Man standing alone in a crowd
Mental health, Older people, Relationships and romance

Lonely, but not always alone

Research from the US takes a look at the links between time spent alone and loneliness, finding high levels of loneliness in those that spend over 75% of their time with others.

05 February 2024

By Emily Reynolds

Though they’re often conflated, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean feeling lonely. Sometimes time spent alone can feel nourishing and enjoyable, whereas at others, being around people can make us feel lonely and disconnected. The cliché of ‘feeling alone in a crowd’ is a cliché for a reason, and it illustrates the complex interplay between socialising and feeling alone. 

Writing in the Journal of Research in Personality, Alexander Danvers and colleagues from the universities of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Indiana describe their recent investigation into what actually leads us to feel lonely. To do this, the team pooled data from 426 (mainly female) adults who took part in three different studies:

  • The sample from the first study, which looked at meditation, completed self-report measures of loneliness, depression, and anxiety both before and after an eight-week meditation intervention. They also wore an ‘EAR’ (an Electronically Activated Recorder) which allowed researchers to “examine patterns of social interaction, communication, environmental factors, and other relevant aspects of participants' lives.” These devices were worn for two weekends, either side of the intervention. 
  • Those in the second sample had taken part in a study looking at psychological responses to divorce. Again, participants completed measures of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, and wore the EAR for six days. 
  • The third and final sample, who had taken part in a study on ageing, completed the same measures and wore an EAR for up to five consecutive days. 

Looking at the EAR data across all samples, the team found that participants spent around 65% of their waking hours alone. As you would expect, participants who were single were more likely to experience time without company than those in relationships, spending 8% more of their time by themselves. For single people, being older was also a significant predictor of time spent alone, while gender was not. 

However, this didn’t mean that older participants in general were more likely to be lonely; in fact, older people were less likely to report feeling as such. Relationship status was actually a bigger predictor of loneliness overall, with single people feeling much lonelier than those in relationships after the age of 40. Before this age, though, single people did not feel significantly more lonely than their partnered peers. 

The authors suggest that this interplay between age, relationships, and loneliness could be because younger people “feel they have a greater potential to form new relationships in the future” compared to older people, who may already have experienced divorce or bereavement. Alternatively, being single be seen as more normal or socially acceptable for young people, whereas older people may find it more challenging to integrate with peers that begin to spend increasing amounts of time with their families in later life.

The findings from the EAR portions of the studies also suggested that although time spent alone and loneliness were correlated, they were also “distinct and separable constructs.” As you might expect, those who spent very little of their time with others reported high levels of loneliness — but, more unexpectedly, so did those who spent a lot of their time with others. Loneliness was particularly high in those who spent more than 75% of their waking hours with others, which could suggest that those who are particularly lonely may actively seek out time spent with others in order to ameliorate their lack of feeling connection.

The team identified several limitations of this study. Firstly, none of the three studies that were drawn from are able to demonstrate causal links. Social activity gathered by the EAR was also not longitudinal, meaning that changes in social isolation were not tracked over time, which would give a more complete picture. Perhaps the most significant limitation is that the study also focused on the amount of social contact people had, rather than the content of those interactions. It would be informative to explore this aspect in more detail.

Even so, the results provide interesting data to reflect on when considering interventions for loneliness. Often, these look towards increasing time spent with others — befriending schemes for older people, for example. However, this study drives home that people can feel lonely even when they’re spending considerable amounts of time with others, likely meaning many in need of further support may be flying under the radar, experiencing loneliness not immediately apparent by current assumptions. 

Read the paper in full