What is loneliness and how can it be measured?

Judith Davey


Loneliness as a social issue has come to the fore recently and much has been made of moves by governments to put it on the policy agenda. Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement in January this year that a Minister for Loneliness had been appointed in Britain was seen as a significant step forward.

What has not been highlighted is that the said minister – Tracey Crouch – also held ministerial briefs for charities, social enterprise, sport, gambling and lotteries, which cannot have given her much time for her new responsibility. She resigned on November 1st and was replaced by Miriam (Mims) Davies on November 6th. The new minister also has multiple portfolios.

Getting back to the definition of loneliness. As I mentioned in an earlier blog (January 2015), loneliness and social isolation have been as associated by sociologists with living alone, with psychiatric disorder and antisocial behaviour. But this cannot be the whole story. Many people choose to live alone, and this can be a sign of individualism, independence, and/or wealth. It has become a viable lifestyle. Loneliness is something much more complex.

The upsurge of interest in loneliness in the 21st century can be related to social change – as well as growing numbers of people living alone, there is the fragmentation of families, population ageing, high workforce participation by women and the growth of Internet use, at home and at work.

Loneliness is an invisible condition. It cannot be observed or clinically assessed. Every person’s experience of loneliness is unique. People have to perceive themselves as lonely for it to be measured. Often it is not disclosed, because it is stigmatised in many cultures. As well as being difficult to define, it is hard to measure and may be intermittent.

Loneliness comes in many different forms and can arise from a mixture of social, cultural and situational factors. Living in a very competitive society can make under-achievers feel alienated and lonely. It is related to both close personal relationship and also integration into wider society. Both seem to be necessary to protect from loneliness.

There are mixed feelings about the effect that the Internet has on social relationships and hence loneliness. Is it a positive or a negative? It can encourage contacts but takes away face-to-face relationships. Internet links do not end with a handshake, a kiss or a hug.

No wonder being a Minister for Loneliness is a challenging job!

There have been many attempts to measure loneliness. The Campaign to End Loneliness, based in Britain, suggests four loneliness scales which can be used in community-based research, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses.

The UCLA Loneliness Scale
This was developed at the University of California. First published in 1978, it has been revised several times. The scale is widely used in the scientific literature, including New Zealand research (see Horizon Research data in my next blog).

There are 3 questions:

1. How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
2. How often do you feel left out?
3. How often do you feel isolated from others?

The scale generally uses three response categories: hardly ever / some of the time / often. The questions can be difficult to ask older people (I know from personal experience).

The De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale
This scale has been widely used in Europe and translated into several languages. It is designed for use with older people. Its six items cover emotional loneliness (missing intimate relationships) and social loneliness (missing a wider social network). The items are:

1. I experience a general sense of emptiness
2. I miss having people around me
3. I often feel rejected
4. There are plenty of people I can rely on when I have problems
5. There are many people I can trust completely
6. There are enough people I feel close to

The scale generally uses three response categories: yes/more or less/no. Or an agree/disagree scale.

Again, it doesn’t mention loneliness, but has tricky, negatively-worded and somewhat ambiguous propositions.

Single-item scales
These ask directly how lonely individuals feel. For example, they may ask:

Are you:
• Very lonely?
• Lonely at times?
• Never lonely?

The New Zealand General Social Survey (GSS) asks, “In the last four weeks, how much of the time have you felt lonely?” (There will be data from this in my next blog) The possible answers – on a show-card – are:

1. None of the time
2. A little of the time
3. Some of the time
4. Most of the time
5. All of the time

These scales go directly to the issue of interest and are easy to administer. But they may be too blunt and don’t pick up gradations of loneliness, or its duration.

The Campaign to End Loneliness Measurement Tool
The campaign’s own scale contains 3 statements:

1. I am content with my friendships and relationships
2. I have enough people I feel comfortable asking for help at any time
3. My relationships are as satisfying as I would want them to be.

It asks respondents to answer: strongly disagree/disagree/neutral/agree/strongly agree/don’t know.

This also doesn’t mention loneliness and is framed positively. It is a practical resource for use in face-to-face work with older people.

I welcome comments on these approaches to measuring loneliness.

Morrison, P.S. and Smith, R. (2018) Loneliness: An Overview. In Narratives of Loneliness. Sagan, O. and Miller, E.D. (Eds), Routledge, London and New York.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
This entry was posted in Risks-loneliness and social isolation, EAN, discrimination. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What is loneliness and how can it be measured?

  1. I do like the positive framing of the three questions from the Campaign to End Loneliness. They seem non-threatening, and I imagine respondents opening up as a result of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lifecameos says:

    I relate most easily to the last tool – Campaign To End Loneliness. I live on my own, and while I sometimes feel alone, I am still only interested in the company of some people with whom I have plenty of interests in common.. A while ago I discovered I had been encouraged into the group of someone whom I knew slightly, with whom I might have had interests in common. In fact it did not turn out well, and I was quite annoyed to discover that a family member had suggested my inclusion because I was supposedly on my own too often. I worked this out from a comment made in passing by someone else in the group. The person who suggested me to the one of the group likes to be very active socially, doing her activities with others frequently. Retirement villages could be helpful to me if my health fails later on, but would I be constantly expected to socialise when I don’t want to ?

    Liked by 1 person

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