L is for… Loneliness

The Psychologist A to Z continues.

Suggested by Clare Uytman, who is a lecturer at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

"Before her death in June 2016, Jo Cox was working towards a Commission on Loneliness with the aim of bringing together charity organisations, policy makers and Members of Parliament in order to tackle this ‘silent epidemic’. Jo had said 'Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate... it is something many of us could easily help with'. This campaign has continued in her memory through the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission (https://www.jocoxloneliness.org/) with the simple tag line ‘Start a Conversation’ encouraging conversations at all levels from neighbours, to colleagues, from charities to politicians in an attempt to combat loneliness.

Human beings are inherently social creatures. The importance of social support can be found in research on a multitude of topics from studies on mental health to rehabilitation psychology, from sport psychology to social psychology. It should go without saying that being on your own is not the same as feeling lonely. Attempts to measure loneliness have gone before with scales rating this experience from a systematic and measured perspective. Loneliness is, however, an inherently personal phenomena, with each individual having their own version of what it means to them and how the experience it. This was recently explored by Sagan and Miller (2017) in their edited collection Narratives of Loneliness: Multidisciplinary Perspectives from the 21st Century.

At a time when communication is seemingly easier than ever before, discussions of isolation within this interconnected world seem even more pertinent."

According to The New Psychology of Health, a 2017 book from Catherine Haslam and colleagues, loneliness ‘is among the most important social factors that compromises the health and wellbeing of older adults… isolation does not always lead to the experience of loneliness. This is because loneliness tends to be experienced primarily when the social relationships that a person has are at odds with those they would ideally like’.

Try Roald Dahl’s The BFG for a fictional depiction of loneliness, particularly the film version.

John Cacioppo has pointed to the ‘civilising influence’ of loneliness: children sent into the corner for misbehaving come back as ‘better social citizens. They’ll now take the other child’s perspective; they’ll share their toys.’

In a 2011 article on the social value of pets, Deborah Wells included one of our favourite ever lines: ‘Hunt et al. (1992) found that a woman sitting in a park received significantly more social approaches from passers-by whenever she was accompanied by a rabbit or turtle, than when she sat alone with a television set or blowing bubbles.’

Feeling lonely can make you hungry, and worse when you’re sick, according to studies covered on our Research Digest blog.

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Entries so far are collated at https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/psychology-z

Illustration by Karla Novak.

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