A new study suggests that three factors could influence the degree of loneliness among individuals. These factors were apparent in different countries and regions.
The three factors that could affect the loneliness level felt by people were unveiled by researchers at the University of Exeter and collaborators. Their study was the biggest in terms of the size of the participants. They analyzed the prevalence of loneliness in several countries to determine the forces behind the negative feeling. Their analysis unveiled age, gender, and social settings as main elements in either alleviating or aggravating loneliness. They published their findings in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
The Biggest Study on Loneliness
Many people around the world feel lonely every and now then. This can be caused by a variety of factors, such as living alone, lack of close friends, and the distance between them and loved ones. As long as the feeling goes away after several minutes or hours, there is no need to worry about the risks of mental health problems. However, persistent loneliness, either palpable or not, for months and years can be a concern. Until the root cause is identified and addressed, that loneliness can put a person at risk of depression or other mental health conditions.
Today, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is testing how enduring people are. Some can cope very well with extended social isolation. They likely prefer the setting over the old normal, while others are not doing well with being separated from friends and loved ones. They often experience signs of quarantine fatigue, like anxiety, sleeplessness, and stress. But there is a mystery in those examples: why some people feel lonely while others do not. If long-term isolation is detrimental to the human mind, everyone should be suffering from loneliness.
A new study led by the University of Exeter revealed three common factors across different communities that could affect one's loneliness. If a person qualified for all three, their risk level of severe loneliness might be higher compared to those who qualified for one or two factors. If more people realized these factors, they could be made aware of the risk, which would open their chances of countering the signs before loneliness turns into a real problem.
In the study, researchers utilized the BBC Loneliness Experiment to examine the variation in the loneliness experienced by people of different ages, cultures, and gender. They also examined the interactions between these differences to better understand how loneliness played out. The experiment was a survey launched online that invited individuals in various territories. A total of 46,054 participants aged from 16 to 99 years of age joined the survey. These participants represented 237 countries, islands, and territories worldwide.
Because the participants represented more than 200 territories, the study became highly diverse and reduced the influence of subjective factors. Previous studies would often be limited due to results vulnerable to cultural norms if the setting only included one nation. As such, this research provided insights into the loneliness felt by people in the west, east, islands, and other areas with geographical distinctions.
Results showed that three unique factors stood out among the responses. These were age, gender, and society. Each factor was substantial enough to influence the level of loneliness a person could experience every day. But with the current pandemic, the factors could be more influential in areas where lockdowns and quarantine protocols have been extended. Still, insights into these factors could be utilized by people prone to loneliness in the age of the new normal.
The Three Factors
Age is a known factor in loneliness. The norm is older people are lonelier than children and younger adults. But the study contradicts that typical assumption. The survey shows that older people reported less frequent bouts of loneliness than younger people. The analysis of responses expresses that middle-aged people are lonelier than older people, while younger people are lonelier than middle-aged people. It is possible that the quest for achievements in early adulthood may be increasing the risk of loneliness.
The experience of loneliness is similar between men and women, but if age is applied, the feeling becomes different. The study unveiled that men across all ages are more likely to feel lonely than women. As people grow older, the difference in loneliness experienced by men and women narrows. And finally, society itself either dampens or promotes loneliness. The social setting of a country determines the risk of loneliness in the population.
For example, individualistic societies like the US prioritize individual success among people. Since the goal is to accomplish something alone, people often experience loneliness. On the other hand, collectivistic societies like Guatemala prioritize the collective success of the population. Because a goal must be done by a family, people are less likely to feel lonely when working hard to reach success. Researchers pointed out that society as an influencer of loneliness is stronger among males and older people.
Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg, a lecturer in biopsychology at Ruhr University, posted on the US-based magazine Psychology Today that the combination of the three factors is possible and more impactful. If a male is a young adult living in an individualistic country, their risk of loneliness can be considered very high. But if they are living in a collectivistic nation, their loneliness may not be as high as the former. Overall, the factors revealed by researchers are applicable in creating support structures for those susceptible to loneliness.
According to Statista, a German portal for statistics, the generation of an individual indicates their risk of loneliness. The closer their generation is to the digital age, the higher the odds of feeling lonely. In the summer 2019 survey that covered 10,441 US adults, 79% of Generation Z and 71% of Millennials felt lonely, compared to 50% of Boomers who felt the same way. Between genders, 46% of males and 45% of females felt lonely across all generations.
Right now, physical interactions are very limited in communities. The limitation is set to help control the spread of COVID-19. Though, it is not enough to deny oneself of virtual interactions. Even if the digital age is making some people lonely, innovation in technology can still allow those who want to communicate with their friends, family, and significant others through video calls. It may not be the same as in person, but it is better than not communicating with someone at all.