The study authors, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, say their findings suggest that community-level interventions to tackle loneliness may not be a one-size-fits-all solution.
The research, published today in Psychological Science, involves more than 2,000 18 year-olds living in the UK. Participants were asked how often they experienced feelings of loneliness, and also answered a series of questions about the characteristics of their neighbourhoods.
The researchers also used participants’ postcodes to obtain additional information about the neighbourhoods from other sources, including government data, surveys of other residents in the area, and ratings based on Google Street View observations.
Lonelier individuals rated their neighbourhoods lower on what the researchers refer to as ‘collective efficacy’ – a combination of social cohesion and the willingness of locals to tackle disorderly behaviour in the neighbourhood. However, these subjective assessments were not backed up by more objective sources of information.
In fact, lonely individuals rated the collective efficacy of their neighbourhoods lower than their own siblings who lived at the same address. The findings suggest that feeling lonely could put a negative bias on people’s subjective perceptions of their local area.
Lead author Dr Timothy Matthews said: ‘Lonely individuals tend to have more negative perceptions and expectations about their interactions with other people. These findings suggest loneliness could also dampen their perceptions of the wider community they live within.’
The findings could also have implications for helping people overcome loneliness.
Senior author Professor Louise Arseneault said: ‘If lonely individuals feel that their neighbourhoods are less friendly then they actually are, they could miss out on opportunities to connect with people around them’
Dr Matthews added: ‘Strategies to reduce loneliness may need to go further than simply bringing people in the community together. Counselling to help lonely individuals break out of negative patterns of thinking could enable them get the maximum benefit from these opportunities.’
A study last year from the same research group showed that loneliness is a particularly common problem among young people, and is linked to difficulties with mental health, lifestyle behaviours and even employment prospects.
Professor Arseneault said: ‘We’ve previously shown that loneliness in young adults doesn’t discriminate by gender or socioeconomic background. We can now add to this that loneliness is distributed across all kinds of neighbourhoods – urban versus rural, wealthy versus deprived, cohesive versus fragmented.’
The full study is available online.