to move forward and continue to live as social creatures,” she said, but more research can further explain exactly what helps a person perceive that connection – something that Gallup plans to address in upcoming surveys.
The survey, published Tuesday, was conducted in seven countries – Brazil, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Mexico and the United States – and the results were provided exclusively to CNN. At least 2,000 people were surveyed in each country, with interviews conducted between April and June.
A majority of respondents in each country said they felt “very” or “fairly” emotionally connected to others, especially in Egypt, where nearly 9 out of 10 people said they felt connected. Sense of connection was lowest in Brazil (53%), while the US landed in the middle (75%).
However, at least a third of respondents in each country said that they had needed support or help from someone “often” or “sometimes” in the previous month.
Even amid a pandemic, in-person interaction was the most common method for social connection. But in three countries – India, Indonesia and Mexico – more than 1 in 10 people said they had not interacted with anyone in person over the previous week, according to the new poll.
At least a third of people in each country said they interacted with others on social media on a daily basis, but those individuals were also likely to use other methods – suggesting that technology-based connection supplements but does not replace other types of interaction, the researchers say.
“What is really important to our social health and well-being is that we have meaningful relationships, and that’s about the structure, the function and the quality of our relationships with others,” said Risa Wilkerson, executive director of Healthy Places by Design. The nonprofit consulting group is focused on building healthy and equitable communities but was not involved in the new survey.
It might be easier to feel that sense of connection with an in-person connection, she said, but positive interactions and inclusivity are critical.
“Finding trust with one another is important. And so that means that we need people of all types and all preferences, you know, to help us design these programs or spaces or places so that they do feel comfortable connecting with other people there in whatever way that means for them,” Wilkerson said.
The survey found that people who perceived others as untrustworthy or mean felt lonelier than those who felt the people they interact to be trustworthy or kind.
The survey also shows a clear relationship between wealth and feelings of support: People who felt they were “living comfortably” thought they had more social support than those who were finding it “difficult” on their current income.
Overall, friends and family living nearby were the most common daily connections for people in all seven countries surveyed.
Neighbors were also a common daily interaction for many, but more than 1 in 5 people in the US said they never interact with neighbors. Instead, people from work or school were a much more common daily connection. And people from the US were also most likely to say they interacted with strangers or people with common interests compared with other countries.
“When it comes to connections and feelings of loneliness, the formula looks different for people with different experiences,” Davoodi said. “The profile of a person who feels very socially supported looks slightly different place to place.”
In the US, people may feel more open to introducing themselves to strangers because it’s a large country with a mobile culture, with many people moving for school or work, said Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist and professor who has written a book based on her research on friendship.
“You have to be open to new people because you’re not guaranteed to have the same people in your life all the time,” she said.
But in general, the “face of loneliness” doesn’t look one particular way. It’s something lots of people experience.
“Social connection is like a muscle that we have to flex,” Franco said – and it will take time and practice to find the right ways to do so coming out of a pandemic.
Friberg credits much of the success of the library’s programs to active efforts to build a safe and inclusive environment. And for next month’s book club meeting, options for both in-person and virtual attendance will be offered.
They’ll be tackling the topic of loneliness head-on: US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy’s new book, “Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” is on deck.
“Oftentimes, a book will allow people to come together and to express themselves in ways that they wouldn’t be so bold to do when they’re around other people. It gives them this safe space to have discussions with sometimes strangers and sometimes people that they’ve come to know and make connections with,” Friberg said.
“This topic has been on a lot of people’s minds over the pandemic – and even before – but it’s more in focus, I think, as we all struggle to try to figure out how we live our lives and what is important to us.”