Situation: Loneliness is a severe emotional state caused by a deficit or lack of necessary social connections — with society, the cultural environment, relatives, and friends. The current situation in which we must limit our social interaction with others aggravates the problem, but it goes beyond that. And its extent is not the same for everyone.
In fact: In Russia, 43.1% of the adult population experiences loneliness. This share is comprised mostly of older people, but quite often young people as well. At each age, loneliness is experienced in its own way, and at certain times it becomes especially painful.
Age-specific features ofloneliness are confirmed by studies of specific population groups. At the same time, the overall picture remains ‘rather pixelated and blurry’. Sociologists from HSE University and the Federal Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (FCTAS RAS) studied the problem as a whole — they looked at how loneliness spreads in society depending on age and changes in people’s social situations. The older a person is, the less connected they are with the people around them, habitual ties are severed, feelings of not being needed grow and loneliness intensifies. In addition, other factors — health, place of residence, financial situation, and employment — come into play.
In Russia there are many factors contributing to the problem of loneliness, from social inequality and ‘a change in moral and ethical norms that has led to the rise of individualism’ to a lack of trust and mutual respect. Online communication does not facilitate live interaction, and the number of professions that do not involve frequent face-to-face meetings is growing. All this is accelerated by scientific and technological progress and now also by the transition to remote formats of communication and interaction during the pandemic.
Loneliness has become a subject of inquiry for Russian scientists only somewhat recently. They have been actively studying it only since the post-Soviet period. Sociologists interpret loneliness as ‘the destruction of the integrity of relationships, the loss of ties with reality, discord with oneself, the loss or lessening of all optimism’, and the ways in which different social groups experience this condition is one of the areas of their scientific interest.
To understand the extent to which loneliness effects different age groups, Polina Kozyreva and Alexander Smirnov studied data from the 27th edition of the Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey — HSE (RLMS-HSE, Autumn 2018).
10,200 Russians over the age of 14 were surveyed, and researchers analysed their answers to the question ‘Do you feel lonely?’ There were several options: ‘almost never’, ‘rarely’, ‘often’ and ‘almost always’.
It turned out that over 43% of Russians experience some degree of loneliness. Although not insignificant, it is also not terrible, the scientists conclude. Most of those surveyed reported suffering from loneliness rarely, and only 12.2% said they suffered almost always or often. However, for such a huge country, 12% is in any case a serious figure.
The largest share of people who reported feeling lonely (70%) is among those over the age of 85, most of whom do not work or live with their adult children. In light of midlife crises, which can be accompanied by a reassessment of values or depression, the likelihood of loneliness in individuals increases after the age of 40. The next milestone is after 60. A person retires, but well-deserved retirement is not an easy period with a ‘dramatic change in roles and a growing deficit of close relationships’.
But youth does not prevent loneliness either. About a third of 14-29 year-old Russians experience loneliness, and 6.5% of this share report feeling lonely almost always or often. Frequent interaction with one’s peers does not offer protection either: full-time university students are no different in this respect from those who have graduated and started working.
There are more lonely young people in the cities than in the countryside. In villages, however, the situation is extremely difficult for those of the oldest group, 70+, and for women of this group in particular. About 38% reported feeling lonely virtually all the time.
The reason, according to the researchers, is the deteriorating quality of life in the countryside. ‘It is especially difficult for the elderly, who are forced to live out their remaining years in remote or abandoned villages, deprived of full communication and without access to social infrastructure.’
Distribution of those feeling lonely by age groups (years, %)
Source: RLMS HSE, 2018
Women on the whole, regardless of whether they live in the country or in cities, are more apt to feel lonely. They feel loneliness more acutely, and as they age the differential with men increases. As a result, there are 8-9 times more elderly women who report feeling lonely.
The ‘painful feeling of loneliness’ is less often experienced by married people. Children stave off loneliness, but not always. ‘After the age of 60, there is a sharp increase in the number of women with children experiencing acute loneliness,’ notes the study. One of the reasons is that children are busy with their own affairs and not paying attention to their parents.
Percentage of men and women with and without children of different ages who experience loneliness almost always or often (years, %)
Source: RLMS HSE, 2018
The interrelationship between loneliness and financial support increases with age. Thus, over 70% of Russians over the age of 70 who consider themselves poor are lonely. More than half of them are chronically lonely, that is, almost always or often.
Work helps to avoid the problem, but only that which brings pleasure. Among those who are satisfied with their professional activities, 2.6 times fewer people reported feeling chronically lonely .
Lonely people are twice as likely to get sick, and the connection here is bidirectional: loneliness worsens health and poor health increases loneliness. People with disabilities are most at risk, especially the elderly, and they comprise 73% of this group.
Not everyone finds solace in religion. A link between loneliness and religiosity was found only amongst elderly Russians, but not to positive effect: religiosity was found to increase the feeling of loneliness.
How COVID-19 has changed the attitude of Russians to each other
Trust in others weakens feelings of loneliness, but Russians tend to be circumspect: fewer than 16% trust strangers and about 43% believe that one should be careful with strangers. Estrangement from those around you leads to self-isolation, and loneliness only increases as a result.
‘Despite the severity and complexity of the problem, there is insufficient evidence to warrant talk of an epidemic of loneliness in Russian society,’ the researchers conclude. Nevertheless, it is widespread and ‘has a clearly pronounced age structure.’ The study showed how loneliness increases with age. To understand these mechanisms entails making sense of people's behaviour and, by extension, the current state and prospects of society.
It is especially important to look at young people. Due to their emotional characteristics and lack of life experience, it is more difficult for them to be lonely, hence the consequences for their physical and mental health are more dangerous. About a third of young Russians, after all, are familiar with this feeling, and scientists do not rule out this figure being even higher.