- Loneliness means an awareness of a mismatch between one’s desired and one’s achieved quality or quantity of relationships.
- Loneliness has a social dimension (i.e., a lack of social integration) and an emotional dimension (i.e., a lack of intimate relationships).
- New research shows social loneliness and emotional loneliness have shared and unique risk factors.
Loneliness is an unpleasant experience in which one perceives a relationship deficit—the sense that the quality or the number of one’s relationships are unsatisfactory.
It has been suggested that loneliness has multiple dimensions, including social and emotional ones.
People who experience social loneliness feel like they are not part of a group that shares their interests, that they do not belong.
Those who experience emotional loneliness feel they lack intimacy. For instance, though many singles tend to be happy and satisfied with life, “involuntary singles” tend to be unhappy because of high emotional loneliness (i.e., they desire but lack intimate attachments).
So, what are the risk factors for these two types of loneliness? For an answer, we turn to a study by Hofman and collaborators. Published in the July issue of Psychiatry Research, the study discusses the differences between these two types of loneliness, including their risk factors.
Emotional Loneliness vs. Social Loneliness
Before we look at the research, let us distinguish the two types of loneliness more sharply.
- Emotional loneliness: An unpleasant feeling resulting from the perception that one is missing an “intimate attachment relationship” or that the existing relationship is inadequate. Emotional loneliness is a very common experience in people who have recently divorced or become widowed.
- Social loneliness: An unpleasant feeling resulting from the perception of not belonging, a lack of social integration, or experiencing one’s social network as deficient. Those more likely to experience social loneliness include people who have moved to a new school or job or migrated to a new country.
Investigating the Risk Factors for Social and Emotional Loneliness
Sample: 7,885 individuals (57 percent female); about half between the ages of 50 and 64 years old; 84 percent Dutch; 75 percent living together or married; 43 percent living together with children; 79 percent working; 58 percent with no chronic diseases and 20 percent with two or more chronic diseases; 20 percent current smoker; 67 percent physically active.
- Social loneliness: Five items from the 11-item loneliness scale by De Jong Gierveld. Example: “I can rely on my friends whenever I need them.”
- Emotional loneliness: Six items from the 11-item loneliness scale. Example: “I experience a sense of emptiness around me.”
Risk factors associated with both types of loneliness (equal effect sizes) included being an immigrant and having a low income. Drinking and being physically active, in contrast, were linked with lower loneliness.
In some cases, effect sizes were not similar. For instance, living alone, being unmarried, psychological distress, and suicidal thoughts were more strongly correlated with emotional loneliness, whereas poor health and having multiple chronic diseases were more strongly correlated with social loneliness.
What about factors linked mainly with one type of loneliness? An analysis of the data showed that being female, of younger age, being a current smoker, and having medium or higher educational levels were linked with lower social loneliness. Having a paid job and a low body mass index were associated with lower emotional loneliness.
Why is it that people who exercise but also those who drink and smoke were less likely to feel lonely? Perhaps the association with smoking and drinking was due to participation in social events.
To summarize, there are two dimensions to loneliness:
Social loneliness refers to a lack of connection with others and difficulties with integration into social networks. The reviewed research found that older men and those with lower education are more likely to experience social loneliness.
Emotional loneliness means an absence or inadequacy of one’s intimate relationships. People who are unmarried, live alone, are jobless, have a high body mass index, or have been experiencing psychological distress (e.g., anxiety, depression) are more likely to report emotional loneliness.
So, if you have any of the above risk factors for loneliness, take a proactive approach to improve your situation—whether this means making friends or forming romantic relationships. This is important because emotional loneliness, social isolation, and feeling like you do not belong increase the risk for depression, pain, and many other negative outcomes.
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