Loneliness

The World’s Biggest Study on Loneliness

New research helps explain who feels lonely and who does not.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

Do you feel lonely during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

Some people do, while others seem to cope very well with the increasing social isolation that is resulting from the measures aimed at reducing the number of new infections in many countries. But why do some people feel lonely when others do not?   

Psychological science is only beginning to understand which factors influence whether someone frequently feels lonely or not. A new study, now published in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences (Barreto et al., 2020), made an important step towards getting a better understanding of individual differences in loneliness.

In the study, the scientists analyzed the largest group of volunteers that has ever been investigated regarding loneliness. Participants took part in the BBC Loneliness Experiment, an online survey launched on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. Overall, more than 46,000 volunteers between 16 and 99 years old contributed to the study.

Importantly, the volunteers came from 237 different countries, making this the most diverse study in loneliness research so far. As many previous studies often focused on people from one specific country, their results might have been heavily influenced by cultural norms. This was not the case this time.

The volunteers filled out an online questionnaire indicating how often and intensely they experienced loneliness. They also answered several other questions about themselves, such as how old they were and which gender they had. Moreover, volunteers also gave information about their jobs and their relationship status.

The study revealed three interesting findings:

1. Age affects loneliness

While one might think that older people might feel lonelier, the study showed that the opposite is true: Older people clearly reported less frequent loneliness than younger people. In general, middle aged people were lonelier than old people and young people were lonelier than middle-aged people.

2. Gender affects loneliness

Men reported more frequent loneliness than women. This finding was also influenced by age. While men of all ages felt lonelier than women, the gender difference was smallest for older people.

3. Society affects loneliness

People who lived in individualistic societies (such as the U.S.), in which individual success is an important life goal, reported more frequent loneliness than people living in more collectivistic societies (such as Guatemala), in which the needs and goals of a larger group such as the family are more important than individual success. This effect was stronger for men and older people.

Conclusion

Taken together, the study showed that younger men living an individualistic country such as the U.S. are most vulnerable to loneliness. Older women living in a collectivistic country were least likely to feel lonely. This information might be important when planning support structures to combat loneliness.

References

Manuela Barreto, Christina Victor, Claudia Hammond, Alice Eccles, Matt T. Richins, Pamela Qualter (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, in press.