Johns Hopkins University Press

Loneliness is one of the least conceptualized psychological phenomena (Fromm-Reichman, 1959). The growing awareness that social relations play a fundamental role in psychological well-being has led mental health researchers to integrate work on loneliness and social support. This has influenced most of the definitions we have of loneliness nowadays. Thus, when defining loneliness, there is a tendency to focus on social distress, which is just one aspect of the experience. Various disciplines have provided different definitions: some have focused on the multifaceted nature of loneliness (addressing the interaction between specific behaviors, emotions and thoughts), while others have focused primarily on cognitive aspects. In such definitions, loneliness is also regarded as a subjective experience, but the subjective aspect is often described as something "private," which obscures the experiential features that are essential to loneliness. In this article, I review the most dominant definitions of loneliness and address some of their underlying assumptions and problems. I propose that a starting point for arriving at better definitions and distinguishing between types of loneliness is to focus on the temporal, embodied and attentional dimensions of the phenomenon.


Loneliness, mental health, well-being

The experience of loneliness extends from the temporary separation from loved ones to a more permanent state of disconnection associated with chronic mental or physical illness. Since acute loneliness often appears alongside diagnoses such as depression and schizophrenia, researchers have tended to focus on these disorders rather than the experience of loneliness itself. Psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (1959/1990) was the first to consider loneliness as a psychiatric condition, and to acknowledge the challenge in conceptualizing the term:

The writer who wishes to elaborate on the problems of loneliness is faced with a serious terminological handicap. Loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people will do practically everything to avoid it. This avoidance seems to include a strange reluctance on the part of the psychiatrist to seek scientific clarification of the subject … Thus loneliness is one of the least conceptualized psychological phenomena.

At this time, the term "loneliness" was used to refer to a broad range of experiences, such as isolation and solitude.1 Over recent decades, there has been an increasing amount of empirical research on loneliness (e.g., Perlman & Peplau, 1982; Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008; Willock, Bohm & Curtis, 2012) involving a range of definitions. Distinctions have been made between loneliness and social isolation, and between loneliness and solitude. Many contemporary researchers acknowledge that loneliness and social isolation are different constructs. However, this theoretical distinction is not always fully reflected in empirical research on loneliness, let alone in interventions to alleviate it.

There are good reasons to clarify the concept of loneliness. Loneliness has adverse effects on physical and mental health. It is a risk factor for [End Page 71] morbidity and mortality in humans (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008, p. 108). Loneliness can be transient—a consequence of going through external circumstances—like the loneliness that results from a bereavement, a change of city or social circles, or distance from friends, family or partners. Loneliness can also be "a chronic distress without redeeming features" (Weiss, 1973, p. 15). These observations have raised questions about whether loneliness should be characterized as a pathology in its own right, and whether alleviating loneliness should be a key focus for clinicians (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006).

There are different definitions proposed within different disciplines. We find two tendencies: either loneliness is defined from a single disciplinary perspective, such as the psychological (Perlman & Peplau, 1982), sociological (Bowman, 1955; Riesman, Glazer & Denney, 1961; Slater, 1976), neuroscientific (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008), or philosophical (Moustakas, 1961; Svensden, 2015); or it is defined from a multidisciplinary approach (e.g., Mijuskovic, 2012; Willock et al., 2012). Below, I raise concerns about some of the prevailing definitions of loneliness, focusing on philosophical aspects of the concepts of loneliness that are being overlooked. My suggestion is that exploring them will have implications for future research on different types of loneliness as well as on different types of research on loneliness.

Defining Loneliness

A review of the loneliness literature (Heinrich & Gullone 2006) provides examples of a range of definitions: those with a clinical focus; those based on empirical psychological research; and those connecting loneliness with social relationships and the human need to belong. These definitions are the most commonly agreed upon in the literature and can be organized into five different theoretical perspectives. I draw mainly on Heinrich and Gullone's work for this classification but I also introduce some distinctions inspired by previous, alternative frameworks and theoretical distinctions (after Perlman & Peplau, 1982; and Marangoni & Ickes, 1989).

