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Sep. 22, 2021

Social interactions and loneliness in the COVID pandemic

Rei Akaishi, Unit Leader

Image of Rei Akaishi

Social Value Decision Making Collaboration Unit, Center for Brain Science

Could you briefly describe your research project?

We are studying the issue of loneliness by examining the causal pathways that lead to it, with the goal of eventually informing policy decision-making. Loneliness as a mental state can lead to serious problems such as depression and suicide, which are some of the most devastating impacts of the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic. By scientifically investigating the mechanisms leading to loneliness, we are aiming to alleviate people’s suffering of people and promote happiness in society.

What led you to decide to carry out this project?

We were previously examining the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people and society. We looked at factors that led people to comply with infection preventive behaviors such as mask wearing and social distancing. In addition, we examined the decision-making processes adopted by local governments in Japan when dealing with the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. As we conducted those studies, we were already concerned that a deterioration of mental health would be a long-term consequence of the pandemic. At this late period of the pandemic, we finally decided to look at loneliness, a very important issue in mental health.

What methods are you using in your research?

We are conducting a large-scale survey, and eventually hope to collect data from 1,000 to 10,000 individuals. The survey includes items related to loneliness, depression, and subjective well-being as outcome variables. As explanatory variables, we have included questions designed to reveal the environmental and socio-psychological factors contributing to loneliness. Through these explanatory factors, we hope to reveal the social structures and issues that are behind the problem of loneliness. Using methods from standard economic and social science analysis, we plan to conduct multi-level regression analysis and some analysis of causal inference.

What have you found so far from your research?

Based on the work of social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo, loneliness is understood as a lack of social connections. However, studies in this area have been conducted exclusively in Western societies. It still remains to be seen whether the same mechanisms of loneliness are applicable in the other cultures. It is quite possible that unique causal pathways to loneliness exist in Japan, which has a different culture and social structures from the West.

What challenges remain to your project?

The remaining challenge for us is to identify, from our research, the culturally specific factors that contribute to loneliness. I believe it is fairly likely that we will find such culturally unique factors. For example, Japan has very low levels of subjective well-being: people feel relatively unhappy compared to people in other countries at similar levels of economic development. This unusually low level of subjective well-being may be related to loneliness and the underlying causes of loneliness in Japan. The existence of such culturally specific factors implies that the solutions to loneliness adopted in other cultures may not work in Japan. In order to develop culturally tailored policies for dealing with loneliness, we will need to conduct studies to fill the gap of understanding about loneliness and related mental disorders such as depression.

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