How research helps us to understand loneliness
by Phyllis Vangelder
For many, Valentine’s Day is an occasion for declarations of love. For others, it might prompt reflections on loneliness.
Loneliness is being taken increasingly seriously. The government has set out a strategy to address it, with the appointment of a Loneliness Minister to tackle it as a generational challenge, and the Office for National Statistics attempting to measure how lonely people feel.
Material available in the AMSR collection reveals how older generations were the focus of previous studies. In autumn 1990 the MRS case-study journal Survey covered ‘The Seven Ages of Man’. It stressed how people vary from one generation to another – the old person of the 1990s was not the same as in earlier decades, and would be different again in the future. Dr Mark Abrams highlighted the need for statistics on the circumstances of people’s relationships with their families, and observed that many people over 75 had to look outside their families for help and companionship. Terry Banks talked about the work of the Carnegie Inquiry into the Third Age, and the significance of the demographic changes facing the nation as the 21st century approached.
How accurate did their concerns prove? For Valentine’s Day last year the BBC, in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection, ran a large-scale self-selecting online study. The ‘BBC Loneliness Experiment’ – to which over 55.000 people responded – revealed that young people are the group who feel loneliest. Millennials – the most-connected generation ever – are those most likely to be caught up in Britain’s loneliness epidemic. Claudia Hammond, presenter of Radio 4’s ‘All in the mind’, wrote: “There is often a stereotype that loneliness strikes older, isolated people. And of course it can. But there were higher rates of self-reported loneliness among younger people. 40% of 16-24 year-old who took part reported they often or very often feel lonely compared with 27% of those over 75”.
The first studies of loneliness date back to the 1930s and 1940s. Dr Aparna Shankar, one of the designers of the BBC Experiment, cited surveys from that period at last year’s Cheltenham Science Festival: “Across a lot of surveys, well over half say they rarely or never feel lonely. About 7% -10% say they feel lonely often”.
Changing demographics may contribute to loneliness. There are an increasing number of single-occupancy households, and living alone often means eating alone. Kantar’s WorldPanel, which works with AMSR, has found that about 45% of our meals are now consumed in this way. But the BBC study found that living alone is not as much of a problem as spending lots of time alone.
Much of the research into loneliness has concentrated on old age. However even if they live alone, many older people lead outward-facing lives in the community, or are active in looking after grandchildren, enjoying hobbies and seeing friends. Valentine’s Day-style notions of romance may not be for them, but they can find support and love in other ways.