What is loneliness?

20 August 2019

Interview with 

Olivia Remes, Cambridge University

LONELY WOMAN

LONELY WOMAN

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What exactly is loneliness, and how might being lonely change our behaviour? Katie Haylor spoke to mental health researcher Olivia Remes from Cambridge University...

Olivia - So loneliness is not the number of people that you talk to. It refers more to the quality of the relationships that you have. So for example, you could be surrounded by lots of people and feel lonely because you're not satisfied by the relationships that you have. Or you could just have two friends, but if you feel that those people meet your social needs, then you're not lonely. If there's a discrepancy between the number and quality of the relationships that you desire, and those that you actually have then you're lonely.

Katie - How many of us are lonely?

Olivia - It's about one in three people. There have been various studies that I've looked at this and in the UK, 21 to 31 percent of people report that they feel lonely some of the time. But it's not just adults it's also children who feel lonely as well.

Katie - I guess everyone will have been a bit lonely at some point, but are there members of society who are particularly vulnerable to being lonely?

Olivia - Definitely so people who have recently lost somebody. People who have been widowed, if you moved away to a new city this can predispose you to loneliness. It's a very difficult condition to deal with.

Katie - Are there specific behaviour changes that you might expect in someone who is chronically lonely? Because it seems to be a little bit of a vicious cycle.

Olivia - Yes definitely. One of the main differences between people who are lonely and those who aren't, is how they perceive the world. If you are lonely, you are more likely to see the threats in your environment. You're more likely to think that others are judging you during social interactions and this makes you have negative views towards others. It makes you not want to interact with others and to open up.

Katie - Which of course doesn't help if actually what you're craving is more social interaction.

Olivia - Exactly. So it's a vicious cycle completely. You know the more that you think like that, then the more that this changes your behaviour, and then you might start acting colder towards other people and they can feel that and they might think they don't want to be friends with them. It's really the perception. It's not so much what you do but what you think.

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