In the modern age of social media and mobile communications, we humans have never been more connected to each other. But still, loneliness is a common – and often damaging – experience. When does being on your own tip over into feelings of loneliness? According to a new study, aloneness and loneliness are much less linked than you might assume.
“We are learning more and more about the importance of social connections for human health, and it appears that loneliness and isolation are related but distinct concepts,” said senior author David Sbarra, of the University of Arizona, in a statement.
The first thing to do, as co-author Matthias Mehl explained, was to develop a robust measure of how much time people spend alone. The team leveraged a method that Mehl had already developed, called the Electronically Activated Recorder or EAR. It works via a smartphone app, taking 30-second sound recordings from participants every 12 minutes.
“For instance, we know if the person is on the phone, if they are driving, watching television or if they are interacting with a partner or a stranger,” said Mehl.
Over 400 people across a huge age range, from 24 to 90 years old, were included in the research, and the EAR was active for between two and six days for each person. The data were collected from several previous studies that had involved EAR, to allow the authors to generate a larger sample.
When the data were analyzed, a clear age-related trend began to emerge. Mehl explained that for younger people, loneliness and aloneness are considered to be completely separate phenomena. For older adults, however, there’s a much clearer association between the two.
“Among adults 68 years and older, we found that loneliness is strongly connected with being socially isolated,” Sbarra said. In this group, there was an overlap of around 25 percent between loneliness and aloneness. This is in stark contrast to the result for the entire cohort of participants, which showed an overlap of just 3 percent.
One theory is that older people tend to have fewer and more meaningful social ties, so the loss of these has a more significant impact on their wellbeing, leading to loneliness. In contrast, younger adults tend to socialize for a variety of reasons, and don’t necessarily equate being around other people to a deeply meaningful social experience.
While on average people were spending 66 percent of their time on their own, the researchers found that those who pushed this above 75 percent were the most likely to feel lonely. However, there were also slightly elevated levels of loneliness in those who spent the least time on their own – surprising, right? Although it was not possible to conclude anything definitive from the data, the authors suggested that this could be due to those who have strong feelings of loneliness seeking out more social interactions to try to combat it.
Going forward, Mehl is working to develop “SocialBit” – a fitness tracker, but for social activity. The app will run on a smartwatch and measure how many conversations the wearer is having each day, giving them a gentle nudge when they’ve been solitary for too long. The first patient cohort that Mehl hopes will benefit is those in recovery from a stroke, since social isolation is big problem in this group.
Loneliness and isolation have been described by many as “deadly”, and the more scientists learn about this issue, the better able to tackle it they will be. But it’s interesting to learn that being alone and feeling lonely – two things that you might assume go hand-in-hand – are not always as connected as they seem.
The study is published in the Journal of Research in Personality.