8 Dan Russell


Alex Bishop

I’m here today with Dr. Dan Russell, a professor from Iowa State University from the Human Development and Family Studies department. I appreciate you sharing your time with us today. Dr. Russell is an accomplished developmentalist and is well-known for the UCLA Loneliness Scale which he created several decades ago. A very very relevant measure that we use to screen adults of all ages for loneliness. Can you share a little bit about what your expertise is, and how you came into this particular realm of interest, or phenomenon, this concept of loneliness? Or how did it find you?

 

 

Dan Russell

Well I guess it kind of found me. I was in graduate school at the time at UCLA and there on the faculty where I was in the social psychology program which had several people who are well-known in terms of studying interpersonal relationships. And Ann Peplow, who was a new faculty member there at the time, started a research group on loneliness which, at that time there had been relatively little research dealing with loneliness. And one thing we felt would help stimulate work would be to develop a way to measure loneliness that was reliable and valid and that led to the development of the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

 

And in terms of my background as an undergraduate at the University of Tulsa, believe it or not, I had worked with a faculty member on developing a measure of belief in the paranormal, of all things. So I’ve always been interested in measurements and always felt that’s an important part of research: having strong measure. And always encouraged students to seek out strong measure in terms of reliability and validity. And so that led us to develop the UCLA Loneliness Scale which is really based on…the items were derived from how lonely people describe the experience. And there was nothing more complicated than that. And it’s gone through several revisions.

 

First, to add some “non-lonely” statements, some positive statements, to the scale. And then second, once we started doing research not on college students, but on people, particularly older adults in Iowa, we went through and simplified the wording of the items to facilitate using it with that population. And it’s clearly become the most widely-used scale to measure loneliness. There are actually a variety of versions of the scale out there, partly because we made the items and information on the items widely available and encourage people to develop shorter versions if they wanted to. So again, it continues to be used a lot. I get a lot of requests every day from graduate students around the world who, their committees are telling them “Hey you have to get permission from the developer to use the scale” which is not true, but I get requests all the time for me to give them permission to use the instrument in their research.

 

 

Alex Bishop

A lot of people ask the question, “What is loneliness?” Is it an emotion? Is it some type of cognitive representation? How do you answer that? You’ve studied this for many many decades. What is this concept of loneliness?

 

 

Dan Russell

The way we defined it way back when, and this continues to be the definition that’s mainly used, is loneliness occurs when the relationships you have with other people aren’t meeting your expectations. Or what you desire in your relationships. So, with good ol’ college students it may be that they have fewer close friends than they would like to have. With older adults it may be that they have less contact with friends and family than they would like to have. And then that’s when loneliness occurs. And it’s really an attempt to distinguish between loneliness and social isolation. Because they’re clearly different. And indeed it is an emotional state in that it’s strongly related to emotions like depression and anxiety.

 

But again, a big issue in the literature always has been how is this different from just being socially isolated? Because when you do research on loneliness you find people who have very few close friends, yet are not lonely. And other people who have a lot of social contact, a lot of friends, and are lonely. And to that type of person it may mean that, well, what they really don’t have or what they would like to have is a close bond with another person. It could be they’re not married, they’re single. An important distinction that’s been in the literature for a long time that Robert Wise developed is between social loneliness and emotional loneliness.

 

And we did some research on this distinction. Clearly social loneliness occurs when you lack friendships, people to do things with socially, but emotional loneliness occurs when the person lacks a close romantic relationship that they would like to have. And Wise, in his book in the early 70’s, talked about examples of these two types of loneliness.

 

 

Alex Bishop

It’s very interesting how loneliness is not this uni-dimensional type thing. It’s very dynamic. One of the arguments that we often year, and that students will ask sometimes, is “How is loneliness different from depression? Isn’t it a symptom of depression?” And so, what’s your take on that? Is loneliness and depression the same phenomenon but on different sides of the coin, as they say?

 

 

Dan Russell

Way, way back when, and again this goes back to when I was in graduate school. I remember one of the other graduate students who was in the clinical psychology program at UCLA did a study on what is the difference between depression and loneliness? And when I asked him what he had found, he said that “Well, depressed individuals are unhappy with everything in their lives. Lonely individuals are unhappy with their social relationships.” That’s one way to view it. But it’s also true that if you ask, say, a psychiatrist for their diagnosis of depression, one of the symptoms that is on a lot of the measures is “Are you lonely?” So they, clearly, simply see it as part of depression. There is research out there, and [NAME] did a famous study of this, which clearly shows that they are distinct.

 

And he found that over time, loneliness leads to depression and not the reverse. Again, some of the research that we have done has shown a reciprocal relation, meaning a depressed person can become lonely and a lonely person can become depressed. But they clearly are distinct. They do correlate very highly in research studies but there seems to be a difference there between the two.

 

 

Alex Bishop

Now another question students often ask is, who is lonelier? Did your research, in the decades of research, have you found young adults to be lonelier than older adults? Or older adults lonelier than younger adults? Or middle-aged adults lonelier than both sides of the spectrum?

 

 

Dan Russell

Well this is a topic where Peter Martin, who you worked with, and I have discussed. The common view is that older adults are more lonely than other age groups in the population. But that’s in fact not true. The highest levels of loneliness you see in adolescents and young adults. And one thing I would say, now, importantly, from some recent surveys, and also a survey we did here at Iowa State University a couple of years ago, is that the levels of loneliness in young adults now are higher than I’ve ever seen. Going back to when we began we began doing this in the late 70’s. I’ve never seen levels of loneliness this high in any age group. And so…I think Covid, the biggest impact of Covid on loneliness, has actually been on young adults as opposed to older adults. With older adults what you tend to see is that loneliness is declining with age as you go through the middle age to the older adult population. There’s some evidence suggesting that with the “oldest old,” those in the 80’s and 90’s, loneliness begins to increase.