The first type of definition is based on social needs. Researchers underline the role that early influences play in generating and maintaining loneliness (Fromm-Reichmann, 1959; Sullivan, 1953; Weiss, 1973). The cause of loneliness, according to this approach, is the absence of relationships "which are not necessarily intimate or confident in nature, but rather enable the meeting of one's inherent social needs such as attachment, social integration, nurturance, reassurance of worth, reliance alliance, and guidance (Weiss, 1973, 1987) (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006, p. 708). Sullivan (1953) is regarded as a predecessor to the social needs approach having proposed a direct relationship between subjective feelings of loneliness and objective social deficits (Marangoni & Ickes, 1979). This perspective is also inspired by Bowlby's (1969) attachment theory, which proposes that secure early bonds are necessary for developing closeness in social bonding later in life. If early disturbances in attachment bonds occur, this can lead to personal traits that impede relationship development (Perlman & Peplau, 1982). However, Heinrich and Gullone argue that situational factors at any stage in life, such as death, divorce or relocation, can also be regarded as causes of loneliness or factors that cause it to persist, because, as people transition into different life stages, attachment figures change from parents to friends, partners and peers.

The second type of definition is based on cognitive discrepancy. Although it emphasizes the affective consequences of loneliness, this type of definition proposes that cognitive processes are its cause (Peplau & Perlman, 1982), This work is mentioned in the reference list. defining it as the aversive state experienced when there is a discrepancy between the interpersonal relationships a person wishes to have, and those that she perceives she has (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). The cognitive discrepancy perspective draws on attribution theory, suggesting that, in their attempts to understand the causes of their own and other's actions, lonely people attribute causality. It is the manner in which they attribute causality that affects their psychological state (Murphy & Kupshik, 1992). Furthermore, Shaver, Furman, and Buhrmester (1985) have shown that compared to their non-lonely and transiently-lonely counterparts, chronically-lonely individuals hold very high expectations for interpersonal relationships. [End Page 72] Therefore, on this view, changes in either one's actual or desired social relationships give rise to loneliness, and attitudes and attributions mediate this relationship.

In the classification by Marangoni and Ickes, the cognitive discrepancy hypothesis is included in the broader category of cognitive processes approach. The category also comprises attribution theory and the links between certain attribution styles and the trait-lonely (as appears in Shaver et al., 1985). The key distinct element here is that cognitive discrepancy requires the lonely person to perceive their social relationships as unfulfilling. But Marangoni and Ickes, following Young (1982), point out that when it comes to people recognizing that they are lonely, there are individual differences in levels of awareness. "Young deviates from the "perceived-discrepancy" model by tentatively classifying as lonely those individuals who exhibit symptoms of distress that are associated with unsatisfactory social relationships, even when such individuals are unaware of a discrepancy between their actual and desired social relationships" (Marangoni & Ickes, 1989, p. 104). Many studies require that people self-report as lonely and this may leave a whole group (and perhaps type) of lonely people unsurveilled. The topic of self-ascription is related to the definition of loneliness. Researchers have pondered on the type of terminology to include in the measuring scales. De Jong Gierveld, Van Tilburg, and Dykstra (2018) note that some versions of the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, Peplau, & Ferguson, 1978) and the de Jong Gierveld loneliness scale (de Jong Gierveld & Kamphuis, 1985; de Jong Gierveld & Van Tilburg, 1999) exclude the term "lonely," or are worded in a way that includes both lonely and non-lonely directions (Russell, Peplau, & Cutrona, 1980) with the aim of avoiding the scores being affected by the negative connotations of the term. We might wonder whether we can rely on people using the term "lonely" to describe themselves. Different languages may change what is being measured. Sometimes more than one scale is used in studies for this precise reason.2

The third type of definition derives from the interactionist approach to loneliness. According to this view, character traits (e.g., social anxiety, shyness, introversion), interact with situational (e.g., hospitalization, relocation or changes in income; Blai, 1989; Hymel, Tarulli, Hayden Thompson & Terrell-Deutsch, 1999; Killeen, 1998) and cultural factors (e.g., expectations regarding couple relationships behaviors; Rokach, Lackovic-Grgin, Penezic & Soric, 2000) to shape our social relationships. Expectations regarding the roles that people should play also have an influence (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006; Weiss, 1982; Yang & Clum, 1994)

Heinrich and Gullone's (2006) definition of loneliness belongs to a fourth group of definitions, and presents loneliness as indicative of deficits in social relationships. This definition is based on the fact that humans are social beings with an essential need to belong. When this need is not met, disruptive experiences—such as loneliness—emerge. Here, loneliness is rooted in specific perceptions, evaluations and responses to interpersonal reality (Jones, 1982), and manifests itself through behaviors, feelings and cognitions that are closely related to one another. As Heinrich and Gullone put it, the prototypical lonely person has "negative feelings such as desperation, depression, impatient boredom, and self-deprecation; negative attitudes about oneself, other people, and about the causes of events; as well as passive, self-absorbed, and ineffective social behaviour" (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006, p. 712). What makes Heinrich and Gullone's definition different from the cognitive-process or cognitive-discrepancy approach? Loneliness includes a cluster of attitudes, cognitions and behaviors.

