Author: Alex Mangun
Think of a setting you know well: your bedroom, your office, even your apartment or house. Now imagine you are unable to leave and no one else is allowed to enter. You are safe, you have plenty of food and water; you simply cannot see anyone.
Perhaps you can entertain yourself for some time. Maybe you even enjoy this time alone and greet it as a welcome change of pace. Eventually however, this isolation will almost certainly become unpleasant: Most people confronted with this situation will begin to feel lonely.
This hypothetical situation is not the only face of loneliness: People with many friends and acquaintances can still feel lonely, while others with only few close friends can feel perfectly fulfilled (Perlman and Peplau 1981). What then, is loneliness?
Academics, medical professionals and experts have long tried to create a definition that fits the various faces of loneliness. One attempt is the following:
“Loneliness is the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way, either quantitatively or qualitatively” (Perlman and Peplau 1981).
A second heavily cited definition complements this first approach:
“Loneliness is a situation experienced by the individual as one where there is an unpleasant or inadmissible lack of (quality of) certain relationships. […] Thus, loneliness is seen to involve the manner in which the person perceives, experiences, and evaluates his or her isolation and lack of communication with other people” (De Jong Gierveld 1998).
So, what is Loneliness?
What is immediately clear after reading these two definitions is that they both emphasize that loneliness is not just a quantitative measure of the number of relationships one has. A person with more or less relations is consequently not more or less lonely. Instead, loneliness is defined as something that has a more subjective facet: A perception that the social environment is in some way deficient to one’s needs (De Jong Gierveld 1998; Perlman and Peplau 1981). To put it simply, while you may have many friends, you can still feel you lack the connection to them that you desire: You feel lonely without being alone.
So where might this loneliness come from? Here, there are many possible answers: Isolation – for example from becoming homebound, through a loss of mobility, a lack of transportation or losing a spouse or partner – are all risk factors for loneliness. Injuries and disabilities such as hearing loss can also foster isolation and miscommunication, setting the stage for loneliness (Yeh 2017).
A Final Definition
Based on the information above, we arrive at a definition of loneliness that is both broadly applicable and easy to understand: Loneliness is an unpleasant experience associated with a perceived deficit in social interaction. This perception is based on either a lack of quantity or quality of relationships.
While this definition does not explicitly describe all situations in which someone may feel lonely, it nevertheless provides a useful tool that can be used to evaluate one’s own sense of loneliness. As the prolonged feeling of loneliness can be extremely dangerous for one’s physical and mental health, it is all the more important to encourage a better understanding of this sentiment.
de Jong Gierveld, J. (1998). “A review of loneliness: concept and definitions, determinants and consequences.” Reviews in Clinical Gerontology 8(1): 73-80.
Perlman, D. and L. A. Peplau (1981). “Toward a social psychology of loneliness.” Personal relationships 3: 31-56.
Yeh, C. S. (2017). “The power and prevalence of loneliness.” Harvard Health Publishing. At https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-power-and-prevalence-of-loneliness-2017011310977.