- Loneliness is a common experience, but psychological research has failed to capture its specific qualities.
- A new study uses qualitative coding methods to probe into the inner experiences of those who are lonely.
- By understanding these 15 facts about loneliness, you can begin to conquer your own emotions of isolation.
If you’ve ever been, or are, lonely, you know that it's a tough feeling to live with. Whether it’s a new emotion for you, brought about by recent changes in your personal circumstances, or a more chronic aspect of your life, chances are that you’d like to find a way to ease the pain of feeling all alone.
Part of the experience of loneliness involves that feeling of being alone, but you can also be lonely in the midst of your network of family and friends, and even your closest relationship. Your loneliness may take the form of feeling you have no one that needs you, no one to turn to when you need support, or that no one even actually cares about you at a deep, meaningful, level.
What Does Loneliness Look Like?
Queen’s University Belfast’s Phoebe McKenna-Plumley and colleagues (2023) define loneliness as “an unpleasant and distressing subjective phenomenon which arises when one’s desired level of social relations differs from their actual level in number or quality." They note that despite its widespread significance for the way people go through their everyday lives, there is limited published work on its “lived experience.”
In other words, the scientific definition is all well and good—but what do people who are lonely go through on a daily basis as they struggle with these distressing feelings?
When you think about how researchers can move from a definition to the study of loneliness, it might strike you that it could be difficult to capture accurately that inherent difference between “actual” and “desired.” Researchers can count the number of people in an individual’s social network, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual actually feels lonely or not. To tackle that inner experience, the Queens U. team believes it’s necessary to use qualitative methods that analyze the words people use to describe their subjective states.
Another key aspect of studying loneliness is to take into account an individual’s position in the lifespan, given that the nature of social relations changes over time. Culture is another possibly important factor, as in a highly individualistic society, the experience of being alone can take on different significance than in a culture that emphasizes community.
The 15 Loneliness Facts
With this background, the authors go on to describe their search for the essential qualities of loneliness from the inner perspective of individuals across ages and cultures. This search involved a comprehensive review of previously published qualitative studies that met a strict set of research criteria. The final set of 29 studies included 1,321 participants, representing a number of nationalities, and ranging in age from 7 to 103 years old.
McKenna-Plumley et al. employed a fairly standard coding system in which they worked between “primary codes” and “descriptive themes.” As an example, the theme that “loneliness has emotional features” relates to primary codes involving statements in the data about fear, sadness, boredom, hopelessness, and loss. Another “theme” can come from other statements related to a person’s socio-political landscape (COVID-19 was a good example of such an influence). The authors then coded the potentially thousands of statements from the data into manageable, or “analytical” themes. In this example, the analytical theme was that “loneliness is both psychological and contextual.”
The 15 themes that emerged from this rigorous analysis provide a new set of facts about the inner experience of loneliness. They are briefly summarized here:
- Loneliness is an aversive experience. People describe loneliness as being like a “nasty disease,” and a state they would rather avoid. Even worse, people don’t want to discuss their loneliness with others out of fear of seeming negative.
- Loneliness has emotional features. As the authors noted, “the emotions that came alongside loneliness were a key aspect of the experience." This theme, referred to above, included the host of unpleasant feelings that people report but also included guilt and jealousy.
- Loneliness has cognitive and perceptual features. People who are lonely engage in self-blame and feel inferior to others. Lonely people also perceive time as passing too quickly, too slowly, or to stop altogether.
- Loneliness is affected by personality and identity. Lonely people can come to define themselves as isolated and weak, and at the same time, link their loneliness to something about their personalities (e.g. as timid or introverted).
- Loneliness can relate to specific relationships (or their absence). The feeling of loneliness can emerge out of the ending of a given relationship, such as the loss of a spouse, or when family members move away. Culture can play a role, as when people who are single are defined as “unattached.” People could also feel lonely if they feel that they’re “different” from the other people within their social network.
- Loneliness relates to a lack of close, meaningful relationships. People need to feel that they have more than a superficial connection to others but instead that they and other people truly understand each other.
- Loneliness can involve feelings of disconnection. Not only can people feel different from others, but they can also feel that they really don’t have anything in common. More broadly, loneliness can have an existential quality as people feel they’ve drifted away from the world as a whole.
- Loneliness involves negative interpersonal experiences. People can feel lonely when they are actively rejected by others such as being bullied as a child or treated with abuse and lack of respect as an older adult.
- Loneliness involves social comparison. Watching other people having a good time together while you’re by yourself can lead you to feel sad and isolated. Another social comparison is the feeling that you haven’t gotten the types of relationships that you believe your culture expects you to have (such as people not marrying or having a family according to expectations).
- Loneliness is connected to, but not the same as aloneness, isolation, and solitude. These distinctions reflect the emotional component of loneliness. You can be alone and isolated but not lonely. Solitude, a “chosen and enjoyed aloneness” can bring positive emotions. Lack of a sense of control was a subset of statements that fell into this theme.
- Loneliness is precipitated by life experiences and transitions. Some of the key types of events that fall into this category include bereavement, retirement, divorce, and relocation. COVID-19 fits here, as the lockdowns forced many people to live for months separated from family and friends.
- Loneliness fluctuates in duration, intensity, and type. For some people, loneliness is a constant presence, almost a part of their personality. However, it is also possible for people to feel more or less lonely at particular points based on their exposure to precipitating factors.
- Loneliness can be grounded in specific contexts. The events that can contribute to loneliness on a daily basis include evenings, weekends, holidays, and winter. These are times that tend to be less busy but also when people can engage in unfavorable comparisons (e.g. spending a holiday alone).
- Loneliness can be impacted by physical and mental health challenges. Being physically ill, such as undergoing major surgery or having a major health event, can lead people to be isolated but also to feel “different” from those in their surroundings. Depression and anxiety, by definition, can also impact feelings of loneliness.
- Loneliness is affected by the socio-political landscape. As mentioned, large-scale events, such as the pandemic, can lead to loneliness but so can the cultural attitudes toward whatever group you represent, such as being the target of an “ism.”
Within the studies and their identification of factors that lead to loneliness were also themes suggesting ways to counter this unpleasant emotional state. These included turning to religion (and being part of a religious group) and getting pets, both of which are known to help individuals feel a sense of connection. Other practical pathways around loneliness include helping others and reaching out even to people you don’t know well by exchanging pleasantries.
Internally, the themes identified in these studies also suggest ways to develop resources that can help stave off loneliness. Older participants, in particular, suggested that it was their responsibility to cope with loneliness, particularly by taking steps to meet new people or find outlets for socializing.
The findings also imply that your use of time can become a counterpoint to loneliness. Punctuate those long hours on weekends by yourself with activities that you enjoy and that could have the added benefit of being of use to others. Exercise, known to be beneficial to mental health in general, could be another antidote as well as being a way to bolster your physical health and prevent disease.
To sum up, knowing what loneliness looks like can be the first step to helping to reduce its sting. Your pathway to fulfillment may be one you undertake on your own, but it can be interlaced with positive emotions.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Eakachai Leesin/Shutterstock
McKenna-Plumley, P. E., Turner, R. N., Yang, K., & Groarke, J. M. (2023). Experiences of loneliness across the lifespan: A systematic review and thematic synthesis of qualitative studies. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/17482631.2023.2223868