The fifth type of definition regards loneliness as a consequence of the universal human need to belong and therefore sees it as an inevitable part of human existence. As such, loneliness can be experienced by everyone irrespective of age, economic background, social, health or marital status (e.g., Frie, 2012; Mijuskovic, 2012; Neto & Barros, 2000; Peplau & Perlman, 1982; Rotenberg, 1999). Some authors go as far as to suggest that "failure to experience loneliness appropriately calls into question one's very nature as a social being" (Wood, 1986, p. 184). This approach has also been called existentialist to reflect Moustakas's position (1961, 1972) that "true loneliness stems from the [End Page 73] reality of … facing life's ultimate experiences (i.e. birth, death, change, tragedy) [and] can be a creative force" (Peplau and Perlman, 1982, p. 126).

What all these types of definitions have in common is that loneliness is defined in terms of social relationships, and the nature of humans as social beings. Be it an unmet need for social relations, a dysfunction in cognition, perception or behavior related to social relations, a marker of a deficit in social relations, or even a necessary experience, defining loneliness primarily in terms of social relationships raises some important issues. First, if we define loneliness in terms of social relationships, loneliness becomes primarily and, in some cases solely, connected with sociality. This has implications for research into loneliness: researchers are led to seek explanations for why people do not achieve meaningful connections with others and may disregard other important aspects of the phenomenon, such as the temporal dimension of loneliness, its connection with attention, and how absence is experienced.

Second, defining loneliness based on social relations typically involves conceptualizing loneliness as a subjective and "private" experience that does not reflect an outside reality. This places researchers in muddy terrain. As Roger Frie put it, "the challenge is that when selfhood is conceptualized as relational or social in nature, it becomes difficult to account for our basic sense of aloneness and states of loneliness. Similarly, when selfhood is viewed as separate and isolated, it becomes hard to account for the relational nature of human experience" (Frie, 2012, p. 36). Making a sharp separation between the subjective, inner experience and the objective social realm not only gives rise to a tension when trying to define loneliness, but also leads us to propose abstract solutions to the problem of loneliness:

Every person's experience of loneliness is unique, and so "being lonely" will not have exactly the same meaning for everyone…. Unfortunately, while loneliness can be objectively defined, it is a subjective experience which cannot be observed directly by researchers and clinicians (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). So in concluding that "I feel lonely," or "my client is lonely," one must nec essarily summarize a constellation of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (Horowitz, French & Anderson, 1982; Peplau, Miceli, & Morasch, 1982). Thus, loneliness is an abstract summary of a cluster of specific feelings, thoughts, and behaviors (Horowitz et al., 1982).

The so-called "objective" definition of loneliness consists of an abstract summary of feelings, emotions, and behaviors which is not conducive to specific clinical solutions or practical applications. Rather than the sum of different feelings, emotions, behaviors, and symptoms, we can think of subjectivity, as most philosophers in the phenomenological tradition do, as what underlies all these manifestations. This would enable a more fundamental level of explanation.

Neglecting an in-depth study of the subjective experience of loneliness leads to interventions whose only goal is to increase social interactions. Such interventions assume that loneliness is the same as social isolation—they provide social exposure in response. This undermines the widely recognized distinction between loneliness and objective social isolation (a state of no physical contact with other people) which has led to useful insights on the experience of loneliness. That is, even when loneliness is influenced by quantitative or objective characteristics of social relationships (such as frequency of social contact or number of friends), is more greatly influenced by the qualitative or subjective appraisals of these relationships, such as satisfaction with the relationships or perceived social acceptance as a result of those relationships (Asher & Paquette, 2003; Cutrona, 1982; Jones, 1982; Wheeler, Reis, & Nezlek, 1983). Following this definition, studies have shown that not all people with limited social networks are lonely (e.g., Fischer & Phillips,1982), and that a person's total number of friends is not a good predictor of their loneliness (e.g., Jones, 1982). More needs to be understood about the distinction between social isolation and loneliness.3 Theoretical distinctions need to be refined and the lack of empirical insights into how the two interact should be addressed, especially if we want to improve interventions and measurements. [End Page 74]

