The Surprising Truth about Loneliness

October 1, 2018

When you picture someone who’s lonely, the stereotype is often an older person who lives alone and hardly sees anyone. Indeed, in the BBC Loneliness Experiment, 27% of over 75s said they often or very often feel lonely. This is higher than in some surveys, but because the survey was online we had a self-selecting sample and might have attracted more people who feel lonely.

Yet the differences between age groups are striking. Levels of loneliness were actually highest among 16-24 year olds, with 40% saying they often or very often feel lonely.

This begs the question of why so many young people say they feel lonely. Perhaps they are more prepared to admit to feelings of loneliness than older people who might feel they need to stress their independence. But it was noticeable that when everyone was asked at which point in their life they’d felt lonely, even retrospectively the most common answer people gave was when they were young adults.

So it’s not necessarily modern life that’s making young people feel lonelier, but factors associated with being young itself. Although we might think of the ages of 16-24 as a time of new freedom to have fun, leaving school and having more control over your life, it’s also a time of transition – moving away from home, starting college, starting a new job – all of which take you away from the friends you’ve grown up with. At the same time people are trying to work out who they are and where they fit into the world.

In addition to this, people aren’t accustomed to these feelings of loneliness and haven’t yet had the experience to know that they often pass, or to the chance to find ways to cope with those feelings, such as distracting themselves or looking for company.

2. 41% of people think loneliness can be positive

This finding fits in with the ideas of people such as the late neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who believed that we evolved to experience loneliness because it can be useful, even though it’s so unpleasant. Humans have survived through forming co-operative groups. If people feel they are excluded from a group then feelings of loneliness might drive them to connect with people, finding new friends or rekindling old relationships.

The problem is that it can become chronic, with a serious impact on well-being and maybe even on health. This animation, which we published at the start of the project, explains more:

Feelings of chronic loneliness are associated with an increased risk of depression a year later. It was striking that in the survey, although 41% of all the participants said loneliness could be positive, this rate dropped to 31% in those who told us they often feel lonely. Loneliness can be so miserable and distressing, that when it’s long-lasting it can be hard to see any positive side.

3. People who feel lonely have social skills that are no better or worse than average

Sometimes it’s assumed that people feel lonely because they’ve found it hard to make friends and help with improving social skills would make a difference. This isn’t what we found. A key element of social interaction is the ability to tell what other people are feeling, so that you can adjust your responses accordingly. Perhaps they’re worried about something or you’ve accidentally offended them.

One way of measuring this skill is to give people a series of full faces or even just pairs of eyes to assess how good they are at working out which emotion people are experiencing. There was no difference between the average scores of the people who often felt lonely and the people who didn’t.  There were differences in scores on neuroticism, so perhaps it’s the anxiety provoked by social situations that can make them harder to cope with if you feel lonely, rather than social skills.

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