Loneliness is a common and universal experience. Most people
are probably going to have a significant experience of loneliness at some time in their lives. It is important to define loneliness. What is loneliness? Below is one definition of loneliness:
Loneliness is a feeling of social disconnectedness in which a person wishs that he or she had better social relationships.
The above loneliness definition suggests that loneliness is not the same thing as aloneness. There is a difference between loneliness and isolation. One can be alone but not lonely. Loneliness reflects a discrepancy between the current quality of one's social relationships and the desired quality of one's social relationships. If a person does not wish to improve one's social relationships, then the person may not be considered to be experiencing loneliness.
The Experience of Loneliness
What are the elements of loneliness? There are many possible feelings associated with loneliness. Mikluciner and Segal (1990) conducted some studies in which participants were asked to describe a situation in which they felt loneliness. In their first study, they had a list of 40 loneliness feelings. Some of the feelings (with the percentage of participants) included self-pity (32 percent), the feeling that there was no one who understood them (17 percent), helplessness (24 percent), a sense of being different (20 percent), boredom (14 percent), and others had rejected them (18 percent). These loneliness research findings provide insight concerning the experience of loneliness.
Possible Causes of Loneliness
There are many possible causes of loneliness. The possible causes of loneliness may be situational (e.g., lack of social support, moving to new location, or having a job that requires you to work many hours), personal (e.g., shyness or social skill problems), or a combination of situational and personal variables (being different from the people around you).
Mehrabian and Stefl (1995) found that shyness was positively correlated with loneliness. In other words, greater shyness was associated with greater loneliness. One possible explanation of this finding is that shyness causes loneliness. However, because this study was correlational, we cannot make causal conclusions. There are other possible explanations. For example, it is possible that shyness may be correlated with other personality characteristics that cause loneliness, and there is no causal relationship between shyness and loneliness. (1)
Stokes (1985) found that loneliness was negatively correlated with the frequency of receiving supportive behaviors. In other words, greater loneliness was associated with receiving less supportive behaviors. It is possible that the lack of social support was a cause of loneliness. However, because the finding is correlational, there are other possible explanations for the finding and a lack of social support may not have been a cause of loneliness. (2)
Bell (1993) found that emotional loneliness was negatively correlated with the perceived similiarity of one's interests and ideas with friends and acquaintances. In other words, people who were more lonely were more likely to feel that their ideas and interests were not shared by friends and acquaintances. Because this study was correlational, we cannot make causal conclusions. There are a number of possible explanations. For example, one explanation is that being different was a cause of loneliness. Another possible explanation is being lonely causes one to perceive that one is different. (3)
Loneliness and Self-Refection
Self-reflection may be one way that some people cope with loneliness. Rokach (1990) found that self-reflection was one of the strategies that some people reported coping with loneliness. For example, sorting out feelings and engaging in self-analysis would be some types of self-reflection. The self-reflection could be viewed as a form of personal growth.
1. See their article for information on other findings in their study.
2. See his article for information on other findings in the study.
3. See Bell (1993) for more information on the findings and possible explanations.
Bell, B. (1993). Emotional loneliness and the perceived similarity of
one's ideas and interests. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality,
Mehrabian, A., & Stefl, C. A. (1995). Basic temperament components
of loneliness, shyness, and conformity. Social Behavior and
Personality, 23, 253-264.
Mikulincer, M., & Segal, J. (1990). A multidimensional analysis of the
experience of loneliness. Journal of Social and Personal
Relationships, 7, 209-230.
Rokach, A. (1990). Surviving and coping with loneliness. The Journal
of Psychology, 124, 39-54.
Stokes, J. P. (1985). The relation of social network and individual
difference variables to loneliness. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 48, 981-990.