Different Dimensions of Loneliness


A fundamental challenge in characterizing loneliness is that there are differences in the temporality of loneliness. Researchers have noted that when feelings of loneliness are short-lived and determined by life situations, they are less troubling than when they are chronic (Asher & Paquette, 2003; Neto & Barros, 2000). Peplau and Perlman (1982) distinguished between transient and persistent loneliness. The first terminological distinction that referred to the duration of loneliness over time was by Young (1982). He distinguished between situational loneliness (a person had satisfying relationships until they underwent a change, such as bereavement, that disrupted these relationships); transient loneliness (occasional lonely moods); and chronic loneliness (a person has not found their social relationships satisfying for a period of more than 2 years).

Loneliness has also been connected to a personality trait, as it is possible for some people to feel lonely more frequently and in different contexts (Neto & Barros 2000). Here, some researchers have proposed to distinguish between trait loneliness, to refer to an enduring experience, and state loneliness to refer to immediate feelings of loneliness (Jones, 1987). Considering chronicity in this way and making the terminological distinctions mentioned above has led to some discoveries, as Heinrich and Gullone (2006) point out. Different studies have shown many ways in which people who are chronically lonely differ from those who are transiently, situationally or state lonely. For instance, studies of chronically lonely people present long-term behavioral, affective and cognitive deficiencies, and are internally more self-deprecating in their attribution of interpersonal failures (Cutrona, 1982; Snodgrass, 1987). Researchers have argued that situational loneliness can become chronic if it persists. Another discovery is that those who are temporarily lonely are more able to communicate how they feel than those who are chronically lonely (Gerson & Perlman, 1979). This has led researchers to believe that detecting where and how this transition occurs could have important treatment implications (Rook & Peplau, 1982).

There is much room for improvement in this area. When they consider temporality at all, existing studies only focus on chronicity (the duration of time for which loneliness persists). One way of advancing current research is to focus on the frequency and duration of lonely episodes, as it is commonly done in research on depression. But we could also think about temporality in different terms. And this can, in turn, enable more fine-grained terminological distinctions. We could consider temporality from a phenomenological perspective. Such a perspective has impacted on the way researchers in psychopathological phenomenology—past (e.g., Binswanger, 1960; Jaspers, 1946/1963; Minkowski, 1933/1970) and present (e.g., Fuchs, 2005, 2007, 2013; Ratcliffe, 2012; Sass & Pienkos, 2013)—have approached mental disorders and their symptoms. These authors are interested in understanding the ways in which consciousness is altered in different clinical contexts. In this view, single symptoms and neurophysiological dysfunctions cannot be separated from the way in which they are subjectively experienced. The phenomenological method is particularly suitable for exploring this.

Phenomenology is interested in consciously lived experiences and the objects of these experiences. The way in which some classical phenomenologist investigate consciousness is by investigating the way it shows itself in subjective experience rather than by focusing on causal explanations (Fuchs & Pallagrosi, 2018). Temporality is particularly important because consciousness is understood as manifesting itself as "a 'becoming, a temporal 'streaming' of a unity of intertwined experiences." This streaming is not an amorphous mass of contents, but is organized into a field of consciousness, which exhibits certain structures involving intentionality, temporality, embodiment, self-awareness, and intersubjectivity" (Parnas, Sass & Zahavi, 2013). In this sense, temporality is one of the basic structures of human experience and considered as one of the most complex topics in phenomenological psychopathology. [End Page 75]

This approach distinguishes between different dimensions: temporality as pre-reflectively lived, temporality as reflectively or consciously experienced, and temporality as intersubjective. These distinctions allow us to consider more fundamental aspects of the constitution of our experience, for instance, the different processes that underlie our capacities for estimating duration of objective events such as our ability to remember and anticipate. An example of the connection between temporality and mental disorders is offered by Fuchs (2013) when he argues that melancholic depression is triggered by a "desynchronization of the individual from her environment, which then develops into a physiological desynchronization" (Fuchs, 2013, p. 100). Loneliness also includes experiential abnormalities that may result in, or be provoked, by, different alterations in our experience of time, and fluctuations in the intensity, quality and meaning of loneliness (Yang, 2019), according to context.

