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PART 1 - What We Know About Loneliness

What We Know About Loneliness

Loneliness is not a new concept. Its complexity is mirrored in the many different disciplines and lenses applied to its understanding. In general, loneliness is defined as a “distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one’s social relationships.”i This elicits a normal human emotional response that is sometimes paired with feelings of anxiety, fear, and shame. A person may appear to be very social and outgoing but can nevertheless feel lonely. And, as we have seen during the pandemic, living in a shared space with others may not necessarily result in being less lonely. But, why?

Loneliness and the individual
Loneliness is associated with several major factors: individual (e.g., biology); situational (e.g., life transitions); social (e.g., quality of interactions); and structural (e.g., culture). Let’s begin with the individual, situational, and social factors. The Cacioppo Evolutionary Theory of Loneliness (ETL) addresses the adaptive functions of loneliness that “foster short-term survival” of an organism. It is an adaptive signal in response to an adverse state, like hunger or pain, that prompts us to renew the connections we need in order to survive as well as “promote social trust, cohesiveness, and collective action.” Matthew Lieberman, Professor and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab Director at the UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, underscores that, “to the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws.” Thus, in the context of our exploration, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham University, summarized it best: if loneliness is synonymous with an adverse state like hunger, then how do we avoid creating the technology equivalent to junk food (convenient but not nourishing)?

Loneliness is also known to be a subjective feeling. Feelings of loneliness may vary in frequency, duration, and intensity among individuals. They can be acute or chronic, occasional and/or transient. For example, major life events, such as moving, pregnancy, divorce, and death, can trigger one’s experience in and/or out of loneliness.

Moreover, the consequences of loneliness are well-documented. Current research indicates that the negative experience of feeling alone is not just influential to our psychological or emotional well-being but is also a major risk to physical health. Specifically, studies examining mortality have found that experiencing loneliness or social isolation increases risk for earlier death (by 26 percent for loneliness; 29 percent for social isolation) regardless of the subject’s age, gender, location, or culture. Lastly, studies have also pointed to the impact loneliness has on mental acuity and health, particularly in the elderly population. Feeling lonely has been found to increase cognitive decline, depression, and dementia.

Loneliness also does not discriminate. Several sources estimate the prevalence of chronic loneliness at about 10 percent. According to a May 2020 study, survey responses from 237 countries, islands, and territories (collected prior to the pandemic) indicate that age, gender, and culture all interact to predict loneliness. Specifically, several past studies have found elevated levels of loneliness in adolescence or young adulthood as well as in older populations.ii Furthermore, a meta-analysis of 75 longitudinal studies that examined the same individuals over time found that loneliness did not vary significantly by age. Instead, other factors like genetics, personality traits, and situational factors had more impact on loneliness than age.

Finally, it is important to distinguish loneliness from other forms of aloneness. In 1958, philosopher Paul Tillich famously wrote, “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” As we have discussed, loneliness is the perception of social isolation. Social isolation is the objective quantitative measure of the number of relationships someone has (not the quality of those relationships). Solitude, on the other hand, is a positive affirmation for being alone. These distinctions are critical to differentiating the social factors that may contribute to loneliness. As Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, noted, “There is a real opportunity to take someone who is alone because of a situation, like the pandemic, and to give them the tools they may not have to live more constructively in solitude rather than loneliness.” Where these states intersect with social and political realities is the next layer to unpack.

Loneliness and society
While loneliness is rooted in an innate signal, the external influences of modern life, such as community, play a significant role in its experience. Now, more people are living longer and further apart from core relationships, such as family.

The prevalence of one-person households is increasing across the world and correlates with a country’s increase in GDP per capita. Naturally, this leads to the question of whether living alone significantly contributes to the loneliness epidemic. Evidence, however, suggests that living alone, by itself, is a poor predictor of loneliness. Instead access to increased income and freedom of choice may be more likely part of the reason why more people choose to live alone today.

Findings from “Loneliness Around the World” sought to answer the question “How does culture affect loneliness?” This research suggests that people in individualistic countries, such as the United States, (versus collectivist ones) reported higher rates of loneliness, irrespective of age. Results show that loneliness is equally frequent for both men and women, but “the effect of culture was stronger for males.” Accordingly, the authors state, “[We] found the most vulnerable to loneliness were younger men living in individualistic cultures.” The dichotomy of individualistic versus collectivist cultures is just one dimension. Thus, these findings should be interpreted with caution and serve to provide direction for future work. While not conclusive, research into cultural differences reinforces the notion that loneliness does not discriminate. Instead, the frequency, intensity, and duration of the feeling provides additional clues for how to mitigate its impact.

Socio-economic factors contribute to feelings of loneliness to a certain degree. Changes to the infrastructure of our contemporary lives are also key. None is more salient to modern day individuals than the introduction of the Internet, which has dramatically transformed the way many people connect, work, socialize, and learn. Now, people who live physically apart from core relationships may leverage various digital tools to connect, regardless of distance. One could argue that this is a positive outcome of digitally mediated social connection. At the same time, news coverage and anecdotal evidence would suggest that these types of interactions—and the social media platforms that facilitate them—may be also negatively impacting both our mental and physical health. And, here we arrive at the crux of our exploration: Are social media platforms positively or negatively impacting loneliness?

At this point, we would be remiss to ignore comments that expose loneliness as both being informed by socio-economic factors as well as informing how we may understand systemic structures of oppression. One example reflects the current social and political climate, which has made solitude difficult for some. “It is important to underscore that we currently live in a state of emergency,” noted Turkle of MIT, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Creative solitude, which was once a possibility for people living alone, is not possible in a state of heightened anxiety. We wonder, ‘Will the government protect my health? Will the govern- ment protect the safety of the food supply?’ The problem of loneliness cannot be separated from things like this.”

Summary. Loneliness is complex. It is a personal, subjective, and negative feeling that is ex- perienced by everyone, sometimes chronically. It can be associated with other emotions, such as depression, abandonment, and shame. The causes for loneliness, as far as we know, are rooted in our biology, our situational experiences, our quality of relationships, and our social environment. Its impact when pervasive and chronic may lead to deleterious mental, cognitive, and physiological effects. More critically, loneliness serves as a mirror of the hu- man condition. It provides an additional analytical lens through which to examine the social forces on which it feeds. Social upheaval, mandated physical distancing, economic instabil- ity, and loss of control and trust in our institutions are all likely contributors to one’s feeling of loneliness. “The question of loneliness does not exist in a vacuum,” summarized Turkle. And, as we explore next, neither do the solutions to and approaches for helping each other navi- gate the experience.

i For additional definitions see here.
ii Perlman, D.H., Ph., D., & Peplau, L.A. (2009). Chapter 2 Loneliness Research: A Survey of Empirical Findings; see also Dugan E, Kivett VR. The importance of emotional and social isolation to loneliness among very old rural adults. Gerontologist. 1994 Jun;34(3):340-6. doi: 10.1093/geront/34.3.340.
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