In everyday language, loneliness describes feeling disconnected from important others by virtue of physical separation or emotional conflict. In psychology, loneliness is defined as having an inadequate or less satisfying network of friends and family than is desired. Loneliness and aloneness are distinct; solitude is enjoyed when one wants to be alone, whereas loneliness can be experienced in a crowd.
Loneliness is highly unpleasant, but quite common— one large survey estimated that 25% of the adult U.S. population experience loneliness during any 2-week period. Although loneliness typically is transitory, its importance mostly derives from its potential to become chronic, thereby changing the interpersonal perceptions and behavior of the lonely person in ways that tend to perpetuate loneliness (e.g., by inhibiting the restoration of old relationships and the development of new ones). For example, research shows that high lonely as compared with low lonely participants are less skillful and more rejecting when given the opportunity to interact with strangers. Similarly, although virtually all forms of therapy appear to be effective in reducing loneliness, there is evidence that the lonelier the person, the less likely that he or she will seek professional help. Also, whereas mild feelings of loneliness are associated with interpersonal overtures toward others, chronic and severe loneliness appears to elicit coping strategies that exacerbate rather than address the problem (e.g., withdrawal, use of alcohol and drugs).
Loneliness can be easily and reliably measured with brief self-report instruments. The UCLA Loneliness Scale is the most widely used and thoroughly validated case in point. Although most scales yield a global index of loneliness, there is utility in distinguishing between the loneliness of inadequate friends and companions (social loneliness) and loneliness associated with the absence of an intimate partner (emotional loneliness).
With respect to developmental continuity and change, an important issue is the age at which loneliness first appears. Early writers on the topic argued that loneliness did not emerge before preadolescence, whereas recent research suggests that it may occur much earlier. Attachment processes have been implicated in the development of loneliness. For example, the quality of the parent-child relationship predicts childhood and adolescent loneliness. There also is evidence that loneliness is transmitted across generations.
The developmental processes involved in the development of loneliness appear to be stable across the life span. For example, at all ages, the same dispositional variables (e.g., self-esteem, social anxiety) and psychological processes (e.g., internal and stable attributions for social failure) are related to and predictive of loneliness. Similarly, regardless of age, qualitative measures of relationships (e.g., satisfaction) are better predictors of loneliness than quantitative measures (e.g., number of friends). On the other hand, specific interpersonal deficits appear to be different but age appropriate among various age cohorts. Lonely adolescents tend to lack friends, whereas lonely young adults are more frequently without romantic partners, for example.
People who appear to be most vulnerable to the experience are young, unattached, and socially unskilled (e.g., shy), often experiencing disruptions in their interpersonal networks by virtue of geographical mobility (e.g., going away to college) or changes in interpersonal status (e.g., divorce). Indeed, it is generally held that loneliness usually originates from the combination of personal vulnerabilities and disruptions of relationships. Although women appear more vulnerable than men in some studies, this is likely a measurement rather than a gender difference.
Loneliness is related to assessments of adjustment and mental health, which is not surprising given the negative thoughts and emotions involved. However, there is also evidence that loneliness is associated with basic physiological processes (e.g., production of white blood cells) in such a way as to increase the lonely person’s susceptibility to illness.
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- Perlman, (1988). Loneliness: A life-span developmental perspective. In P. Milardo (Ed.), Families and social networks (pp. 190–220). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
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