Despite being a very simple issue it is surprisingly complex trying to understand what constitutes loneliness. It can, and does, affect everyone but occurs in a range of situations and contexts as diverse as humans themselves.
To help understand current research around loneliness a little better we conducted a literature review and collated open data, developed and maintained by really useful, free to access, resources like the Loneliness research hub maintained by the ‘Campaign to end loneliness’. Using this research data we produced a model of our current understanding of loneliness to highlight some of the current thinking behind its causes and a range of solutions currently being investigated. To learn more of how we did this - our detailed method is available here.
This meta-analysis of the data outlined some principle themes in loneliness research, these are contained in a detailed research map, found in our method post. However, we've also also produced a simple 'knowledge map' that summarises the top themes and ideas in the research. Many of the research ideas link to the source material, where available. For this top level map please visit the following link:
Using the summary map, we have also produced the following narrative, around the current themes in the loneliness research.
Breaking the Taboo of Loneliness
Similar to public perceptions of mental health the general attitude toward loneliness is, hopefully, transitioning away from being a ‘taboo’ subject. Such a gradual change should be seen as positive, especially in Western countries, like Great Britain, where traditional notions like the ‘stiff upper lip’ still represent a significant behavioural norm, especially in older generations who have firmly established such stoical values throughout their lives.
But, as the research shows, there is a wealth of evidence on why trying to treat loneliness as something that no-one talks about is a bad idea. Loneliness, happiness and health are all linked and an individuals mindset, can be a key factor in driving social isolation. A desire to suffer in silence, and not be a bother to anyone else, can unfortunately create a self-fulling prophecy, through which people become locked in their own private circle of suffering. Hopefully though, by recognising how this belief can form and with continuing efforts to address the social norms that drive such beliefs, things can improve.
The research also shows the clear links between mental health and loneliness. Similar to the work being conducted to address loneliness, a lot of work is being done to raise awareness and address how society perceives and understands mental health. For example, the Mental Health Foundation - continues to campaign and promote awareness and understanding of mental health. Again, the aim is to address the norms that see many people not seeking help for mental health issues that can see them becoming isolated and withdraw from social contact.
The causes of Loneliness can be different, but the symptoms are the same.
Loneliness could be defined as ‘isolation’ - a sensation of being alone when someone doesn’t want to be. Isolated individuals can feel like they are the only person alive, going for days without talking to anyone else. This is often despite the fact that they are generally surrounded by people, especially if they live in urban environments. The causes for such isolation can be varied. Mental health is a factor, physical health is another. Often people with chronic health care requirements will have to adopt lifestyles that are more restricted and contained, leading to them being more immobile. This can affect them, and additionally, the people that care for them, again leading to isolation for both those suffering from illness and the people that care for them.
After health, there are aspects of identity and group membership that can also lead to isolation. For example, people who belong to minority groups and communities can see their social and support networks change over time, particularly as they age. This can lead to people in ethnic minorities, immigrant or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual (LGBT) communities feeling like they are in smaller and smaller groups as they go through life.
Further to the sense of things changing beyond their control, further changes occur through life that also increase isolation. Divorce, bereavement, children growing up, all these changes can see people having a lot less social contact then they used to have, and a sense of frustration and a general lack of control that can further drive the stresses of their situation.
Current research suggest that it is this sense of isolation and the mindset with which someone responds to it can be crucial in how they live their lives. For example, something known as ‘Dispositional optimism’, defined as a 'generalized tendency to positive outcome expectancies' could be associated with well-being and successful ageing. Similarly, mindfulness based techniques to help address stress can help address the mental pathways and mindset that can help prevent loneliness becoming a ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy.
Loneliness does impact on health.
Whatever its causes, the impact of loneliness as a cause of isolation does have a negative impact on health. Loneliness is shown to impact on heart health, general mental well-being, cognitive function, dementia and eye-sight. This is why trying to tackle the societal values and constraints that can drive it are so important.
Understanding how loneliness and isolation and impact on health does also affect how we appreciate the issue. For example, many people enjoy time alone. However, it is important to recognise that time alone, through your own choice and action, is vastly different to being alone due to forces outside of your control. It is likely that future research into mindfulness and mindset will highlight what the optimum level of ‘aloneness’ is for an individual and this is likely to depend greatly on lifestyle, community and work-life balance. All of which differ and change markedly as we go through life and could explain why the demographic most likely to feel the cost of isolation are elderly women; a demographic group more likely to be lonely due to bereavement, declining support networks and poor health.
Loneliness and age
The research shows that loneliness in our later years is a significant issue and a number of further research projects and policies have been implemented to start addressing it. As we research loneliness and ageing more, we can help people more but at the same time, as our understanding increases we can start to see how it impacts on different age groups, often for very different reasons.
At this stage there is not a huge amount of data, but there is increasing media speculation surrounding ‘millennials’ and loneliness. The 'connected generation', are often seen to be empowered by sites like facebook which give younger people unlimited potential to form friendships and join communities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always seem to work that way. Social networking is changing how we interact, often for the better. However, as well as the cybersecurity issues they present, another potentially negative impact of social networks are the effect they have on individual happiness. Social networks can drive sensations of loneliness as people feel pressure only to share positive messages and ‘virtue signals’. This can drive individual insecurities and a sense of exclusion, making people less happy and more isolated as they watch and monitor their on-line identities.
Such forces can lead to anxiety and a considerable sense of peer-pressure surrounding a technology that is supposed to bring people together, albeit virtually. A further challenge is that such virtual communities can detract from being 'present' in real life communities, as people are more comfortable interacting online. This can, lead to people being less comfortable in real life social settings and more comfortable in their virtual selves. Is it the case that more and more people today experience anxiety in shared social settings; do people not talk to each other in public because they don't know how?
Technology; the cause and the solution for loneliness
The research suggests there is a bit of paradox around technology. It would appear to be both a cause and a solution for loneliness. With older generations, unable to see or talk to someone, something as simple as a phone call can make a world of difference (see ‘when I get off the phone, I feel like I’ve joined the human race’). Similarly, being able to use and understand the internet and social networking can show improvement for cognitive function and counteract many of the symptoms of isolations elders experience.
However, for younger generations - it is perhaps the primacy of technology and the significance it holds in their lives that can drive isolation. Perhaps what we're seeing is that social media is growing up? Are we starting to question whether we are happier as people because the bulk of our interactions are virtual? The symptom of being ‘alone together’ seems to be the next aspect of loneliness that we are coming to understand as we start to address and understand this complex phenomenon of our times.
As our understanding of loneliness improves - we can see ways to address it, and technology does seem to play a key role; both in where and how we use it. But there are other, simpler things we can do; group exercise programmes bring people together both socially and for health benefits. Mindfulness strategies and behavioural programmes to address the stresses and mindsets that can cause isolation are also showing promise.
At the same time, when you look at how different societies treat and respond to loneliness, you start to understand how social policies, norms and traditions do have a big part to play. This is why campaigns to address deep seated thinking patterns and stigmas surrounding mental health are so important and (as with some many things) it seems mindset is key. Often though it's the collective mindset and the values and beliefs of wider society that need to be addressed, and although this is challenging to achieve, it can happen, generally one person at a time.
Chris Evett is a Futures Analyst, specialising in social trend analysis. The full dataset and research for this article is available here