 

But Peter Martin in his research on centenarians, when you look at the levels of loneliness he has found, it’s quite low. So, again, it’s certainly not necessarily true that older adults are high in loneliness. Again, I think what we have to be concerned about is these high levels of loneliness in the young adult population. And who knows what that means down the road as they age. And I don’t think social media is helping matters any.

 

 

Alex Bishop

I was going to ask you, I don’t know if you’ve looked at that recently, but what’s the influence of technology and social media? Is it causing individuals not to relate, and therefore, their loneliness is increased?

 

 

Dan Russell

Well it certainly seems to be true that despite the fact that they’re constantly on their phones, wandering around campus, you see these high levels of loneliness. Some have suggested that there’s advantages to interacting with others in person rather than over the phone, and that that’s part of the problem here, is that so much of their interactions with others are over the phone. We’ve seen evidence that lonely people tend to use social media a lot. It’s not clear what’s causing what there. But they’ll be on Facebook a lot. But at a minimum, my conclusion would be that it’s not necessarily solving the problem of loneliness for them.

 

And it does seem that, despite the heavy use of social media, there are high levels of loneliness in that age group. And that has to be a concern.

 

Alex Bishop

Absolutely. Now, across your career, studying this phenomenon and looking at different age groups, what do you consider to be the one key discovery or finding that has intrigued you the most? Or, you feel has helped advance your understanding of loneliness to the extent and contributing to science? What’s that one discovery that perhaps you didn’t expect but it’s intrigued you the most?

 

 

Dan Russell

Well, I think that perhaps the most surprising thing is, and this is part of why so many people are interested in studying loneliness now, is its relationship to health. To physical health. There’s clear evidence that loneliness plays a role in the development of heart disease so there are biological consequences of loneliness. In terms of affecting your immune system and so forth. And that’s quite surprising. In other words, going from what I saw as “Well, this is simply showing you’re dissatisfied with your relationships with others.” Well, that has big effects on you. And people have argued that in terms of the risk for heart disease and mortality, loneliness is comparable to smoking and obesity.

 

So that’s perhaps the most surprising finding in my experience. And in turn that’s part of why I think so many people have been interested in loneliness. I mean, right now there’s a lot of insurance companies interested in loneliness and studying loneliness in the populations they insure. But, along with that comes the issue of, well, what do you do about it? And interventions for loneliness have been problematic from the beginning. There is some evidence that interventions based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, which makes sense, given that it seems to be so linked to your expectations about relationships, do show some evidence of being effective. But not that effective. And, so, I think really understanding what to do about loneliness once you’ve identified that an individual is high in loneliness is the issue now that people are trying to pursue.

 

 

Alex Bishop

That leads me to a side question, if you don’t mind. What would you recommend, as the expert? What intervention would you recommend to alleviate feeling lonely?

 

 

Dan Russell

Right now I would say my recommendation would be to pursue an intervention related to congnitive-behavioral therapy is one approach. Another approach, which again has not been used a lot…loneliness is very strongly related to lack of social support from people in your social level. And, so, creating situations where people are receiving support from others of various types is also another approach. And some entities out there are developing this kind of intervention. But that’s another set of variables that are very strongly related to loneliness. The level of support you’re receiving from your network of relationships with others.

 

 

Alex Bishop

I often find in our work, highly correlated here in Oklahoma, those two. It’s amazing. Well one final question. A key focus of this open-source book and our process in our class is the concept of successful aging. So we’re asking everyone we interview, how do you define successful aging?

 

 

Dan Russell

Well I would say at least least in terms of loneliness, that the important thing is to, as you age, to try to continue to be involved in social relationships with others. And that may mean engaging in volunteer activities. I think, for many people, and this is another way in which Covid has been problematic, is for many of us, our relationships with others are at work. Well, suddenly we weren’t seeing people anymore except like this, in a Zoom meeting. So those casual interactions with others at work were no longer happening. And I think that affected lots of people.

 

And as you retire it’s important to think about, OK, what kinds of activities do you want to engage in where you’re going to be interacting with others and continuing to have relationships with others who share your interests and beliefs? You have things to pursue together, perhaps, in certain volunteer activities. That’s important, to think about that. And it may also mean, in terms of your interactions with family members, how is that going to go after you retire? So I think as people age they need to recognize the importance of social contact and maintaining that contact. We’ve certainly found, in our research on older adults, that loneliness isn’t just tied to your relations with family but that friends also matter. And so, again, I certainly would encourage people to try to live in a setting where they continue to have contact with friends. And that has lots of implications.

 

So for example, if you have an older relative who develops physical health problems where they need to be, say, to live closer to you. Well, if they move to where you are, you as the kid, right, who of course has moved off to other parts of the country, well, they’re going to be leaving their friends behind. And that’s going to be a problem. And so you need to think about that when you think about what’s the best thing for your family member. If they need more assistance in living even in their own home. And so, again, to recognize that interpersonal relationships are important. And without those kinds of relationships that the person is going to experience loneliness. Again, that clearly can have important health effects.

 

 

Alex Bishop

Absolutely. I think that’s great advice. Well I appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions in an interview and thank you very much.

 

 

Dan Russell

Thank you.

 

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Successful Aging by Alex Bishop is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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