A University of Manchester psychologist leads an experiment which aims to explore what loneliness looks like in our world today
The BBC, in cooperation with the University of Manchester, New Castle University, and London’s Brunel University, is launching The Loneliness Experiment, an internet-based examination of how people view loneliness.
The experiment, funded by the Wellcome Trust, comprises of an online 40-minute questionnaire that will anonymously ask adults from around the UK their attitudes and opinions on social connections, isolation, and how technology affects loneliness. It will also require two tasks that will gauge respondent’s reaction to certain images. The results of this study will be presented in the fall during a Wellcome Foundation event and a BBC Radio 4 series called Anatomy of Loneliness.
According to Professor Manuela Barreto of the University of Exeter, loneliness is quite common in all life stages. It is exacerbated during key periods in our lives like moving to a new city, divorce, and death of a loved one. Professor Barreto also explains that the feeling loneliness is not synonymous with being alone, which can be quite pleasant especially after being around lots of people. Rather, loneliness is “a subjective feeling that the quantity or the quality, more importantly, of our social relations, isn’t quite as what we wished them to be.”
For Professor Pamela Qualter of the University of Manchester, however, there is an upside to loneliness. It leads us to reassess our social connections and improve how we relate to other people. Professor Qualter, the lead psychologist on the project, believes that this emotion can be beneficial during transitional periods, but can also negatively impact wellbeing when prolonged.
Dr. Nicola Valtorta, a research associate at Newcastle University, confirms that people who report feelings of loneliness are more often prone to health difficulties. Most common were higher incidences of strokes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and increased consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. Though Dr. Valtorta is also quick to point out that it is unclear whether loneliness is the cause of these occurrences, or whether the opposite is true.
Culture is also a significant factor in determining what drives loneliness. Professor Barreto explains that in countries that value self-reliance, such as the UK, loneliness is affected by the satisfaction in relationships that an individual chooses; for example, friendships. In contrast, for countries like Italy, where interdependence is seen to be very important, loneliness is affected more by familial connections.
In 2015, the Wellcome Trust also conducted a similar examination of the nation’s resting habits with around 18,000 people participating. It is expected that thousands will also join the Loneliness Experiment, making it the largest survey of its kind.
You can take part in the Loneliness Project at www.thelonelinessexperiment.com.