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What is loneliness?

What is loneliness?

  • Date10 May 2022

Loneliness is at the front of many people’s minds after the last two years of unprecedented disruptions. Yet, loneliness is often difficult to recognise in oneself and others. This article describes what loneliness is from the perspective of academic Psychology.

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The topic of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week is "Together we can tackle loneliness". After two years of disruptions that saw us cut off from our friends and family, we all had moments when we experienced something that seems to fit the label "loneliness". But what is this feeling? How can we define it? Psychological research over the last decades provides some answers that can help us to make sense of this feeling.

First, loneliness is not the same as social isolation. Social isolation describes the physical reality of being away from other people. Some people do not mind having relatively little contact with other people. For instance, the history scholar who spends most of his time buried in books may be socially isolated but not feel lonely. This person may even experience solitude, a positive feeling about being away from other people. In contrast, loneliness is a negative feeling of "having fewer or lower quality social relationships than desired". As can be gleaned from this definition, loneliness is highly subjective. Some people may feel lonely even when they are surrounded by people, i.e. they are lonely but not socially isolated.

We can also experience loneliness in particular aspects of our lives but not in others. For instance, social loneliness describes not feeling part of a group. For instance, someone who moved to a different city may feel like they do not have a community or friendship circle where they belong. In contrast, emotional loneliness describes a longing for deep personal connection. Someone may be well integrated within a sports team and hang out with casual friends a lot. Yet, they may feel like they have no one to share their vulnerable side with. Another type of loneliness is a more general sense of being isolated from others like there is an unbridgeable gulf between oneself and others. This type of loneliness is sometimes called existential isolation.

No matter which type of loneliness we experience, the feeling is unpleasant or even deeply painful. It is important to acknowledge this feeling as it may alert us that we are missing something important in our lives. It is also a fundamental part of being human. Most people will experience loneliness at some point in their lives and will find ways to overcome it. If you want to learn some strategies to deal with loneliness, Dr Ines Mendes provides some helpful advice in this video: https://t.co/viGcEFBQgQ

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Text by Dr Joe Bathelt

Dr Bathelt is a lecturer in the Psychology department at Royal Holloway, University of London. His current research focuses on neurocognitive mechanisms of loneliness in adolescents.

Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on Unsplash

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