Understanding the roots of loneliness

January 15, 2019

Julie Aitken Shermer

Story by Rob Rombouts

Is loneliness increasing in the modern world?

Julie Aitken Schermer, Professor in the DAN Department of Management & Organizational Studies is concerned with what she sees as a growing level of isolation, especially among her students.

“People are supposed to be more connected through social media, but they seem to be more isolated,” said Schermer, saying students in her classes do not seem to interact. “When I was a student, it was the best time to meet new friends; you have the common ground of being in the same class.”

In a recent article published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Schermer, along with Nicholas Martin of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia, investigated causes of loneliness, as well as the correlations between loneliness and other personality traits.

In the study, they found that about 35 per cent of loneliness is attributable to genetic causes.
“Someone could be prone to loneliness, and their environment could push the development of that dimension,” said Schermer.

The study found that people who are neurotic, tend to be lonelier as well. “In a previous study, we found that people who make fun of themselves are often more lonely,” said Schermer. “Loneliness and neuroticism correlate, but loneliness is a different dimension.”

The study also found that people who are open to new experiences may be more likely to be lonely.
“These people could be more likely to assess their situation, and be more aware of their feelings of loneliness,” said Schermer.

“Loneliness could be more of a personality dimension than it is a state of mind or attitude,” said Schermer.

“There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. Loneliness is about not feeling satisfaction with interactions with people, and a feeling that they personally don’t matter,” said Schermer. “You don’t have to be alone to be lonely.”

Identifying inheritable causes of loneliness could help parents, “If parents notice they themselves are lonely, they may want to consider their children, and may want to talk to them about coping methods,” said Schermer. “We can work to teach people coping skills.”

It could also help organizations create a better working environment.

“Organizations may want to ask people if they have a satisfactory level of interaction with their colleagues,” said Schermer. “A lonely person who remains feeling lonely at work without an outlet may look for another job.”

In future research, Schermer plans to look at different ways people experience loneliness, such as differences between feelings of estrangement from family, compared to feeling of having no friends.