#22: Why are people lonely?
We live in a digitalized world, are constantly online, can always be reached, and can always stay in touch - no one has to be alone and lonely anymore. At least that's the not entirely correct theory, because nevertheless everyone certainly knows this feeling: loneliness. In a study, sociologist Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht and her team have researched what makes people lonely, what influence digitalization has, and also which age groups are particularly affected. She talks about this in the new episode of "Knowledge when you want it".
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht holds the chair of general sociology/micro-sociology. She is primarily concerned with the question of what effects the change in the world of work has on our health, and also with the question of what makes people lonely. As part of the research project "Risks and Opportunities of Loneliness in the Digital World of Life and Work in Saxony-Anhalt," she and her team have investigated, among other things, the role of digitalization in both the emergence and the management of loneliness.
*the audio file is only available in German
The Podcast to Read
Intro voiceover: Knowledge when you want it. The podcast about research at the University of Magdeburg.
Lisa Baaske: We live in a digitalized world, are constantly online, always reachable and can stay in touch at all times - no one needs to be alone and lonely anymore. At least, that's the not entirely correct theory, because nevertheless everyone certainly knows this feeling: loneliness. My impression, and perhaps that of many others, is that loneliness mainly affects the elderly, however, because they are alone, have no one to talk to anymore - a fallacy that is not necessarily true. My name is Lisa Baaske, I work at the university's press office, and today's guest is the sociologist Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht, holder of the chair of general sociology/microsociology at our university. She and her team have conducted a study to find out what makes people lonely, what influence digitalization has, and also which age groups are particularly affected. These are precisely the questions we want to address today. A warm welcome to you!
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Thank you very much for the invitation!
Lisa Baaske: As I said, today's podcast is all about loneliness. But what does loneliness actually mean? What exactly is the difference between being lonely and being alone?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, let me perhaps expand a little at the beginning and point out that loneliness is a phenomenon that has received a great deal of attention in recent years. The “Stiftung Patientenschutz” (Patient Protection Foundation), for example, talks about it as the biggest widespread disease. Some authors, such as Horx, speak of the "monster of modernity," loneliness, or even a deadly epidemic, according to Wissmann. Loneliness seems to have become a megatrend of the future. However, I would also like to issue a warning here at the outset that loneliness research is still pretty much in its infancy. Longer, nicely comparable and systematic time series analyses are missing in Germany and abroad as well.
Therefore, a clear, data-based answer to the question of whether loneliness is increasing or decreasing is not easy to answer. And it must also be pointed out that in the studies available to us, loneliness as a phenomenon is operationalized very differently. Some studies ask about loneliness with the question, "How often do you feel that you lack the company of others? How often do you feel like you are left out?" For example, the data of the socioeconomic panel. Other studies ask about disagreement or agreement with the statement "I feel alone." We can already see from this that loneliness is measured very differently. Therefore, it is difficult to compare these studies with each other. Roughly speaking, we can say that, depending on the studies, between 14 and 30% of the German population are lonely at least sometimes, and 6 to 10% are lonely almost always or always. That is a very large number of people. Very fundamentally, and this is also what your question refers to, we have to distinguish between loneliness as a subjective feeling, according to a personal assessment of your situation, and being alone as a more objective fact. I can be quite objectively alone, for example by living in a one-person household, but of course that doesn't mean I have to feel lonely. And vice versa: I can have a very large social network and still feel lonely. So people can be objectively lonely because they have no friends and hardly any other contact with others. But to them this does not have to feel like loneliness. This is the difference between loneliness and being alone. Being alone, unlike loneliness, can also be a conscious choice. We can consciously withdraw, seek an inner retreat or something similar. Perhaps the final essential point is that the perceived discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships constitutes loneliness.
Lisa Baaske: Very, very intriguing. This is the first time I've really separated being alone from being lonely. For me they used to be somewhat synonymous, and probably for many people as well. But why are people actually lonely?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, this question is not simple and can’t be answered mono-causally. There are a number of problems that combine to make people feel lonely. The state of research here shows us that people in vulnerable life situations are at a higher risk for experiencing loneliness. I am thinking here of life situations such as those experienced by refugees and migrants, queer people, single parents. But also family caregivers or people in need of care in general have a higher risk of loneliness. Other risk factors for loneliness are also socio-spatial living situations, such as living in anonymous large housing estates in big cities, for example, where there is little contact between neighbors. Research also shows a clear connection between loneliness and poverty. People in poverty situations state more frequently that they feel lonely. The statistical data also shows that women tend to be lonelier than men. Thus, the experience of loneliness depends on one's living situation, socioeconomic and cultural resources, but also on one's stage in life. In adolescence, for example, other factors lead to loneliness. I am thinking here of the comparison with others that is so typical of this age. The feeling of not belonging or not meeting certain criteria. That can make people feel lonely. In older age, it may be critical life events such as divorce or the death of relatives that trigger loneliness.
