Investigators Manuela Barreto, Christina Victor, Claudia Hammond, Alice Eccles, Matt T. Richins, and Pamela Qualter from the University of Exeter, Brunel University London, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and the University of Manchester, also known as the team moniker, BBC Loneliness Experiment, conducted survey data to determine the role of loneliness in people when assessing the effects of factors such as age, gender, and culture.
Participants were recruited online via BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. As part of the inclusion criteria, participants had to be from a country of residence included in the Hofstede’s Individualism Index, which for over two decades categorizes countries according to a scale ranging from the most collectivist societies to the most individualistic societies. This left the researchers with a sample size of 46,054 people from 237 countries, territories, and islands. Roughly 40% of the participants live alone, 29% single, 6% widowed, 19% separated/divorced, 9% cohabitating, 6% unemployed, 23% retired, 6% still a student, and 31% married.
The results were as follows:
- Younger people reported more loneliness compared to their older counterparts. Participants ranged from ages 16 to 99, and this finding seems to hold true across different countries.
- Men appear to be lonelier than women, and this result was only found from item measures that did not explicitly state the word lonely or any derivative of lonely, but when analogous descriptions were used instead.
- People in more individualistic societies, such as the United States, appear to report feeling lonelier than their collectivist societal counterparts. Again, this only held true when the word lonely or any derivative of lonely was not explicitly used.
Overall, loneliness is a feeling that continues to pervade the world, in demographics that may be somewhat unexpected.
This experiment was well done for a cross-cultural study by the investigators. It would have been optimal to have more investigators outside of the UK with additional recruitment of participants elsewhere too, but nonetheless BBC is a popular international platform and does not seem to impede the validity of the results.
As to the findings, the investigators provided a good grasp on the context and details of each variable with relation to loneliness. For example, the differences in age may be contributed to outlook on life. This generational effect may explain why such feelings arise. Younger people may feel they should be having more socialized experiences and interactions, while older people place more value on past socialized experiences and have developed a mature perspective during this period of their lives.
The gender results do not seem to be surprising, since continuous research has demonstrated that men tend to feel a lot of negative emotions more frequently, such as anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, and self-destructive tendencies. Therefore, loneliness is not too much of a deviation in relation to those other emotive internal experiences.
The cultural results also seem to be about perspective. Those in more individualistic societies feel that they should be able to be comfortable being overly autonomous and independent, hence why they do not respond definitively when the word lonely is used. See despite everything, people desire socialization.
Socializing often elicits a sense of purpose and a healthy dose of treatment for people’s mental well-being. A lack of or elimination of that factor inevitably would appear to lead to feelings of loneliness.
Currently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this appears to be more applicable than ever before globally. With several areas of the world in quarantine, lockdown, and/or social distancing, feelings of loneliness could be growing.
It is important to try to maintain relationships in any and every capacity available, and to be mindful of one’s own thoughts and feelings in order to address such feelings of loneliness as they become debilitating.
Feeling lonely should be a temporary feeling, do your best to not allow it to be stagnant.
Manuela Barreto, Christina Victor, Claudia Hammond, Alice Eccles, Matt T. Richins, Pamela Qualter. Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, 2020; 110066 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066