A recent study has shed light on the detection and management of loneliness.
What is the definition of loneliness?
Feeling lonely is something that most of us go through at some point in our lives. It could be due to a lack of social interaction in our daily routine, feeling excluded from others or having moved far away from loved ones and acquaintances.
According to Jacqueline Olds, MD, a psychiatry consultant at Massachusetts General Hospital and coauthor of The Lonely American and Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life, one may experience feelings of emptiness and isolation, which can make it difficult to connect with others despite the desire to do so .
Comparing loneliness and depression
Loneliness and depression are two different things. Loneliness is a feeling that can be overwhelming, while depression is a mental health condition. However, both can have a significant impact on your wellbeing .
Feeling lonely may not be pleasant, but it is a passing emotion that stems from the need for companionship and acceptance. Fulfilling these needs can alleviate feelings of loneliness.
On the contrary, depression is not solely linked to the desire for social interaction. If not addressed by a qualified mental health practitioner, symptoms of depression can persist for prolonged periods and intensify over time.
If you are dealing with depression, socializing with others may provide a temporary distraction, but it may not always be effective. Even when spending time with close friends or your significant other, you may still feel unmotivated, hollow, and unable to connect with them fully.
New study aims to assess loneliness effectively
Per a study by Marcus Mund and colleagues from the University of Klagenfurt in 2023, interpersonal relationships are crucial for overall well-being and health . The research highlights that without such relationships, individuals may experience feelings of loneliness.
At least six instruments exist in the loneliness literature, ranging from single-item rating scales to multi-item scales. You might think more than one item would be needed to capture the complex aspects of this state of mind, but it has been a popular approach.
Additionally, how you perceive yourself when lonely corresponds to how others perceive you. It indicates that you have made loneliness a central feature of your life if others can detect it from your cues. Some of the measures use ratings provided by others and the participants.
The University Klagenfurt study collected data from various sources, including online samples of adults and their informants across different age groups and a longitudinal study.
In addition to measuring loneliness, the research team evaluated personality traits such as extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, depression, affiliation motive, need satisfaction, shyness and sociability.
The difference between emotional and social loneliness
Another difference the authors point to contrasts emotional and social loneliness. “I experience a general sense of emptiness” assesses emotional loneliness.
Social loneliness is rated on items such as, “There are plenty of people I can rely on when I have problems” (reverse scored).
After analyzing the statistical structure of different loneliness scales and their relationship with personality and life satisfaction, the researchers found that social and emotional loneliness are distinct. The study showed that direct loneliness ratings provided clearer and more consistent results than indirect measures, which did not include loneliness in their items.
Although it may seem overly simplistic, single items have been found to have strong statistical support. Even though these measures may “lose bandwidth,” as the authors note, they can be particularly useful when faced with financial or time constraints in research.
However, it is important to note that these ultra-short loneliness measures are inappropriate for use in a therapy setting, where a more nuanced perspective is necessary.
It’s not surprising that both observers and participants rated loneliness similarly. People who know you well can often pick up on your emotional state, including feelings of loneliness. This can happen during interactions with others, according to the authors.
Interactions with others on a daily basis
A total of five domains of life were assessed: education, leisure, friends, family and partner relationships. The number of social interactions the individuals report daily became a more behaviorally-oriented loneliness correlate.
The loneliness measures varied in length and focus, with some assessing “direct” vs. “indirect” forms. To put it another way, rather than having people rate themselves on the item “I feel lonely” (direct), an indirect measure asks individuals to rate themselves on the item “I feel alone.”
Implications of mental health on everyday life
Once it has been established that someone can recognize their loneliness, the question arises about how it affects their quality of life. The authors suggest that the consequences of loneliness go beyond just social relationships and can impact a person’s overall perspective on life.
Assessing and rating your level of loneliness
Regarding recognizing and managing the feeling of insignificance, the Austrian study suggests that loneliness could contribute. To begin, assess your level of loneliness on a scale of 1-7, considering your disconnection from the outside world and your intimate relationships.
You can address the loneliness you feel and project it to others by distinguishing it from any external sources of loneliness. It is important to acknowledge that people in your life may recognize this emotion, particularly those closest to you.
Next, think about the times you get together with friends. How close are those friendships?
Can you receive adequate assistance and guidance from them? How effectively do they assist you in addressing issues? Evaluating these connections impartially can establish a standard to strive for in future interactions.
Coping with the emotional isolation that often accompanies depression can be a difficult task . Fortunately, depression is a treatable condition and there is hope for individuals experiencing it. Engaging in activities that promote a positive mood and enhance one’s overall well-being is recommended as part of the treatment process.
Experiencing profound loneliness can cause individuals to feel disconnected from anything meaningful or fulfilling. However, conquering loneliness can result in a more satisfying and involved life.