Lisa Baaske: That's a lot of reasons why you can be lonely. But are there also cultural differences?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Of course there are cultural differences. On the one hand within our own culture, i.e. the Western European industrial modernity or late modernity, but also between cultures. I'm thinking, for example, of Latin America, where talking about loneliness is less taboo and the feeling of loneliness is also expressed more openly and can also be expressed as an open call for help. We know that in countries like Japan, for example, the subject of loneliness is still very much a taboo, even though it has now become very much a public issue there and is recognized as a problem. And the government in Japan is also trying to take countermeasures. Many people may be familiar with the Ministry of Loneliness in Japan. But there are also NGOs that have recognized the phenomenon of loneliness as a social phenomenon and have founded aid organizations. For example, a messenger service that creates contact opportunities within a few seconds for people to get in touch with and talk about their loneliness. But it is also true for us and for our culture that the experience of loneliness and the topic of loneliness always say something about social conditions and their changes, within which loneliness is interpreted and negotiated. The increasing perception of loneliness - or let me say more cautiously - the increasing theming of loneliness also says something about the state of society. On the one hand, it provides an enormous opportunity structure, but it also generates risky freedoms. And these, in turn, show social-structural correlations. The motto "everyone is the architect of their own fortune" does not apply to everyone in the same way. In view of the opportunities for social mobility that are offered, for example, the failure to take advantage of the opportunities or the lack of confidence in participating in perpetual competition is also associated with psychological crises.
Lisa Baaske: Definitely an intriguing outlook. I actually didn't know that about Japan - a ministry of loneliness, also very interesting. That’s one way of dealing with it. But is it actually always bad when you feel lonely?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Well, it's not bad to be able to be alone sometimes, to come back to this distinction. Being able to be alone is a resource and competence that people, who are basically all deeply social beings, also need. In German, unlike in English, we unfortunately have few differentiation possibilities to describe both positive and meaningful experiences of being alone, but also to outline the painful side of a lack of closeness and encounter. Loneliness is not the gradual sensation that I am missing people at the moment. Loneliness is the deep conviction that I do not have a person who stands by me in emergency situations, in my problem situations. Loneliness is the subjective feeling that the available social relationships do not fulfill one's needs for closeness and contact. This is a lack, a void, which is also painfully felt. This lack, which is felt, can refer on the one hand to the quantity, that is, I can have too few contacts, but also the quality. I can feel that my contacts are not close, not intimate enough, or it can also refer to function. I can feel I have the wrong contacts, I lack friends, I lack a couple relationship. All of these factors point to a lack and a void. Therefore, loneliness is a feeling that is strongly perceived as negative.
Lisa Baaske: And I actually think most people know this feeling in one way or another. As I mentioned earlier, you conducted a study to investigate the conditions of loneliness. Why, of all things, this topic? Does loneliness simply play such a big role?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, well, as I said at the beginning, loneliness is perceived by some authors as a new epidemic in our society. I am a health and work researcher and I basically always ask myself: what is going on in society? What moves people? In recent years, for example, we've seen mental illness play an increasingly large role. In this context, I've encountered the loneliness phenomenon more and more often. And when the topic stuck with us in our research on dealing with the Corona pandemic, I wanted to know more precisely what living conditions and living circumstances in late-modern societies lead to loneliness being seen as a response to these social changes. Why is this feeling so strong, and why did the sense of loneliness not actually subside after the pandemic?
