Loneliness is a complex and often misunderstood subject. This page looks in depth at what loneliness is and how it impacts different people.

Defining loneliness

The definition of loneliness that we use is:

Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want (Perlman and Peplau, 1981)

This definition refers to the cognitive discrepancy theory, where loneliness is regarded as a discrepancy between the desired and achieved levels in the quality and quantity of social relations.

Different types of loneliness

There are different types of loneliness: emotional, and social and existential loneliness.

Social isolation

Loneliness is linked to social isolation but it is not the same thing. Isolation is an objective state whereby the number of contacts a person has can be counted.

One way of describing this distinction is that you can be lonely in a crowded room, but you will not be socially isolated.

Risk factors in older age

Loneliness can be felt by people of all ages, but as we get older, risk factors that might lead to loneliness begin to increase.


Young People and Loneliness

Young people might feel lonely for the following reasons:

  • find it hard to make friends
  • have moved schools and have to start somewhere new
  • have been abused or bullied
  • suffered a bereavement
  • don’t get on with family or live in care
  • have an illness or disability
  • have an eating disorder or they feel depressed
  • spent long periods apart from friends and family during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Children’s charity Childline has a website and helpline (0800 11 11) for children and teenagers experiencing challenges in their lives including loneliness.


Gender and Loneliness

Loneliness can affect men and women and different ways, but there’s not conclusive evidence that any gender is more lonely than the other.

Loneliness and BAME people

Much of the data available about loneliness comes from a white British context. There is less information available about ways minority populations experience loneliness.