A multi-dimensional social inquiry into ‘the loneliness problem’

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About the project

The effects of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions brought intensified awareness to the “loneliness Problem” in contemporary society and highlighted the need to understand the broader forces that contribute to loneliness and how people are unevenly impacted by these effects. As we deploy it in this project, the “loneliness problem” refers to the complex of concerns and challenges associated with contemporary conditions of social isolation and experiences of loneliness.

Our major goal was to bring a sociological imagination to the loneliness problem, to approach it as a complex and multifaceted social issue of the times.

We reviewed two forms of literature: scholarly social scientific publications published between January 2012 and November 2022, and current, publicly available grey literature produced by public-serving institutions in Canada.

The objectives were:

  1. To review how loneliness has been understood in relation to each of three core features of contemporary societies: expanding and deepening technological mediation, urbanization and neo-liberal individualism.
  2. To identify research trends and knowledge gaps in the social scientific scholarly literature in relation to these features; to highlight significant recent findings and contemporary interventions on loneliness; and to provide critically informed interpretations and insights of the research that are sensitive to the multi-dimensionality of loneliness.
  3. To identify practical and policy implications and develop recommendations to guide Canadian policy responsive to the multiple challenges related to the loneliness problem.

This multidimensional social inquiry is attentive to the socially and economically structured, historically and culturally located, and differential experiences of loneliness in contemporary society.

Key findings

  • Loneliness is not one thing. There are multiple types of loneliness, ranging from the intimate and relational realms to the broader collective realm. It is socially complex and variable. Whereas loneliness refers primarily to a person’s subjective experience, involving a painful mismatch between the quantity and/or quality of desired versus actual social connections, social isolation refers primarily to the objective quantity and/or frequency of social contacts.
  • With Canada’s population aging, the rise of solo households, ongoing urbanization, and the ubiquity of technologically mediated communication and engagement, it might seem, on the surface, that we are headed towards a lonely future. However, it is important to stress that loneliness is by no means an inevitable feature of any of these demographic changes or social trends.
  • Built environment matters. In literally and figuratively shaping everyday social relations and place-based experiences, the urban environment can intensify, mitigate or counter both social isolation and loneliness in obvious and subtle ways. Some prominent examples from the literature include: form and availability of urban green space; types of dwelling; quality and accessibility of public and shared spaces at the neighbourhood level; and urban mobility systems.
  • Technologically mediated forms of sociality are a double-edged sword, with the potential to reduce or intensify loneliness. Connective possibilities are more typically (sometimes uncritically) emphasized in research on older adults, whereas problematic, loneliness-enhancing uses of technology are more commonly highlighted (sometimes pathologized) in research on young people.
  • Information and communication technology (ICT) interventions aimed at ameliorating loneliness—particularly of older adults living alone or residing in care homes—has generated significant research interest, with mixed and often inconclusive findings as to their short- and long-term efficacy or desirability.
  • Dominant socio-economic conditions and related ideologies, in particular neoliberal capitalism, and corresponding discourses emphasizing individualism and “personal responsibility,” contribute to and reinforce loneliness as an endemic feature of late- modern society.
  • Social inequality and experiences of marginalization contribute to loneliness in diverse and complex ways. There is a need for more research to systematically examine how social differences, experiences of exclusion and intersecting systems of oppression contribute to different vulnerability to both social isolation and loneliness in Canada.

Policy implications

  • In relation to the three key features of contemporary society that our research has focused on—urbanization, technological mediation and individualism—there has been little dedicated loneliness research conducted in Canada. Further research upon which to base effective policies for the future is needed in Canada.
  • Planning, policy and design related to public infrastructure and the built environment should proactively endeavour to develop spaces, services and initiatives that can foster belonging and counter isolation across the seasons. We recommend the development and deployment of a related planning tool such as a loneliness audit.
  • When it comes to mitigating loneliness and fostering meaningful forms of social connectivity, particularly within institutional settings, information communication technology can be one possible tool among others, not a singular “fix all.” Such interventions need to be socially sensitive and culturally appropriate, not a substitute for good programs or funding aimed at enhancing meaningful social inclusion, especially among vulnerable populations.
  • The loneliness problem is inseparable from the ongoing challenge to create conditions for full social participation and human flourishing in Canada and beyond.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Tara Milbrandt, associate professor of sociology, University of Alberta—Augustana Faculty: tara.milbrandt@ualberta.ca

Ondine Park, assistant professor of sociology, The University of British Columbia—Okanagan Campus: ondine.park@ubc.ca

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