Conceptualising and measuring loneliness across the lifespan
: a multidimensional approach

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Loneliness is distressing, prevalent across the lifespan, and negatively impacts health and wellbeing. It is subjective and shows evidence of multidimensionality with social, emotional, and existential dimensions, but unidimensional measures are generally used and this tripartite model has only previously been tested in older adults. Moreover, the existential dimension is understudied and a brief construct-specific scale is lacking. This thesis integrates qualitative, quantitative, and evidence synthesis methods to address these points.

Study 1 reports a systematic review of qualitative literature on experiences of loneliness which synthesised findings from 29 studies of 1,321 participants (7–103 years old) to provide an in-depth picture of loneliness experiences. Some features appear to be particularly relevant at specific life stages.

Study 2 provides a qualitative survey exploring how people describe experiences of existential loneliness. Data from adults (16–72 years old) were analysed through reflexive thematic analysis. This led to four themes describing existential loneliness, from which a new construct definition was developed.

Study 3 developed a brief measure of existential loneliness based on literature review and Study 2 findings. Preliminary items were reviewed by experts and potential participants. Factor analysis resulted in a brief scale showing high reliability and validity.

Study 4 tested the validity of the proposed tripartite model of loneliness via an online survey with adults (17– 84 years old). Validity of the model was confirmed. Levels of loneliness dimensions differed over the lifespan. Patterns of association with related variables were assessed.

These studies support the conceptualisation of loneliness as a complex, subjective, and multidimensional construct which includes social, emotional, and existential dimensions and varies over the lifespan. Implications for research, policy, and practice are discussed.

Thesis is embargoed until 31 July 2025.
Date of AwardJul 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland and North East (NINE) ESRC Doctoral Training Centre, UKRI Economic and Social Research Council & Northern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorRhiannon Turner (Supervisor), Jenny Groarke (Supervisor) & Keming Yang (Supervisor)


  • Loneliness
  • lifespan development
  • emotions
  • systematic review
  • mixed methods

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