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Can personality traits dictate how older people experience loneliness?

Thamara Tapia-Munoz

21 May 2024

Loneliness has become a focus of research in recent years particularly in older people with various interventions proposed to reduce levels of loneliness to improve health. But does personality play a role in how older people experience loneliness? Thamara Tapia-Munoz analyses ELSA to find out.

Alice is 72, married, and has three adult children and five grandchildren. Alice has not seen her friends in a long time; her best and only friend, whom she met at school, passed away five years ago. She is retired, in a comfortable money situation and has been at home taking care of the garden and spending time with her family. She and her husband usually play cards and watch movies together. However, she feels lonely very frequently. She struggles to talk about herself, her feelings, the things she worries about and worries very often. Sometimes, she struggles to relax and has felt depressed several times in her life. Her best friend was her confidant. Alice has felt lonely before and remembers her mom was similar to her. When she moved from her parent’s place to go to College, before she met her husband, when her children moved out, and when her parents passed away, she felt lonely. She felt uncomfortable around new people and new places during her entire life and was never part of community activities. School, university, and work provided a natural, safe net in her life.

Lily is 71 years old; she is also married and has two children and two grandchildren from her elder son. She is retired and also lives very comfortably. She is part of a literature group where she met people who have become her friends. They have tea together, go to the Theatre, and celebrate everyone’s birthday. She and her husband also have a friend couple that met 30 years ago through Mary’s when she was involved in a parent’s organisation. She feels lonely randomly, but it was hard for her when her kids moved. She went through a depression episode but had pharmacological and talk therapy. She also pushed herself, registered in a volunteer organisation, and started going to the gym. Whenever she feels she needs more activities or to meet new people, she talks to her husband and friends and comes up with a new idea. She rarely feels anxious or stressed; when she does, she actively targets the problem. She remembers both of her parents struggling with being alone, so from a very young age, she learned that actively connecting with others was helpful.

Loneliness has received a lot of attention in the past decade, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. Loneliness can be confused with being alone, but it is not the same concept. As the examples above show, people can be surrounded by others and feel lonely. Loneliness has been defined as “the negative experience product of the discrepancy between the relationships we need or expect and the ones we have”. It is considered an evolutionary mechanism. We suffer when socially disconnecting, and that pain triggers us to reconnect or stay connected. We have families, communities, and societies, so we have others. But what happens when we remain in that negative feeling and lack the tools to reconnect with others or make changes? Loneliness, when it is chronic (very frequent and intense), can have detrimental effects on our mental and physical health. In older adults, loneliness has been associated with depression, dementia, pain, and frailty.

Loneliness varies from person to person, and those differences might be linked to genes and environmental factors. The evidence has shown that older adults in a partnership with a higher level of education, good health, and good socioeconomic status feel less loneliness than their counterparts of the same age and gender. Women report more loneliness than men, and the association between age and loneliness has a U shape. After fifty years old, loneliness decreases before increasing after 80 years old. On the other side, people who are socially isolated and experiencing pain and depression report higher levels of loneliness. However, loneliness is a risk factor for developing clinically significant depression over time.


The Big Five Theory

Personality traits are defined as a group of core characteristics that interact to create individual variability in psychological functioning. The Big Five theory of personality has described five factors (Extroversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness to experience) that explain individual variation in psychological functioning. These five factors have been validated through different methods, and they have been universally observed. Genetic studies have also shown genetic predisposition and heritability.

Personality traits and loneliness are genetically associated and personality underlies human behaviours and cognition. Therefore, the way we experience the world and interact with others. Our expectations and beliefs are linked to personality. So, considering that loneliness involves an evaluation of our existing relationships in comparison to the ones we desire, need or expect, and that reducing loneliness over time is associated with our efforts to bridge that gap, our personality might have something to say about the level of loneliness we are experiencing. 

So, we need to learn about the role of personality in the level of loneliness that people will be experiencing during their later years. Understanding the relationship between personality traits and changes in loneliness at an older age might have implications for loneliness interventions and the role of health and social services in supporting those at risk of developing chronic loneliness.


Personality traits and loneliness

Our ELSA study aimed to analyse the relationship between personality traits and loneliness in older adults, considering socio-demographic, economic and health factors, genetic predisposition, and social isolation. The genetic predisposition for loneliness (Polygenic risk scores-PGSs) was derived from genome-wide association studies. Personality using the framework of the Big Five were measured only in Wave 5 of ELSA (2010-2011). Therefore, we observed if the personality was associated with the level of loneliness at the beginning of the observation (wave 5) and if the personality traits were associated with the changes in the level of loneliness over the eight years between wave 5 and wave 9 (2018-2019). We considered age, gender, marital status, educational level, work status, wealth, social isolation, pain, self-perceived health, and depression in the analysis.

Our results showed that Extroversion and Neuroticism had the strongest association with the level of loneliness. Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Openness to experience associations with loneliness were modified when we considered the other traits and depression. Similar to the examples of Alice and Lily, if we compare people with similar genetic predispositions to loneliness, similar age and health, and same gender, marital status, social isolation, and economic factors, those who are more sociable or keen to get involved in social interactions and with more emotional stability (the opposite to Neuroticism) were experiencing lower levels of loneliness. Moreover, those characteristics were associated with a higher reduction in the loneliness level over time.


Personality traits might be used to identify older people experiencing a higher level of loneliness and those who will remain that way over time. Although personality (even Neuroticism and Extroversion) explained very little of the changes in loneliness over time, the interplay between a person’s living conditions, disposition towards social life, social connectedness and level of depressive symptoms might have implications for loneliness interventions and the role of health and social services in supporting those at risk of developing chronic loneliness.

Read the full research

Tapia-Munoz, T., Ajnakina, O., Fancourt, D., & Steptoe, A. (2023). Personality traits and loneliness among older people in the UK: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Personality, 0(0).






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