Loneliness Graphics courtesy of North River Home CareOpens in new window

Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional state that occurs because of dissatisfaction with the quality of one’s relationships. Lonely people may feel emotional pain, sadness, and emptiness and feel distanced from and misunderstood by other people.

More technically, loneliness can be defined as a discrepancy between an individual’s desired level and actual level of social contact.

Loneliness is a subjective experience; therefore one can be alone but not lonely. Conversely, one may have many friends and other social contacts but still feel lonely.

Weiss (1973) identified two types of loneliness.

  • Emotional loneliness occurs when an individual fails to have a close relationship or confidant such as a romantic partner or very close friend.
  • Social loneliness arises when a person has no ties to a social group such as a group of friends or a social organization.

Anyone may suffere= from either type of loneliness or both. Improving the quality of one typoe of relatioshp (social or emotional) does not typically ameliorate the other type of loneliness.

Miller, Perlman, and Brehm (2007) review the research on personal demographic and social characteristics associated with loneliness.

Loneliness occurs with greater frequency in some countries than in others. In one study that compared 18 countries, Italians and Japanese reported the highest levels of loneliness while people from Denmark reported the lowest levels. Citizens of the United States also reported high levels (ranking fourth; Stack, 1995, 1998).

Unmarried people are more lonely than married people, but divorced and widowed people are more lonely than those who never married.

When unmarried people are asked indirectly about loneliness (i.e., asking about relationships and feelings without actually using the word lonely), men report more loneliness than women. When asked directly, women report more loneliness than men (Pinquart, 2003).

Most researchers consider indirect measures of loneliness more valid. The explanation for men’s underreporting of loneliness when asked directly is that the stigma associated with loneliness is greater for men than for women.

  • For men, emotional loneliness is most often remedied through a relationship with a woman; men’s relationships with one another tend to involve relatively little self-disclosure and emotional closeness.
  • Women’s friendship relationships with other women can be quite close, involving a great deal of disclosure, and emotional loneliness for women may typically be remedied through either a romantic relationship with a man (or woman) or a friendship relationship with a woman.

Age is related to loneliness. Perlman’s (1990) review of six surveys involving 18,000 people in North America revealed that in general, people are lonelier when they are adolescents or young adults than when they are middle-aged. Beyond the age of 40, loneliness tends to be associated with divorce, death of a spouse, or poor health.

Loneliness may be caused by both situational factors and an individual’s personal characteristics.

In a national survey of loneliness in the United States, people provided five major reasons why they were lonely (Rubenstein & Shaver, 1982):

  1. having no spouse or sexual partner,
  2. feeling different or misunderstood or having no close friendships,
  3. being alone, particularly coming home to a house with no one there,
  4. being forced into isolation (due to being homebound, hospitalized, or having no transportation), and
  5. being dislocated (from moving, starting a new job or school, or traveling frequently).

Notice that the research participants mentioned both situational causes (e.g., forced isolation, dislocation) and causes that are more likely related to personal characteristics (e.g., feeling different or misunderstood, no close friends, or no spouse or partner). Additionally, the participants described both emotional loneliness and social loneliness situations.

Personal characteristics associated with loneliness are both cognitive (thoughts, attitudes) and behavioral.

Lonely people may have low self-esteemOpens in new window, viewing themselves as unworthy or unlovable: as a result, they may be resigned to their loneliness (McWhirter, 1997). People who are lonely may have negative views and attitudes toward other people. They may have an attitude of mistrust toward others and a general negative attitude toward others (including disliking others).

Negative or mistrustful attitudes may manifest in behaviors such as being unresponsive in interactions with others, failing to ask questions, responding slowly to what other people say, changing topics at inappropriate times, or a lack of personal disclosure. Even individuals who generally dislike other people crave social interaction and contact and experience emotional distress when lonely.

Lonely people can take action to attempt to improve their situations. Miller, Perlman, and Brehm (2007) make several helpful suggestions.

  • First, lonely people can question their attitudes. A fear of rejection or disappointment may result in social withdrawal. However, little is lost if one forces oneself to interact, show interest in others, or engage in some self-disclosure.
  • Second, adopting a positive attitude may result in positive social interactions. People tend to blame loneliness on their own personal inadequacies; however, situational factors likely play a part as well. It may be beneficial to consider situational factors that may be contributing to loneliness; it is generally not constructive to put all the blame on oneself.
  • Third, once lonely people have considered and identified situational factors, they may think about how their attitudes are contributing to the problem and reconsider those attitudes. Individuals who think that people are selfish, uncaring, and untrustworthy may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecyOpens in new window. Instead, it is more helpful to try to find the positive qualities in others.
  • Fourth, if the preceding advice does not lead to positive results, social skills training may be helpful. Another useful exercise involves reexamining one’s attitudes and behaviors. For example, an individual who is attempting to heal loneliness by searching for a romantic partner might find a close friendship to be emotionally satisfying and personally enriching.
See also:
  1. Miller, R.S., Perlman, D., & Brehm, S.S. (2007). Intimate relationships. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Check, J.V.P., Perlman, D., & Malamuth, N.M. (1985). Loneliness and aggressive behavior. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 2, 243 – 252.
  3. McWhirter, B.T. (1997). Loneliness, learned resourcefulness, and self-esteem in college students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 75, 460 – 469.
  4. Perlman, D. (1990). Age differences in loneliness: A meta-analysis. Paper presented at the 98th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED326767).
  5. Pinquart, M. (2003). Loneliness in married, widowed, divorced, and never-married older adults. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20, 31 – 53.
  6. Rubenstein, C.M., & Shaver, P. (1982). In search of intimacy. New York: Delacorte Press.
  7. Solano, C.H. & Koester, N.H. (1989). Loneliness and communication problems: Subjective anxiety or objective skills? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 126 – 133.
  8. Stack, S. (1995). Gender, marriage and loneliness: A cross-national study. Unpublished manuscript, Wayne State University.