Loneliness and being alone are often linked in our minds. But little research has been done to show if there’s any real correlation between the two ― at least until now.
In a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality in September, researchers at the University of Arizona found that solitary time does not closely correlate with feelings of loneliness, that is, until a person spends 75% of their time alone.
The researchers also found that feelings of loneliness are dependent on age. For adults younger than about 40.5 years old, there’s no association between isolation and loneliness.
But among older adults ― defined here as those over 68 years old ― there’s a strong association between the two concepts, said David A. Sbarra, a University of Arizona professor of psychology, and a senior author on the paper.
“One potential explanation for this is that older adults view their isolation differently than younger adults,” he told HuffPost. “They appraise greater time alone perhaps as signalling the likelihood of even more time alone, which may create a sense of loneliness.”
“But we still don’t have a solid understanding of this finding, we’re just suggesting potential explanations at this point,” the professor added.
For younger Americans ― many who are chronically online ― time spent on social media may help them stave off feelings of loneliness.
“While older adults might really be alone when they are alone, younger adults might be socialising more even when they are not objectively with others,” he said. “The rise of social media and online socialisation really does make us ask what it means to be alone.”
The generational differences in feelings of isolation may also have something to do with a lack of opportunity to socialise for older folks, especially those who’ve retired. In a HuffPost story from earlier this year, Los Angeles psychologist David Narang said that “the loss of work relationships can be an important contributor to loneliness.”
Society isn’t “organised around having gathering places that everyone visits on a regular basis,” Narang said, and retirees need to be especially intentional about seeking out these social connections.
Sbarra and his team wanted to delve into this topic because loneliness has increasingly become a public health concern. Earlier this year, the US surgeon general released a report saying widespread loneliness in the US has reached epidemic levels, posing health risks as deadly as smoking a dozen cigarettes daily.
Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation are linked with an increased risk of everything from dementia and heart disease, to stroke, depression and even premature death.
As for how the researchers were able to study all this, Matthias Mehl, one of the senior author’s of the study and a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, developed a unique tool for studying how often the 400 participants were on their own, called the Electronically Activated Recorder, or EAR.
The EAR is an app on a smartphone that records with participants’ permission the sounds they make for 30 seconds every 12 minutes.
“We have a team of people who review the sound files to make ratings of whether participants are alone or spending time with others: if they’re watching TV or driving or on the phone, or otherwise interacting with someone,” Sbarra explained. “Turns out that our raters are very good at making this determination and agree with each other.”
Because loneliness is such a subjective state ― what you consider being lonely may differ drastically from what your neighbor can handle ― the researchers had participants self-report their feelings of being lonely.
What Sbarra found most interesting was that the people who reported feeling the most lonely fell into two distinct categories: those who spent very little time alone and those who spent a lot of time alone.
“I am most curious about why spending a lot of time with others might be so highly associated with loneliness,” he said. “This is truly the definition of being alone in the crowd. Are we observing some sort of fake intimacy here? Are lonelier people trying to socialize more? They’re all good questions ready for study.”
Now that this study is complete, the researchers are working with a team to develop SocialBit, an app that runs on a smartwatch and uses similar ― though less complicated ― technology as the EAR app.
The idea is for the SocialBit to be similar to commercially available fitness trackers: While those track metrics like steps taken per day, the SocialBit would catalogue social activity by measuring minutes of conversation per day.
“We know 8k-10k steps are good for us. How much time should we spend with others?” Sbarra said. “It’s highly correlated with well-being and health, but can we get our devices to the point where they can encourage more social connections? This would be very ambitious, but also incredibly useful.”
The team hopes to roll out SocialBit first for people who’ve had strokes, since social interaction has shown to be highly conducive to recovery.
If you’re feeling alone, it’s important to be intentional about reaching out for connection, whether it’s calling an old friend, taking a class at the local community college, or putting your old Reddit account to use and making some online friends who are equally interested in your more esoteric hobbies.
As New York City-based therapist Megan Bruneau told HuffPost, it’s also important to remind yourself that people want to hear from you.
“While shame will try to convince you you’re unlovable and no one wants to hear from you, remind yourself it’s lying and you will likely feel better if you connect,” Bruneau said. “You’re a human who, like other humans, yearns for connection in our disconnected world.”