The concept of Loneliness

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Social disruption is not the sole ground for research on loneliness: there may be other more fundamental aspects at the onset of the experience.”

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How is loneliness defined? And what do these definitions say about what we understand of the phenomenon? Over the last few decades, an increasing amount of empirical research has involved a range of definitions of loneliness. Distinctions have been made between loneliness and social isolation, and between loneliness and solitude. Many researchers acknowledge that loneliness and social isolation (a state of no physical contact with other people) are different constructs. However, this theoretical distinction is not always fully reflected in research on loneliness, let alone in interventions to lessen it. Interventions with the goal to increase social interactions carry the assumption that loneliness is the same as social isolation because they provide social exposure in response. This results in the widely recognized distinction between loneliness and social isolation being undermined.

Making clear distinctions between loneliness and social isolation is particularly important in times of COVID-19 because new terminology (such as ‘social distancing’) is starting to appear in recent research to refer to experiences that may have some similarities with loneliness and social isolation but that are not exactly the same.

Research has provided different definitions of loneliness. Some have focused on the multifaceted nature of loneliness - addressing the interaction between specific behaviours (different forms of inhibited sociability), emotions (feeling unloved or unwanted) and thoughts of negative and self-depreciating nature. While other research has focused on cognitive aspects (e.g. the discrepancy between the relationships we wish we had and those we perceive we have). In such definitions, loneliness is also regarded as a subjective experience. However, the this subjective aspect is often described as something ‘private’, which obscures the experiential features that are essential to understanding loneliness.

A common thread that runs through all the current definitions is the tendency to focus on social distress. This originated with awareness that social relations play a fundamental role in psychological well-being. It has led mental health researchers to integrate work on loneliness and social support. However, the social disruption of loneliness is just one aspect of the experience. Sociality or being around others is affected in many dysfunctions such as depression and social anxiety. Therefore, excessive focus on social relations when we define loneliness does not allow us to investigate the particularities of the experience and to distinguish loneliness from other experiences that are as socially disruptive.

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Further research needs to disclose the mechanisms involved in our capacity to adapt to different environments, and analysis on whether such a capacity allows for social adaptation.

Social disruption is not the sole ground for research on loneliness: there may be other more fundamental aspects at the onset of the experience. Understanding absences and other aspects of loneliness experiences seem likely to be important features. We need definitions of loneliness that address a wide array of life events and of disturbances in the subjective structure. Exploring the issues raised here would have implications for our terminology and our future research on types of loneliness. And these would in turn allow for the design of new treatments and interventions.

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