Unveiling the complex relationship between aloneness and loneliness

Researchers highlight the importance of social connections for human well-being


Researchers have uncovered intriguing insights into the intricate relationship between aloneness and loneliness. Contrary to popular belief, a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, reveals that these two concepts are distinct and not closely correlated.

This research offers a fresh perspective on the complex nature of aloneness and loneliness, shedding light on their distinct characteristics. By deepening our understanding of the role social connections play in mental well-being, this study paves the way for innovative solutions in mental health awareness and intervention.

Led by Professor David Sbarra from the University of Arizona, the research team found that individuals do not experience feelings of loneliness until they spend a significant amount of time alone – specifically, three-quarters of their time. At this point, the struggle to evade the clutches of loneliness becomes increasingly challenging.

The study also emphasises the profound association between time spent alone and loneliness among older adults. As individuals age, their social networks naturally diminish, leading to a reduction in the opportunities for social interactions. Professor Sbarra highlights that among adults aged 68 years and older, loneliness is strongly linked with social isolation.

Against the backdrop of the 2023 US Surgeon General's advisory on the surge in loneliness, Professor Sbarra stresses the growing recognition of loneliness as a health determinant. He explains, "We are gaining a deeper understanding of the vital role that social connections play in human health, and it appears that loneliness and isolation are related but distinct concepts."

To measure the amount of time individuals spent alone, the research team utilized an innovative tool called the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR). Developed by Professor Matthias Mehl, a psychology professor and senior author of the study, EAR is a smartphone app that records participants' sounds for 30 seconds every 12 minutes with their permission.

By utilizing EAR, the researchers successfully characterized participants' time spent alone. The study revealed that, on average, participants spent 66% of their time alone. Notably, those who spent more than 75 percent of their time alone reported the highest levels of loneliness. Surprisingly, the analysis showed a mere 3% overlap between aloneness and loneliness across the entire participant pool.

While younger individuals may experience aloneness and loneliness as distinct phenomena, the study highlights that the case is different for older adults. Professor Mehl explains that in older individuals, feeling lonely and being alone are intricately intertwined. In this age group, combatting loneliness often involves being with others and engaging in social activities. The study identified a significant relationship between aloneness and loneliness in adults over the age of 67, with approximately a 25 percent overlap between the two experiences.

The study incorporated data from over 400 participants, utilising archival data collected over the past two decades. Professor Mehl highlights the advantages of EAR, which enables researchers to observe daily social behaviors. However, acknowledging the time-consuming nature of analyzing sound files, Professor Mehl and his team are currently developing SocialBit, an app that will run on a smartwatch, akin to popular fitness trackers.

Similar to how fitness trackers measure physical activity through step counts, SocialBit will quantify social activity by tracking minutes of conversations per day. The anticipated launch of this device within the next few years holds promise, particularly for stroke patients during their recovery. Professor Mehl points out that social isolation following a stroke is a significant concern, and SocialBit could play a pivotal role in facilitating more meaningful social connections.

Professor Mehl emphasises the importance of accurately measuring social activity, stating, "In order to foster greater social connection, we first need to be able to measure it effectively." He believes that methods like SocialBit can provide individuals with valuable insights, prompting them to engage in conversations when they have been alone for an extended period.

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