In the December 2021 issue of MP we considered the history of chronic loneliness, distinguishing it from the everyday loneliness we all feel from time to time. We also discussed how being either too disconnected from others-- or being too misconnected with others-- can trigger painful feelings of being rejected, banished, and shunned. We also acknowledged that there are steps each of us can take to improve our interpersonal relationships, just as we take steps to eat and exercise in healthy ways. If you are ready to assess how well you are doing in your relationships, this and two subsequent articles will provide you with two remarkable assessment tools, and some ideas about how to get started along the path of monitoring and working on your interpersonal relationships. Are you game?
The U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale
How can you tell when you have crossed the line between the garden-variety loneliness we all experience from time to time, and the chronic loneliness that debases life so significantly? Well, there is a way to discern the slippage, thanks to the development some forty years ago of a remarkably valid and consistently reliable assessment questionnaire, known as the “UCLA Loneliness Scale -- 3.”
If you are prepared to take a hard look at just where you stand on the spectrum of loneliness, the exploratory questions from the scale are presented and discussed below. I suggest that you wait to answer these questions until you can be entirely alone in a quiet setting where you can feel as calm and relaxed as possible. You’ll need to write down the question number and your response on a scrap of paper. In addition, I urge you to proceed very slowly through the questions, taking as much time as you need on each one, thinking through recent interactions with the important others in your life. For each question, answer “Never,” “Rarely,” “Sometimes,” or “Often.” Ready? Here are the questions:
- How often do you feel that you are “in tune” with the people around you?
- How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
- How often do you feel that there is no one you can turn to?
- How often do you feel alone?
- How often do you feel part of a group of friends?
- How often do you feel that you have a lot in common with the people around you?
- How often do you feel that you are no longer close to anyone?
- How often do you feel that your interests and ideas are not shared by those around you?
- How often do you feel outgoing and friendly?
- How often do you feel close to people?
- How often do you feel left out?
- How often do you feel that your relationships with others are not meaningful?
- How often do you feel that no one really knows you well?
- How often do you feel isolated from others?
- How often do you feel you can find companionship when you want it?
- How often do you feel that there are people who really understand you?
- How often do you feel shy?
- How often do you feel that people are around you but not with you?
- How often do you feel that there are people you can talk to?
- How often do you feel that there are people you can turn to?
To determine your overall score, you’ll need to separate and treat your answers to the questions in two groups. For questions 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 18 if you answered “Never” give yourself a 1, “Rarely” give yourself a 2, “Sometimes” give yourself a 3, and “Often” give yourself a 4. Add these scores up for subtotal A. Now, for the remaining questions (1, 5, 6, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19 and 20) if you answered “Never” give yourself a 4, “Rarely” give yourself a 3, “Sometimes” give yourself a 2, and “Often” give yourself a 1. Add this second set of scores up for subtotal B. Now add subtotal A to subtotal B for your final score.
Given how the test is designed, the hypothetical loneliest person on the planet would have all 4’s, for a total score of 80, while the most connected individual would have all 1’s for a total score of 20. Your score, like mine, will fall somewhere between these two extremes, and is probably somewhere in the magnitude of 50. A score higher than 50 indicates that your overall capacity to successfully connect with others could use a tune up, and later in this series of articles, you’ll be provided with some useful strategies with which to approach this somewhat daunting, but critically important enterprise.
Before moving on to the how-do-I-improve-my-relationships-phase of our undertaking, I want to help you grab some additional data on the status of how well connected you are to others in your life. In the following article in this series, we will supplement what the U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale has told you about the general quality of your connectivity with a second analytical tool that will allow you to assess in detail the quality of each of your individual relationships. The information you garner from this second questionnaire will be highly useful to you if you indeed decide to set out to improve your connections with the others with whom you live, work, and play.
One final consideration for today: why is it so important to be well connected to significant others in our life? I previously compared assessing the quality of one’s connections to others to assessing the quality of one’s diet and exercise regime. However lax many among us may be about living up to the challenges of achieving a healthy diet and an informed pattern of exercise, I would think that nearly all of us would admit that there is solid, scientific evidence about the wisdom of doing so. The data is clear and relatively undebatable: those among us who eat wisely and exercise adequately, live longer, healthier lives. But is the same true for our connectivity with others? Does chronic loneliness effect our health anywhere near as much as poor eating habits or inadequate exercise? Is there equivalent solid data that demonstrate that the nurturing, soothing, and joy that flow from affective and congenial relationships safeguard either our physical or mental health?
You bet there is. In 2020, chronic loneliness was officially recognized as an extremely significant public health issue when the then (and current) Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek H. Murthy, MD, published Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. In fact, Murthy’s book takes the position that combatting loneliness would be one of the most important public health interventions imaginable. Dr. Murthy quotes the famous longitudinal Harvard study that was initiated in 1938 and subsequently followed the 268 subjects for the rest of their lives. The goal was to learn what helped these Harvard undergraduates lead healthy and fulfilling lives, and recently published findings are summarized by Dr. Murthy in one brief sentence: “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age fifty were the healthiest at age eighty.”