Age, gender and culture 'predict loneliness'

May 31, 2020

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Age, gender and culture 'predict loneliness'

Young people, men and people in “individualistic” societies report higher levels of loneliness, according to a large-scale global study. The study - based on responses from more than 46,000 participants around the world—is the first published research to come from the BBC Loneliness Experiment.

The ages of participants ranged from 16-99, and the surprising results show a steady decrease in loneliness as people age.

Based on the findings, a young man living in an individualistic society—such as Australia, the UK or the US—is more likely to report feeling lonely than an older woman in a collectivist society—such as China or Brazil.

What the researchers say: “Contrary to what people may expect, loneliness is not a predicament unique to older people,” said the lead author. “In fact, younger people report greater feelings of loneliness. Since loneliness stems from the sense that one's social connections are not as good as desired, this might be due to the different expectations younger and older people hold. The age pattern we discovered seems to hold across many countries and cultures.”

“With regard to gender, the existing evidence is mixed, the researchers added. “There is an awareness that admitting to feeling ‘lonely’ can be especially stigmatizing for men. However, when this word is not used in the measures, men sometimes report more loneliness than women. This is indeed what we found.”

Using survey responses from 237 countries, islands and territories, the researchers were able to carry out an unprecedented analysis of cultural differences.

“This is particularly important because evidence for cultural differences in loneliness is very mixed and culture can affect actual and desired social interactions in opposite directions,” said the lead author. “In addition, it can be argued that admitting to feeling lonely is also more stigmatizing in individualistic societies, where people are expected to be self-reliant and autonomous.

"Again, our use of a measure that did not directly refer to loneliness allowed us to show that people living in more individualistic societies report more loneliness than people living in more collectivist societies."

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers said particular attention should be paid to how social changes might be affecting young people.

“Though it is true that younger people are better able to use technology to access social relationships, it is also known than when this is done as a replacement—rather than an extension—of those relationships, it does not mitigate loneliness,” they said.

So, what? Loneliness is going to be our biggest problem in the new normal. We know that loneliness is a causal factor in many illnesses, mental and physical, because of its direct effect on the psychic and physical immune systems.

Work is becoming more dehumanized, technology degrades relationships and makes them disposable, the move away from marriage is greatly increasing the reality of loneliness as is the probably disastrous work-from-home aspects of the emerging “new reality.”

The WHO has predicted more and more pandemics in the future, and each will call for the kind of lockdowns that COVID-19 has necessitated. We are heading for a very unpleasant and lonely world. UGH!

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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