Concept And Prevalence
Contemporary social scientists have defined loneliness as the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person's network of social relationships is deficient in some important way, either quantitatively or qualitatively (Peplau and Perlman 1982, p. 4). According to this conceptualization, loneliness stems from a discrepancy between the level of social contact a person needs or desires and the amount she or he has. The deficits can be in the person's intimate relationships, as Russell's quote implies, leading to emotional loneliness or in the individual's broader network of relationships leading to social loneliness (Weiss 1973). In either case, loneliness is a subjective experience—people can be alone without being lonely or lonely in a crowd.
Loneliness is widely prevalent. Although loneliness appears to occur in virtually all societies, its intensity varies by culture. In an eighteen-country survey (Stack 1998), the United States was in the top quarter of countries in terms of average levels of loneliness. Perhaps this in part reflects the individualistic, competitive nature of life in the United States. Individuals in European social democracies such as the Netherlands and Denmark were least lonely. Sociologists have associated national differences in loneliness with differences in social integration. The Dutch, for example, are socially well-integrated in terms of having more people in their social networks, such as being involved in civic organizations and volunteer work and receiving emotional support.