Mind & Body

What Type of Lonely Are You? This Psychology Survey Can Tell You

On a trip to the moon, astronaut Al Worden became the most isolated man ever. While his colleagues explored the moon, he stayed in the spaceship — 2,235 miles from the nearest person. Worden wasn't necessarily lonely, though. Loneliness and isolation are different things. While isolation is measurable, loneliness is a subjective feeling. Or, more accurately ... multiple feelings.

The Dual Dimensions of Loneliness

A paper published in October 2018 in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology puts forward an interesting theory: Loneliness isn't so much a feeling as an umbrella term for several feelings. The authors surveyed roughly 1,800 American adults ages 18 to 70 and found evidence that loneliness is more complicated than we generally assume. If you plotted loneliness on a graph, it would have two axes: social and emotional.

Social loneliness means feeling dissatisfied with the quantity of your social relationships. Research suggests that no one can meaningfully maintain more than 150 friends, but a socially lonely person probably thinks they have orders of magnitude fewer friends than that. They might feel that if they threw a party, only a few people would come; their late-night Google searches might include "branching out" and "how to make friends."

Emotional loneliness, on the other hand, means dissatisfaction with the quality of your social relationships. Emotionally lonely people may have a lot of friends (or at least Facebook friends); they could also be married, or live with family. Still, they feel disconnected from the people around them. Emotionally lonely people may feel, as the saying goes, "alone in a crowded room."

These two axes of loneliness translated into four loneliness quadrants:

  • Low loneliness: minimal loneliness on both dimensions
  • Social loneliness: high on social loneliness but low on emotional loneliness
  • Emotional loneliness: high on emotional loneliness but low on social loneliness
  • Social and emotional loneliness: high loneliness on both dimensions

Researchers found that not every quadrant was equally damaging. Emotional loneliness, they found, was the only type with a measurable impact on psychological well-being. A small fraction of their subjects (about 8 percent) struggled with purely social loneliness, but their psychological well-being scores were solid — in fact, they were very similar to the scores for people in the low loneliness category. In other words, social loneliness might be inconvenient, but emotional loneliness is the real mental health issue.

The researchers also found that about 1 in 4 people experienced psychological distress due to emotional loneliness, which means that previous, one-dimensional estimates of the prevalence of loneliness way underestimated the issue. Though loneliness has already been termed a public health issue on par with obesity, this study suggests it's about twice as common as we thought; it affects 39 percent of the population, as opposed to the 17 percent estimate you get when you treat it as one-dimensional.

The Quiz

So — are you lonely? And if so, which type of lonely are you? This six-item survey — the same one the researchers used to measure loneliness in the study above — can give you a sense. For each question, decide which response most matches how you feel about the statement, then write down the number next to that answer.

1. I experience a general sense of emptiness.

  • Yes (1)
  • More or less (1)
  • No (0)

2. I miss having people around me.

  • Yes (1)
  • More or less (1)
  • No (0)

3. I often feel rejected.

  • Yes (1)
  • More or less (1)
  • No (0)

4. There are plenty of people I can rely on when I have problems.

  • Yes (0)
  • More or less (1)
  • No (1)

5. There are many people I can trust completely.

  • Yes (0)
  • More or less (1)
  • No (1)

6. There are enough people I feel close to.

  • Yes (0)
  • More or less (1)
  • No (1)

Do you have your answers? Now all you need to do is add up the numbers. The higher your score, the lonelier you are — at least, that's the premise of the survey, which has been tested and validated multiple times since it was created in 2006.

As the study above shows, though, it's your scores on the first three questions that matter most; those are the questions pertaining to emotional loneliness. If there aren't "many" people you trust completely, but there are a few, you're probably doing okay.

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Read what a neuroscientist has to say about loneliness in "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection" by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, which was called "one of the most important books about the human condition to appear in a decade." The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice March 29, 2019

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