Now we know what adults of all ages who are not lonely have in common. The answer comes from a new review article, “Age differences in loneliness from late adolescence to the oldest old age,” based on a study of more than 16,000 German adults.
The authors looked at all sorts of factors that, in their opinion, might separate lonely people from people who are not lonely. Of course, they thought marital/relationship status was one of those factors, and they looked into living arrangements, too. They seemed to think that marriage and living with other people instead of living alone would protect people from feeling lonely, but the results were not exactly what they anticipated.
For example, they found that when you compare people living alone with people living with others, when they all have about the same level of income, it is the people living alone who are less likely to be lonely! That might seem counterintuitive unless you’ve been keeping up with the research showing that single people are more inclined than married people to maintain their ties with their friends and family and neighbors.
The authors also tried to examine marital or romantic relationship status but made a mess of it. They took people who may well be feeling lonely (the widowed, who miss their spouse, and the divorced, who may not be used to being on their own) and tossed them in with the people who had always been single, and then falsely concluded that having a partner means that you are less lonely. No, it doesn’t. And even when they used that biased technique (which you would only use if you did not understand the psychology of loneliness – or freedom from loneliness – in the lives of single people), they still did not find that people with partners were less lonely at every age. For example, among the adults under 30, romantic relationship status made no difference whatsoever in how lonely they felt.
Other factors were also examined in the study and some had complicated relationships with loneliness. But for one factor, it was not complicated at all: What people who are not lonely have in common is friends.
At every age (young adults, middle age, older adults), people with more friends are less lonely than people with fewer friends. The authors simply counted the number of friends their participants named. My guess is that a more nuanced question would have produced even stronger results. The question I’d suggest is more in line with what loneliness really means: How close are you to having the number and quality of friends that you consider ideal? Some people are happiest and most fulfilled if they have just one or a few close friends; others want hordes.
No other factor that the authors examined was linked to loneliness as straightforwardly as the friendship factor. For example, “social engagement” (which includes volunteering and belonging to a religious community or a political group) is also linked to lower loneliness. But once you account for the fact that people who are more socially engaged have more friends and are more often in contact with other people, then social engagement doesn’t matter much at all. It is friendship that is most significant.
Same for the matter of how often you are in touch with other people. That was important overall: People who are in touch with others more often are less lonely. But not all kinds of contact were equally effective. People who had a lot of face-to-face contact with family and friends were less lonely, but people who had a lot of online contact were not.
So if you want to know what one thing people who are not very lonely have in common, the thing that separates them from people who are lonelier, it is this: Friends. Not a spouse, not a romantic partner, not someone living in the same house. Friends.
[Maybe also of interest: “Friendship in single life and in all of our lives.”]