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Manchester Institute of Education

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The BBC Loneliness Experiment

The BBC Loneliness Experiment was a national survey led by the BBC and The University of Manchester.

What was the Loneliness Experiment?

"The response to the BBC Loneliness Experiment has been significant. People have provided valuable insights into when and how loneliness is experienced, how it relates to age, being alone, caring responsibilities, employability, and discrimination. For me, the most interesting findings relate to the stigma of loneliness and the varied solutions people had to overcome loneliness. These findings suggest that we need to be kinder to ourselves when we feel disconnected from others, but also that there is a whole toolkit of potential solutions that we can try."

Prof Pamela Qualter / The University of Manchester

The Loneliness Experiment was a study conducted by BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind, in collaboration with Wellcome Collection and researchers at The University of Manchester, Brunel University London, and Exeter University.

More than 55,000 people aged 16 years and over took part in the study - making it the largest-ever study into the issue of loneliness.

The study asked respondents to give their opinions and record their experiences of loneliness and related topics, including friendship, relationships, and the use of technology - as well as recording lifestyle and background information. Respondents also engaged in a number of experiments.

The survey was developed by Professor Pamela Qualter, from The University of Manchester's Manchester Institute of Education (MIE), with colleagues from Brunel University London, and the University of Exeter. The work was funded by a grant from The Wellcome Trust.

Summary of results

Who in the BBC Loneliness Experiment feels lonely?

  • Levels of loneliness were highest in younger respondents with 40% feeling lonely, compared with only 27% of older respondents who completed the study  
  • 41% of respondents thought loneliness was sometimes a positive experience.
  • Loneliness was higher among those respondents who were unemployed, regardless of age.
  • Respondents who filled in the version of the survey for people who were blind or partially sighted reported slightly more loneliness, especially if they felt discrimination was high. 
  • Respondents who were parents tended to feel less lonely, except if they were aged 18-24 where they reported higher rates of loneliness.
  • Respondents in relationships tended to feel less lonely than those who said they were single.
  • Respondents who live alone were only slightly more likely to feel lonely more often. That finding suggests that living alone isn't as much of a problem as spending lots of time alone.
  • Respondents who are carers reported higher loneliness levels if they are female.
  • Respondents who identified as gay or bisexual felt lonelier, but only if they felt discriminated against.
  • Respondents with lower socioeconomic status felt lonelier, but only if they felt discriminated against.

When do respondents feel most lonely?

You might guess evenings or winter; in fact, most respondents said there was no specific time of day or time of the year when they felt most lonely.

When respondents who felt lonely chose a time a day, they chose evenings.

What stigmas exist?

  • When the word loneliness was not used in the questions, 30% of respondents move from the 'never' to 'sometimes' lonely groups, showing people may not like to admit feeling lonely.
  • Feelings of shame related to loneliness were higher among respondents who reported feeling lonely, with women feeling even more shame about feeling lonely than men.
  • Feelings of shame surrounding loneliness went down with the age of the respondent.

What strategies did respondents say could combat loneliness?

  • Find distracting activities or dedicate time to work, study, or hobbies.
  • Join a social club or take up new social activities and past times.
  • Change your thinking to make it more positive.
  • Start a conversation with anyone.
  • Talk to friends or family about feelings.
  • Look for the good in every person you meet.
  • Take time to think about why you feel lonely.
  • Carry on and wait for the feeling to pass.
  • Invite people without fearing rejection.
  • Tell someone else you feel lonely.

Learn more

An episode of All in the Mind, recorded in front of a live audience at Wellcome Collection and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 1 October 2018, delved further into the results of the survey.

A three-part series entitled The Anatomy of Loneliness, broadcast in October 2018, further breaks down the research into three programmes:

  • the individual experience of loneliness;
  • the role of friendship;
  • how society plays its part.

You can listen to these shows here.

Inspired by true stories of loneliness, working with academics of the Wellcome Trust and the BBC Loneliness Experiment, BBC Drama North produced Me Myself I, a moving, original drama of three separate but interlinked stories. Broadcast on 4 October, Me Myself I offered a glimpse into the lives of three people from three generations, played by Siobhan Finneran, Sue Johnston, and Millie Gibson. You can listen to this show here.