How to Scientifically Measure Loneliness

Chronic loneliness is linked to suicide, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Isn't it about time you figured out whether your kid is lonely?

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Loneliness is tricky to define, but impossible to miss. You know when you’re lonely and, if you’re feeling lonely right now, there’s some poetry to the fact that you’re not alone. Scientists estimate that 60 million Americans routinely feel lonely (20 percent of the U.S. population). Baseline loneliness feels rotten, but it’s also the sort of thing that worries us when our friends are going through divorces or having trouble conceiving. It keeps us up at night, wondering whether our only children are lonely without siblings.

Fortunately, social scientists have developed ways to measure loneliness. One such tool is the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and its most simple form consists of a ten-question assessment that you can complete on your own or administer to your kid. The results should help you nip loneliness in the bud, and get help for yourself or a loved one before loneliness spirals out of control. 

Meet The UCLA Loneliness Scale

Answer each of the following questions with 1 (never), 2 (rarely), 3 (sometimes), 4 (always), and then tally up your score. The average score is 20, and anything below 25 is normal. But a score above 30 indicates extreme loneliness, which may require medical or psychological attention.

  1. How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?
  2. How often do you feel you have no one to talk to?
  3. How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?
  4. How often do you feel as if no one understands you?
  5. How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?
  6. How often do you feel completely alone?
  7. How often do you feel unable to reach out and communicate with those around you?
  8. How often do you feel starved for company?
  9. How often do you feel it is difficult for you to make friends?
  10. How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others?

Let’s Just Say It’s Higher Than 30. Now What?

First of all, don’t panic. A ten-point test administered at home is not the same thing as a proper psychological evaluation. But if you or your child scored above 30 on this test, it may be worth mentioning that to your healthcare provider — especially if that score is accompanied by actual feelings of loneliness. It’s possible that you’re depressed and, if so, it would be good to know. 

Even if depression can be ruled out, loneliness is serious in and of itself, and it’s not the sort of thing you can afford to ignore. Researchers have found that loneliness is linked to depression, suicide risk, alcoholism, poor sleep quality, self-destructive behavior, and learning and memory problems. Chronic loneliness may even increase risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity, digestive problems, and infection.

So, Is There A Cure?

Childline, a counseling service for children in the UK, suggests that children who feel lonely often mistrust others (often because they’ve been hurt in the past) and find it difficult to make close friends. One solution, Childline suggests, is for us to teach our kids to select close friends more carefully and accept the fact that some people in their lives aren’t “close friend material”. They also suggest encouraging children to engage in after-school activities, where they can engage in teamwork and develop relationships with other children who share their interests. 

Sadly, there are fewer options for lonely dads. There’s counseling and all of the usual medical and psychological interventions, but one of the first steps may be simply recognizing that loneliness is normal. “Blaming yourself, calling yourself names, berating yourself because you are lonely is not effective and not accurate,” psychologist and author Karyn Hall wrote in Psychology Today.

“Feeling lonely in the absence of meaningful connections is normal.”

But Hall stresses that there are no quick fixes for loneliness, and that destigmatizing the condition is just a piece of the complex loneliness puzzle. “There is no one idea or one path to move from loneliness to contentment,” she writes. “A first step seems to be acceptance without judgment.”

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