When do we feel lonely?

Researchers identify three phases of loneliness in life

Loneliness is more than just a consequence of social isolation. Maryna Patzen
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Hidden Suffering: Loneliness affects more people than previously thought - and their number is increasing. According to a US study, the proportion of lonely people has doubled in the last 50 years. Particularly affected are not only old or sick people. Even at the age of 20 and mid-50, there is a high phase of loneliness, as the researchers noted. Interesting too: Social isolation is not always the main trigger.

Anyone who feels lonely does not just suffer mentally. Because the feeling of social isolation also has concrete physical effects and can even make you sick. Studies show that lonely people sleep worse, feel more stress, and find pain and disease symptoms worse. In addition, the loneliness inhibits the immune system, so that sufferers are more likely to get sick and possibly even age faster.

Three quarters feel lonely

But how many people are affected by loneliness? And what determines who feels lonely? That's what Ellen Lee from the University of California, San Diego and her team studied in a study of 340 participants aged between 27 and 101 years. With a standardized psychotest they recorded the degree of loneliness of their subjects as well as their living conditions.

The surprising result: Three quarters of the participants found themselves as moderately to severely lonely - the researchers had expected a maximum of 50 percent. "This is remarkable because the participants in our study were not previously considered to be particularly vulnerable to loneliness, " says Lee's colleague Dilip Jeste. They had no mental disorders or illnesses and were not above average severely socially isolated. "Our participants were normal people, " says Jeste.

Three high phases of loneliness in life

Interesting too: In the course of a life, there are periods in which people often suffer from loneliness. "The severity of loneliness and age have a complex correlation, " the researchers said. So is a high phase of loneliness at the end of life, in the over-80s. An obvious explanation for this is certainly the social isolation of many old people who have lost friends and life partners through death. display

But even at a young age there are particularly lonely phases of life, as the study reveals. Thus, people with end-20 apparently suffer particularly often from loneliness. Another phase of life with a high potential for loneliness is the mid-50s - the classic mid-life crisis. These conspicuous accumulations were found in both men and women, the scientists report.

Social isolation is not the only trigger

But why do people feel lonely at all? For a long time social isolation was the main factor in this feeling. But the new study could only partially confirm this: "Our results indicate that we have to think differently about loneliness, " says Lee. "It's not just about social isolation. A person can be alone and still not feel lonely. On the other hand, another person is in the midst of people and yet feels lonely. "

The complex causes of loneliness are still far from clear, the researchers emphasize. "There are currently more gaps here than answers, " says Jeste. However, three factors seem to have an influence, at least to some extent: more vulnerable are people living alone. On the other hand, those who are mentally more positive and stable and those with higher wisdom seem better protected.

Wiser people are less lonely

"That could be because of the qualities that wisdom commonly defines: empathy and compassion, good emotional self-control, and the ability to self-reflexively counteract or even prevent loneliness, " explains Lee. "A wiser society could therefore also be a happier and less solitary society." (International Psychogeriatrics, 2018; doi: 10.1017 / S1041610218002120)

Source: University of California - San Diego

- Nadja Podbregar