Lisa Baaske: Yes, very intriguing. And how did you go about this study?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: First of all, we of course thought about our guiding research questions. These are at different levels. We wanted to find out something about how loneliness arises: under what conditions does it occur? Then the next question: how do people who perceive themselves as lonely interpret their situation? Those are their own theories that they develop about how this condition came about. What are their coping mechanisms? How do they deal with loneliness? And then there's also the question of how all these factors are related to digitalization processes. We decided on a qualitative study and proceeded by means of qualitative interviews. The field was accessed via a call in a daily newspaper. And we used a survey that we had conducted in advance: an online survey, which I already mentioned briefly. This study focused on the impact of the Corona pandemic on subjective well-being and everyday coping, and was conducted during the first and later lockdowns. And there we already saw high loneliness scores, and some people agreed to be available for an interview. So that's how we proceeded. This project was funded by the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Health and Equality of Saxony-Anhalt. However, I have to say that this is a somewhat untypical type of funding. It is rather to be understood as a pilot study, since we had a very limited amount of time - only six months in fact - to be able to pursue our very comprehensive research questions. We chose, as I said, a qualitative research design and some listeners may know that qualitative research is very elaborate, very intensive. We conducted and analyzed 19 qualitative interviews during this period. We wanted to trace the phenomenon of loneliness from the inside, from the point of view of the people involved. We wanted to approach it by means of the people's life stories and also to uncover cultural patterns in the development of loneliness. We also had to deal with special challenges here, because in the end you also have to think about how it is possible to talk in a sensitive way about a topic that people are rather reluctant to talk about. Loneliness is a sensitive and shameful topic and can have a stigmatizing effect. In research, we know about the double turn-away effect, that both research subjects and researchers tend to consciously or unconsciously avoid unpleasant topics. These were all major challenges. We had to design the interview guide wisely and create good conversational atmospheres. But I do think we succeeded in this. Some results indicate that younger people feel more lonely than older people. Loneliness, as we already saw in our first Corona survey, is significantly associated with other negative feelings, such as anxiety, stress and exhaustion. So loneliness puts a strain on people. And now to the question of the connection between loneliness and digitalization. The results show that digitalization processes can have both communalizing and isolating potentials.
Lisa Baaske: Some very, very intriguing results. Compared to the rest of Germany, people in Saxony-Anhalt have a higher risk of becoming lonely. What is the reason for that? And does it really differ measurably from state to state?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: I find it difficult to answer this question because there is no sufficient data basis at the level of the federal states - unfortunately. If you look at the representative data currently available for the federal states, one thing stands out: that the loneliness values are higher overall in the eastern German states. So one can ask the question: "Is the East lonelier"? However, some authors, such as Brücker, do not see population density or settlement type, or even the distances from more peripheral regions to urban centers as relevant for this. These are all relevant influencing factors otherwise. Instead, cultural factors such as community norms and the experienced pace of social change are responsible for the fact that many people in the east feel lonelier. Since East Germany has suffered from population loss for many years and is spatially more peripherally rural than the West German part of the country, this is a possible explanation according to Claudia Neu in her expertise for the “Competence Network Loneliness”. Saxony-Anhalt is a typical example. There are very clear spatial disparities that promote loneliness. The loss of infrastructural access and participation opportunities, the dismantling of structures for the provision of basic necessities are worth mentioning here. We also see that basic services close to home protect people from loneliness. Because where do people meet? Ultimately, they meet locally: when shopping, when going to a restaurant or a snack bar, in public places, in green spaces. All these things are good preventive measures against loneliness. It is important to build bridges of contact and communication with the community. And these are institutions such as schools, employment agencies and social welfare organizations. These should not continue to withdraw from the social areas. But as I said, we lack in-depth social-space analyses for the individual German states, and this is a clear research desideratum.
Lisa Baaske: ...which will perhaps hopefully be closed. In fact, in my own family, I know about loneliness, especially from my grandmothers, because they just talk about it. They are alone, hardly ever get out, have few social contacts. But you've already mentioned it: it's not really true that predominantly older people feel lonely, is it?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, even though this assessment is not wrong, because the risk of loneliness increases with age. More precisely in the area of old age, which is also understandable in view of the fact that illnesses and the need for care and also the death of close relatives simply increase at this age. So loneliness in old age should definitely not be underestimated.
Lisa Baaske: You've already mentioned it with regard to the results of your study, but maybe once more in a nutshell: Which age groups or people are particularly affected by loneliness?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: If you take a more differentiated look at the development over the last few years, it is noticeable that the group of those who have become lonely is highest among the 20- to 29-year-olds. There has also been a significant increase in the group of 16- to 20-year-olds. So, as we can see, loneliness is an issue that has arrived, especially in the younger age groups. Before the Corona pandemic, we were looking at and discussing the over-75-year-olds. Loneliness was very much an older age issue. During the Corona period, the under-30-year-olds were also noticed, and research started to look at age groups in a more differentiated way. Loneliness naturally increased for the young age group during the Corona pandemic. And as an explanation it is seen here that the younger ones were more strongly affected by loneliness because they were missing their outside contacts and meeting with friends especially, since friends and contacts are of greater importance in adolescence.