There is a vast territory to explore for loneliness researchers in this line of investigation. We could hypothesize that when we are lonely, a given space of time can feel much longer to us than when we are not lonely; our memories about the past will be affected by whether we are or were lonely; and our attitude toward the future will be affected too by whether we are lonely. And we can go further and explore more basic capacities for experiencing time and its connection to loneliness. We could ask, for instance, in what ways one's own and world time are desynchronized and how this generates feelings of distress or well-being when one is around others; whether there is an experience of acceleration or retardation of time in lonely people; how an altered experience of time (such as could be experienced by lonely individuals) might affect their sense of self.

Collective, Social, and Intimate Dimensions

Recent empirical research proposes that there are three ways in which loneliness can manifest itself: intimate, relational and collective (Cacioppo, Grippo, London, Goossens & Cacioppo, 2015; Hawkley, Browne, & Cacioppo, 2005; Hawkley, Gu, Luo, & Cacioppo, 2012). The argument is that the three dimensions of loneliness are related to human attention, as introduced by Hall (1963, 1966). The attentional space is divided into intimate space (the space that most closely surrounds a person); social space (where people comfortably interact with friends, family and acquaintances); and the public space (a space that is more anonymous) (Cacioppo et al., 2015). Weiss (1973) and Dunbar (2014) further argue that there is some correspondence between the three dimensions and the way in which social networks are structured.

People who lose a life partner or someone very close to them due to (through death or a broken relationship) may experience a very painful sense of loss that researchers have called intimate or emotional loneliness (Weiss, 1973), characterized as "the perceived absence of a significant someone (e.g., a spouse), that is, a person one can rely on for emotional support during crises, who provides mutual assistance, and who affirms one's value as a person" (Cacioppo et al., 2015, p. 4). The intimate connection that this dimension refers to is that observed between people that are part of what Dunbar calls our "inner core" (Dunbar, 2014): a group of often no more than five people we can count on for emotional support in times of crisis (Ortigue et al., 2003). Several studies support the idea that when someone has no life partner, they are more likely to experience loneliness. This is consistent with studies indicating that people who have a life partner experience lower levels of intimate loneliness, and with studies that link losing partners to greater levels of intimate loneliness (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008; Russell, 1982; Waite & Gallagher, 2001; Weiss, 1973). It is important to acknowledge that people who may be lonely in this way may still be able to connect with other people. In the case of the loss of a partner, other members of the family, close friends or colleagues may provide connections that the lonely person is able to sustain and turn to for different kinds of support. It may, however, happen that such relationships are missing, and in such cases the person may experience relational loneliness.

Relational loneliness or social loneliness (Weiss, 1973) is due to a lack of perceived connections with the "sympathy group" (Buys & Larson, 1979; [End Page 76] Dunbar, 2014) within one's relational space. This group is usually formed by family connections or friendships, and can include 15–50 people we see regularly and who are "core social partners … from whom we can obtain high-cost instrumental support (e.g., loans, help with projects, childcare)" (Cacioppo et al., 2015, p. 4). Here, researchers argue, the relational space is delimited by auditory, visual and tactile possibilities that allow face-to-face interactions and communications. For instance, a study shows that in middle-aged and older adults, frequent contact with family and friends is the best (negative) predictor of relational loneliness (Hawkley et al., 2005).

Finally, collective loneliness refers to the connections that a person can have with others who are similar or part of a network (such as a nationality, political party, or other group) and that can be at a distance in the collective space. This corresponds to the outermost social layer (Dunbar, 2014) and includes 150 or more people with whom ties are not strong, but who can provide information and what researchers call "low-cost" support. Studies show that middle-aged and older individuals who belong to more voluntary groups are less likely to experience collective loneliness (Hawkley et al., 2005). Researchers argue that this dimension of loneliness may have emerged as a result of our evolving a capacity to develop relationships with groups, for the purposes of cooperation in adverse conditions (Brewer, 2004). For instance, when feeling part of a nation, one may also feel compelled to defend it. It is further argued that investing in and identifying with a group may result in the continuity of the group and of its members' genetic legacy (Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Boosma, 2014).

This classification highlights important aspects of the experience of loneliness, but it also leaves several questions unanswered. The distinction between dimensions is made according to where in the attentional space the person feels a sense of loss. In-depth research is required to further clarify the intersection between attentional space and absences; the different subjective experiences of absence at different levels (an experience of absence at an intimate level may imply different embodied aspects than an experience of absence at the collective level); the relationship between attention and absence; and the nature of the experience of absence (in what sense can we say we perceive absences?). One of the most puzzling instances of loneliness is the feeling of loneliness that someone can experience even when she is in the presence of others (be them partners, family members, etc.) This suggests that there may be more to this experience of absence than a perception of absence of a specific other (or group of others). This takes us further into questioning the classification. That is, if attention, and experiences of absence are the most salient features of loneliness, we may wonder whether distinguishing between intimate, relational and collective is at all useful. More to the point, the same excessive focus on social deficiency that we saw in the previously discussed definitions seems to have influenced this classification. In this typology, the line between loneliness and social isolation is blurred again.

