What is loneliness?
A widely used definition of loneliness was developed by Jenny De Jong Gierveld in 1998:
‘Loneliness is a situation experienced by the individual where there is an unpleasant or inadmissible lack of quantity or (quality of) certain relationships. This includes situations in which the number of existing relationships is smaller than is considered desirable or admissible, as well as situations where the intimacy one wishes for has not been realised. '
This means that someone can have a small group of friends and never experience loneliness because they meet their needs. Or alternatively, someone can have a large group of friends and still feel lonely because those relationships are not as numerous as they’d like or they are not the quality of relationship they desire.
Social isolation is different, and is defined as the absence of contact with other people. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a natural phenomenon and most people will feel lonely at some point in time. Loneliness becomes a problem when it goes on for a long period of time – this is called ‘chronic loneliness’.
Loneliness over a long period of time is harmful to our physical and mental health. Researchers have found that loneliness has been linked with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke, and with an increased risk of high blood pressure. Research in the US found that loneliness increases the risk of dying early by 26%. Loneliness is also associated with an increased risk of mental health problems such as depression.
Loneliness in Wales
Data from the 2016-17 National Survey for Wales found that around 440,000 or 17% people report being lonely in Wales. The National Survey for Wales also found that poverty was a factor in loneliness with 37% of those in material deprivation being lonely. In comparison, only 12% of those who weren’t materially deprived (12%) reported being lonely.
Loneliness is more commonly associated with later life, even though it can be experienced at any age.
In fact, the data from the National Survey shows that in Wales more people between 16-44 are lonely than older people.
At the same time, the data from the Analysis of interim data from the Maintaining Function and Well-Being in Later Life study (Cognitive Function and Ageing Wales) found that among older adults (65+) participating in the study 24.3% were lonely and 29.6% were isolated.
New to loneliness research?
Start here if you’re new to research or would just like an overview of the topic.
Here are some quick facts on loneliness.
Want to know what you can do to alleviate loneliness? This booklet has handy tips and hints from people in Wales who have recovered from loneliness.
A 15 minute TEDX talk from Deborah describing the real-life impact of loneliness in later life.
This is a magazine from Age Cymru which looks at loneliness and social isolation in later life.
A short 6 minute research animation which shows how cognitive impairment and dementia can lead to loneliness, and the steps we, as individuals, can adopt to help address this.
More detailed research on loneliness
If you would like more detailed information, the following are reports about different aspects of loneliness.
Interesting piece on diversity in the loneliness experience. Short essays and stories about loneliness from people living with cancer, LGBT and BME communities, carers, people with sensory impairment and those living in care homes (among others).
What works to alleviate loneliness? Promising case studies from across the UK on how to alleviate loneliness in older people.
This report by the Red Cross and the Co-op looks at the triggers from loneliness for young new mums (aged 18 – 24), people with mobility limitations, those with health issues, recently divorced or separated people, people without children living at home, retirees and the recently bereaved.
This is an interesting study of young people and loneliness. The researchers interviewed 2,001 16-25-year olds in the UK.
This is guidance for people working to prevent or reduce loneliness in the community. It includes the different ways of measuring loneliness and the pros and cons of each approach. It is useful if you want to measure loneliness in services and organisations.
An in-depth look at loneliness
Start here if you’re looking for academic research articles on loneliness.
A recent overview of systematic reviews and evaluation reports conducted between 2008 and 2018 on what works to alleviate loneliness.
Interested in young people’s experiences of loneliness? Check out this project using an immersive theatre experience to explore youth loneliness (research report and videos).
This research paper explores how dementia may impact on the pathway to loneliness for older people, through impeding social interaction with family and friends, or by interfering with judgements concerning satisfaction with relationships.
This is an interesting report of a Scottish study which explored the relationship between loneliness and poverty.
This is a short research paper which reviews the evidence on loneliness interventions for people with mental health problems.
This research paper looks at the link between loneliness and an increased risk of early mortality.