So, what is loneliness?

When I write about loneliness, I write about a feeling. This is not only my personal preference, but shared by most psychological researchers.[1],[2],[3]

 

Typically, it is the feeling that you are entirely alone in the world or in your life, that no one (around you) can understand you or you don’t understand them. That you are separated from others – not necessarily by geographical distance but often rather by being different in one way or another.

 

Some examples of this are provided by the people I interviewed:

 

Well, really, mostly a feeling of rejection, exclusion, not being understood, in a way losing the connection between you and a group of people, or all other people. (Bulgarian man, 33 years old)

 

So, I think that it’s like living life, where there is always double glass. So, you always feel like there is something separating you from everyone else – there is something happening inside of you, and there is the outside world. And between them, there is this double glass, and you can’t reach it, even if it’s so close. (Israeli woman, 26 years old)

 

To me, loneliness is to be surrounded with people, but to still be unable to tell them what’s inside. (Egyptian woman, 25)

 

I think that it can be like being misunderstood, lack of support, lack of respect. (Bulgarian woman, 30)

 

Loneliness can occur when you are alone, but it can also occur when you are with others. It can haunt you when you currently lack people or a specific person in your life, but it can also happen when you actually have many relationships. (In fact, it can even occur if you have supportive, enjoyable relationships – but more about this later.) The loneliness I mostly write about in this blog is thus different from solitude (i.e., being alone) and from social isolation (i.e., having few social relationships and/or social contacts).

 

Being alone is great when you’re not feeling lonely. Like, you’re looking for it – this is what I look for these days. I’m not feeling lonely, I want to be alone by myself. But the loneliness is this something else and it has nothing to do… It’s actually really interesting because it really has nothing to do with your physical state. It’s a matter of perception. (Israeli woman, 32 years old)

 

I mean, you could have friends, you could have a partner as well, your family and your folk, but you still get these feelings of loneliness. The loneliness has nothing to do with the place or space: It is not like, because I’m physically alone somewhere, that is why I feel lonely. Because, as I have mentioned in the beginning, I would sometimes be with many people, and still get the feeling of loneliness. (Egyptian woman, 35 years old)

 

Importantly, one person’s loneliness is not necessarily the same as another person’s loneliness. In fact, just as human beings can feel sad for countless different reasons and for different amounts of time, human beings can feel lonely for countless different reasons and for different amounts of time. As such, it is common to distinguish different types of loneliness – by its cause or by the time that it lasts. Even those who experience the same loneliness type, however, can feel lonely for quite different concrete reasons and remain lonely for different amounts of time (there is an extra blog post about this). Nevertheless, it makes sense (in my view) to consider people lonely if they say that they feel lonely – just as we consider people sad if they say that they feel sad.

 

Most people, then, do feel lonely at least at some point in their lives. Personally, I do not think that this is an issue in itself. After all, we also do not view occasional sadness as an issue. It can become problematic, however, if the occasional loneliness (or sadness) does not go away anymore or keeps returning. In that case, it may be better to examine and try to reduce it. The information on this website offers some starting points for how to go about that. But there are also many initiatives against loneliness these days and countless therapists to talk to – exactly because, no matter how lonely you might feel, you are certainly never alone with your loneliness.

 

 


[1] Hays, R. D., DiMatteo, M. R. (1987). A short-form measure of loneliness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 51(1), 69–81. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327752jpa5101_6

[2] Perlman, D., Peplau, L. A. (1981). Toward a social psychology of loneliness. In Gilmour, R., Duck, S. (Eds.), Personal relationships: Vol. 3. Relationships in disorder (pp. 31–56). Academic Press.

[3] Van der Weele, T. J., Hawkley, L. C., Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). On the reciprocal association between loneliness and subjective well-being. American Journal of Epidemiology, 176(9), 777–784. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kws173

 

Dear visitor,

 

We are currently working on a new research project to examine people’s own and their perception of others’ feelings, including loneliness.

 

Would you be willing to anonymously answer some questions (max. 15-20 minutes)? Then please click here. You can end participation at any point.

 

Many thanks in advance!

 

(For any questions or comments, please send an email to l.c.heu@uu.nl)