Lisa Baaske: And is the pandemic really the particular factor that has led to loneliness among these younger groups? Or are there other factors as well?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Well, the Corona-related factors are obvious, such as the decline in outside contacts and the like. And that this fact is experienced negatively by younger people in a particularly strong way is also obvious, I think. However, we also see that this phenomenon was actually already starting to show before the pandemic, and that it did not decrease after the pandemic. For younger respondents I think loneliness also presents itself as a sign of failure to meet societal expectations. We live in a society that has uniquely placed the individual at the center of its value system. The sociologist Andreas Reckwitz speaks of the "singularization of modernity". Without being able to go into this in detail now, loneliness also shows itself, in my opinion, as a failure to live up to the promises and expectations of singularization. In the social media, for example, the strategies of a successful lifestyle are modeled on success, fitness, beauty, youthfulness, romantic relationships, and so on. Failure to live up to the high ethos of self-actualization is ruled out. But this is something we see clearly in our study. That young people, especially students, complain of loneliness in their studies. In late modernity, which is characterized by personal responsibility, singularization and achievement, the feeling of loneliness has the stigma of self-inflicted damage and the inability to lead a successful life. Research shows, and I also find this remarkable, that loneliness can ultimately foster authoritarian attitudes. When people often feel lonely, isolated, and misunderstood in their youth they are more likely to believe conspiracy narratives, agree with authoritarian actions, and develop a skepticism of democracy. Overall, we see that lonely people develop lower trust in their fellow human beings and show declining trust in institutions. Therefore, the democracy-threatening potential of loneliness is increasingly discussed, and not without reason.
Lisa Baaske: That's a really intriguing point that I wasn't aware of. But it also means that politicians should not shy away from doing something to combat loneliness. After all, they obviously have a problem otherwise, and so do we as a society. But we do live in a digitalized world. No matter where friends or family members are, for example, you can still make video calls, reach each other. So is digitalization a good strategy against loneliness?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, this question is also not so easy to answer. We are still trying to find an empirical answer to the question of the connection between loneliness and digitalization. The initial results reveal that digitalization processes have both communalizing and unifying potential. It is a future task of research to identify under which conditions digitalization can promote or even reduce loneliness. We see that digitalization definitely curbs analog loneliness. So we can establish an incredible number of contacts very quickly via digital tools. We can maintain contacts. We can have a lot of contacts in a very short time. Whether these contacts always fulfill our needs for closeness is another matter. But digitalization also creates new potentials of loneliness, such as a lack of physical contact. It should also be remembered that we need cultural capital as a prerequisite for participation in and within digital spaces, as well as quite simply an appropriate digital infrastructure. I don't think we should play one off against the other. Digitalization is not a panacea, but it can be useful in certain areas, too. For example, there is digital media as a source of community contact opportunities. We also see that many respondents use Internet platforms to be able to get in touch with their community. But I would also like to point out that virtual communities are also inequality-generating, because they connect the digitally savvy and sociable and exclude those who are solely analog.
Lisa Baaske: Which probably brings us back to older people, for example. Were there any results of the study that particularly surprised you?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, I can pick up on that right away. Interestingly, we were able to develop a hypothesis from our material that digitalization tends to be a trigger for loneliness experiences among younger respondents, i.e., those under 30, and a way to cushion and compensate for loneliness among older respondents over 65. I found this quite surprising and astonishing. It became apparent in the analysis of the interviews that younger interviewees show less agency in dealing with technology, in the sense of difficulties in drawing boundaries for using the technology. Older people clearly have a functional, instrumental approach to technology; they specifically use certain apps and tools and digital options to make their everyday lives easier. For older people, digital technology is seen as an option and as a support in everyday life. For younger people, the digital space is also a danger of affective overstimulation, permanent distraction and comparison with others. So there is definitely a greater potential danger here.
Lisa Baaske: Very interesting. Would you say that in general loneliness is a personal problem? Or is it more a matter for society as a whole?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, I hope it has become clear that we should not interpret loneliness as a purely personal problem. Loneliness is not individual fate but has social dimensions. Loneliness often leads to social withdrawal. Lonely people withdraw into their homes, for example. They are no longer seen, and a tendency toward self-isolation develops. The residential environment, for example, needs to be much more inviting, open and safe, since, as we know, those affected often lack trust in their fellow human beings and feel much more insecure overall. Combating loneliness is also a societal responsibility that must be shared by all of us. However, a conglomerate of causes also lies in typical social conditioning factors, for example in the psychological core of the culture of self-development that is typical of our society. The late modern culture of emotions with its celebration of positive emotions, because only these are publicly celebrated and shown, also produces considerable disappointments and risks. These in turn produce inwardly directed, negative emotions such as anger, sadness, depression or even withdrawal. When expectations are deeply culturally anchored, such as having a happy and harmonious childhood or having a happy and harmonious couple relationship as the standard, or even the job that must fulfill us one hundred percent. Disappointments and persistent negative emotions threaten to manifest if all this can’t be realized despite personal efforts. Meanwhile, we also recognize that loneliness is a social problem. And the results of studies also warn of the harmful effects of loneliness on health - because loneliness simply causes stress, too. And I have already briefly mentioned the anti-democratic tendencies or risks. So the issue of loneliness has reached the public. In Germany, for example, there is a “Competence Network Loneliness”, a platform where research results are pooled. But there is still a lot to be done.
