One he described as emotional isolation, the "response to the absence of...a close, indeed intimate, attachment" (what the rest of us call a partner). The second, social isolation, he explains with an image: "It's like a child home sick from school: Everybody else goes off, the neighborhood is suddenly empty, there's nobody to do anything with." People suffering from this kind of loneliness lack a sense of community—a healthy network of friends, acquaintances, or coworkers. Weiss says, "Theirs is a problem of maintaining a sense of being meaningful or mattering to other people."

Building on Weiss's work, several researchers around the country compiled diagnostic questionnaires. In the late 1970s, a team at UCLA put an ad in the school newspaper that said, basically, "Calling All the Lonely People." Daniel Russell, PhD, then a doctoral student at UCLA, says that many students, campus employees, and others showed up. "We gave them the early version of our scale, and as you would expect, these people were pretty damn lonely." But glancing around the room, the researchers also realized, as Russell says, "Hey, these people didn't look so weird."

Up until this point, scant as the research was, most of it was predicated on the idea that the lonely were somehow different, and by different, researchers meant uglier, stupider, less well educated, stubbornly reclusive, throwing pity parties for themselves in a corner. But the observable normalcy of the people in Russell's group made his team reconsider. "We got interested in understanding how loneliness was different from being alone," says Russell, now associate dean for research and graduate education at Iowa State University. They knew that loneliness isn't a numbers game; it yields only to specific kinds of connections. Russell's team began to believe that loneliness had to do with an individual's expectations. If someone feels she needs one dear friend, two go-to-the-movies pals, and a spouse, and she is missing some of those relationships, she's likely to be lonely. A person with next to no acquaintances who wants to spend a lot of time in solitary pursuits may not feel despondent at all.

"I was interested in the consequences of loneliness, particularly if it's prolonged," Russell says. But before he or anyone could move much further, they had to find a way to quantify the experience of loneliness. The UCLA scale developed by Russell and his group was a little more accurate than questionnaires developed at other universities. The test succeeds in part because it takes into account the effects of the wish for "social desirability," which is what researchers call the impulse of certain people in any sample to cast themselves in a more attractive light. "Owning up to being lonely is often viewed as saying there's something seriously wrong with you," Russell says. The researchers knew that some of their participants would never admit to feelings of loneliness. As a result, not one of the 20 questions on the UCLA scale, which was first published in 1978, includes the word lonely.

Take a version of the loneliness quiz.

With a workable, verifiable measurement, research on the topic took off. Russell (who had moved to Iowa by then) and his team discovered that older people were less likely to report being lonely. He and researchers at other institutions also began to systematically dispel the social doofus stereotype: The lonely, it turns out, are as intelligent and as physically attractive as happily connected people. Their incomes are comparable to those of the nonlonely. Their levels of education, their average body mass index, their diets, and their rates of seat belt use—all are virtually indistinguishable from those of their fellow citizens. They even have as many roommates as anyone else.

If lonely people are impossible to pick out at 20 paces, though, they can be distinguished from socially connected people up close. They carry their unhappiness with them, and they often display, as Weiss describes it, "all the stigmata of loneliness: they're drawn, tense, restless, inattentive." They're less trusting of others, their self-esteem is usually in the cellar, and they're less inclined to ask for help—qualities that reinforce a sense of their solo-ness.


Next Story