All in the Mind shines a light on loneliness

01 October 2018

A survey of more than 55,000 people run by BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust has offered some new insights into loneliness. The Loneliness Experiment, led by Developmental Psychologist Professor Pamela Qualter, was the largest survey of its kind and revealed 16- to 24-year-olds experience loneliness more often and more intensely than other age groups.

Claudia Hammond, presenter of All in the Mind, said: ‘The topic of loneliness is now receiving a great deal of attention and political prominence as demonstrated by its inclusion in Tracey Crouch’s ministerial portfolio and the recommendations from The Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. We were staggered by the huge numbers of people taking part in our survey. This research shows we need to take loneliness seriously in all age groups. We know that most loneliness is temporary, but we need to find ways to prevent it from becoming chronic.’

The survey revealed that 40 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds reported feeling lonely often or very often while 29 per cent of those aged 65 to 74 and 27 per cent of people aged over 75 reported the same. Qualter (University of Manchester) worked alongside Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology Manuela Barreto (University of Exeter) and Professor of Gerontology and Public Health Christina Victor (Brunel University London) in developing the survey. She said: ‘The response to the BBC Loneliness Experiment has been significant. People have provided valuable insights into when and how loneliness is experienced, how it relates to age, being alone, caring responsibilities, employability, and discrimination. For me, the most interesting findings relate to the stigma of loneliness and the varied solutions people had to overcome loneliness. Those findings suggest that we need to be kinder to ourselves when we feel disconnected from others, but also that there is a whole toolkit of potential solutions that we can try.’

Among the survey’s other findings were that those who feel more lonely have more online-only Facebook friends; 41 per cent said loneliness can sometimes be a positive experience; and only one third said loneliness was about being on your own. An episode of All In The Mind, recorded in front of a live audience at the Wellcome Collection, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm tonight (October 1) and will delve further into the results of the survey. A series titled the Anatomy of Loneliness will break down the research into three programmes to be broadcast on Radio 4 on the next three Tuesdays starting tomorrow (October 2).

Me Myself I – a drama inspired by true stories of loneliness developed with academics and supported by the Wellcome Trust – will be broadcast on Saturday 5 October. A series of seven All In The Mind podcasts titled How You Can Feel Less Lonely will be released between 2 and 8 October, in which Hammond and Qualter will discuss the top seven solutions to loneliness which emerged from the survey.

I spoke to Professor Qualter for some additional insight into the study:

What did you think was missing from the research to date?
Within the literature we talk about measuring loneliness purely in terms of frequency – while that’s really useful we haven’t looked at the intensity of loneliness or how people experience it. While loneliness might be short-lived and might happen infrequently, if it’s of high intensity that could be equally or more problematic than when it is felt at a low level all of the time. In the BBC Loneliness Experiment we attempted to fill that gap in our understanding.

Why does it seem like the younger people are struggling the most?
Because of the nature of the survey, which was self-selecting, we have a very lonely sample… a large number of people across all ages are reporting feeling lonely. It doesn’t surprise me though that young people are lonely – they’re at a point in life where they’re trying to work out who they are and what their place is, and that’s hard. It’s a time when you’re very vulnerable to loneliness. One of the things I thought was interesting was our younger sample weren’t just higher on the frequency of loneliness, but also much higher on the intensity of loneliness. That, for me, hints at the fact that maybe this is part of a normal transition. Younger people are working out who they are in the world and are also only possibly experiencing this thing called loneliness for the first or second time. They don’t know that this doesn’t last forever and they’re also trying to develop the different skills to overcome it.

The survey also asked its respondents what their solutions were when they felt lonely: one of the most commonly reported strategies was distraction.
Yes. We’re told a lot in psychology that this passive way of coping is problematic, but when you get that negative affect that’s associated with loneliness – the sadness or the anger, often it’s fleeting and actually we can probably reduce the amount of time it lasts by doing something else.

You were also interested in the stigma which is associated with loneliness?
People didn’t assign negative attributes to a lonely person – they’re not being viewed negatively by people at large. But what was fascinating was in another experiment that asked people to think about whether they would conceal or be open about feeling lonely, lonely people reported being very ashamed of feeling lonely, which suggests there’s a stigma attached to that. So, we have a strange situation where people aren’t assigning negative attributes to other lonely people, but lonely individuals themselves are very ashamed to talk about it.

- Read more about loneliness in our archive.