From a phenomenological perspective, talk of attentional space also raises questions about our embodied place in the world. This is a particularly relevant question because when we consider the role of the body in the experience of loneliness, we would want it to be in very different terms from those framing the role of the body in social isolation.

The body is a fundamental aspect of the structure of human experience. "In so far as it sees and touches the world, the body is that by which there are objects" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962 p. 92). A phenomenological perspective distinguishes the objective body from the lived body. The lived body is primarily a perspective on the world and not an object we take a perspective on, as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre argue (Zahavi, 2017). Now, this perspective originates from a practical engagement with a world that is pre-reflective and pre-theoretical. Alterations at the pre-reflective level can result into alterations of the embodied communication. There are different types of alterations in different conditions. For instance, the feeling of excessive visibility of the body's surface (characteristic of the phenomenology of depression) or the feeling of transparency of one's condition (characteristic of the phenomenology of melancholia) (Micali, 2013). The different forms [End Page 77] of contact that a person has with her physical environment may have consequences for how she interacts with the social environment, for whether this evolves into a social disruption problem, and even for her constitution as a self. A way to illustrate this is to think that person in solitary confinement has very different possibilities for interaction with the environment from someone who is out in nature or in a big city, and that this alters their experience.4 Incarceration is a particularly good example that illustrates not only the effects of immobility but also the extends to which the regimentation of time and the phenomenology of waiting can become different sorts of psychic torture (Wang, 2018).

Further research needs to disclose the mechanisms involved in our capacity to adapt to different environments and whether such a capacity facilitates social adaptation. Social disruption is not the sole ground for research on loneliness: there may be other more fundamental aspects at the onset of the experience. Understanding absences, and the embodied aspects of loneliness experiences, seem likely to be important features.


In this article I have reviewed dominant definitions of loneliness. I raised some issues about such definitions and suggested that addressing them will have implications for future research on different types of loneliness. There are elements I could not address, such as the relationship between loneliness and emotion theories, whether loneliness can be measured, and what the different methodologies are for studying it. The distinction between loneliness and social isolation and its impact on empirical studies deserves further examination as well.

The first issue I identified with the current definitions is the excessive focus on the nature of humans as social beings and loneliness as social disruption. Sociality is affected in many dysfunctions such as depression, social anxiety. Excessive focus on social relations when we define loneliness does not allow us to investigate the particularities of the experience and to distinguish loneliness from other experiences that are as socially disrup tive. The second issue relates to loneliness being characterized by specific behaviors, emotions and thoughts. This concept is underlined by a view of subjectivity that identifies subjective experience with these manifestations. I suggested that a phenomenological perspective offers a different view on subjectivity by focusing on structural aspects of lived experiences, and regards it as something more fundamental that underlies all the other manifestations (specific thoughts, feelings, etc.) currently examined in the studies. Adopting such perspective would provoke a shift in the focus of the definitions of loneliness.

I also focused on some philosophical aspects of the concepts of loneliness that are being overlooked. Potential areas for research that have already been identified are the temporality of loneliness and the role of attention and perception in the experience of loneliness. I have argued that we need definitions of loneliness that address disturbances (e.g., absences) or experiential abnormalities (e.g., embodied experiences) in subjective structure. Exploring the issues raised here would have implications for our terminology and our future research on types of loneliness. These would in turn allow for the design of new treatments and interventions.

Valeria Motta

Valeria Motta is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, working in phenomenology and philosophy of mind. She is especially interested in emotions and methods for researching human experience. She recently completed a 4-year research project on the experience of loneliness and solitude funded by the European Research Council.


1. A reference to historical changes in the meaning of loneliness can be found in Alberti (2019).

2. For the complete discussion on this see de Jong Gierveld et al. (2018).

3. de Jong Gierveld et al. (2018) is again a good recent reference for this discussion.

4. See Guenther (2013) and Gallagher (2014) for more detailed analyses on the phenomenology of solitary confinement.


Valeria Motta acknowledges the support of a European Research Council Consolidator Grant (grant agreement 616358) for the project entitled "Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts" (PERFECT).


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