Lisa Baaske: The pandemic has already been addressed. I personally had the feeling that loneliness was a topic of discussion, especially during the pandemic. Did this make the topic current again and interesting for the public?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, definitely. That's how you can summarize it. The topic of loneliness had not been noticed for a long time and only came into focus as a result of the pandemic. The Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Lisa Paus, recently discussed the topic of loneliness within the population in August of this year, for example, and noted that loneliness research is still in its infancy. And that is still the state of affairs at the moment. The public is interested, but we also need profound research results.
Lisa Baaske: Now you have dealt with loneliness a lot. What are some good strategies against loneliness? Do you have any tips?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, we see some opportunities to deal with loneliness in a meaningful way. And based on our study results, I would summarize this as follows: first, that there is a need for further comprehensive and very clear raising of awareness on the topic of loneliness. Loneliness has finally arrived in the social discourse, as we have just noted, since the Corona pandemic. But at the same time, people affected by loneliness continue to feel stigmatized, and withdraw. Only through public information initiatives and awareness campaigns is it possible to facilitate conversation about loneliness and thus make the topic collectively and also politically addressable. The situational interpretations of the people interviewed show that loneliness continues to be perceived as a personal matter and responsibility and is thus depoliticized. Counseling services, telephone counseling, but also digital platforms or even talk cafés, each of which should be expanded to include local programs, are needed in order to achieve a tailored addressing of those affected. Especially the difficulty experienced by younger people in our survey made me skeptical, too. We see here that further digital education is needed, education about the dangers, about potential loneliness and about a digital space increasingly oriented towards a logic of measurement and comparison is needed. And a final point: I see a potential field of action in the socio-spatial structuring of living and housing space in society. The general state of literature on loneliness research suggests that there are so-called loneliness hot spots. These are residential regions that are very age-homogeneous and where we see a high risk of poverty. One way to counteract segregation that promotes loneliness can be to make living and housing space more diverse. A targeted mixing of space, especially by age, should be approached to counteract a division of society, too. In this way, young and old can come into an exchange and support each other in coping with everyday life. In general, there is a need for bridges of contact and communication between social institutions and people. This can also be the mobile savings bank in rural areas or the mobile grocery store. It can be the so-called "chat checkout" in the supermarket, which also represents a counter-design to self-scanning. We need a balanced strategy of digital offerings and very tangible socio-spatial measures to create places where people can meet.
Lisa Baaske: Very interesting in any case, many important points, I think. Your study was also presented to the Minister of Social Affairs, Petra Grimm-Benne. Is the State of Saxony-Anhalt planning to work with the results and are changes or projects against loneliness planned? In general, what could politics do?
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Yes, we are in close exchange and discussion with the Ministry. To present the results of our project, we held a workshop for the future with the participation of Minister Ms. Grimm-Benne and invited the Ministry and the public. Next, in a smaller research project, also funded by the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Health and Equality of the State of Saxony-Anhalt, we will take a closer look at the connection between living arrangements and loneliness. We will then bundle and publish our findings from these two research projects. At this point, I would like to express my gratitude to the Ministry for this research funding opportunity. And I would especially like to thank the two research assistants, Mr. Weihrauch and Mr. Ewert, who mainly conducted this study. But in the future, more research is needed, and I would like to see a research project that is given more time and resources so that it can also contribute more to research on loneliness in the State of Saxony-Anhalt, for example.
Lisa Baaske: Yes, I think what you take away from this podcast is that much more research is needed, that loneliness is simply a very, very important social issue. And above all, I'm also very curious about the further research results that you will provide. Because that's really about it for the podcast. Thank you very, very much for being here. And also to the listeners: Thank you so much for being with us! Stay healthy and hopefully you'll tune in again next time.
Prof. Heike Ohlbrecht: Thank you very much for the invitation!
Lisa Baaske: Super! Many, many thanks! In any case, I learned a few things once again. To the listeners: Thank you so much for being with us! Stay healthy and hopefully you'll tune in again next time.
Outro voiceover: Knowledge when you want it. The podcast about research at the University of Magdeburg.