Tackle loneliness with a little help from your friends

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AUTHOR: Alexandra Thompson, PGR Student, Department of Psychology

This week (13th-17th June 2022) sees the 6th Loneliness Awareness Week hosted by the Marmalade Trust. This is one of many such campaigns in recent years with the aim of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with talking about feeling lonely. Intiatives like the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission aim to share research evidence about loneliness and to demonstrate the need for national leadership and guidance to address this issue. This has resulted in the appointment of the very first Ministers for Loneliness and the creation of a cross-governmental Tackling Loneliness Strategy and team.

The problem of loneliness

This increased focus is not without good reason. Experiencing loneliness, also referred to as perceived social isolation, can potentially lead to increased risk of developing health problems. Such issues include cardiovascular disease and stroke (1), dementia and cognitive decline (2), depression and anxiety (3) and chronic health conditions such as diabetes (4). Additionally, chronic loneliness and social isolation carries the same level of health risk as obesity and smoking (5).

Traditionally, older adults are viewed as those in society that are most likely to experience loneliness. Although recent evidence suggests that younger people are equally or more likely to report loneliness (6), loneliness in older adults is still a concern in this age group. In 2018 around 1 million UK residents aged over 50 reported that they were chronically lonely, and this number is expected to increase to more than 2 million by 2025. We also have an ageing population in the UK and worldwide, meaning that the effects of loneliness are likely to be experienced by an increasing number of older adults in the near future. Loneliness therefore poses a significant public health risk and has the potential to place increased strain on health and social care services.

This risk has been compounded by the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Social distancing and successive lockdown measures meant that for many older adults their already limited social contact was further reduced. This was clearly a concern for those already experiencing loneliness, but also meant that a new wave of older adults were at risk of becoming lonely, particularly those in residential care. Since these measures have been reversed the potential for more social contact has increased and the risk has hopefully reduced. However, given that negative effects may have already occurred, it’s important that we continue to focus on re-establishing our social connections and those of older adults to minimise this impact.

As you might expect, romantic social connections, such as being in a relationship or being married, offer some protection against loneliness (7). But what about other types of social links? One social connection which appears to be particularly important to older adults are friendships. Friendships seem to be more beneficial in preventing loneliness than family relationships (8). This may not be that surprising as family relationships have the potential to be based more on obligation than friendships and also at times can be fraught with conflict. It has been shown that (9) increasing the number of friends you have generally reduces loneliness (9). However, recent evidence from our department has shown that simply making more friends might not be the answer (10).

What is the magic number?

We surveyed hundreds of older adults about their levels of loneliness and friendships. Our study (10) demonstrated that although having more friends may indeed stave of loneliness, for older adults, adding more close friendships beyond four friends has no further effect in reducing loneliness. If four is the optimal number, then this means that older adults and interventions aimed at reducing loneliness in this age group can focus on establishing and maintaining this relatively small number of close connections. Many individuals have a support group of around five members (11), so it may be possible that some older adults already have the optimal number of close friendships. For those, individuals, focus is best placed on improving the quality within these relationships or addressing other aspects linked to loneliness such as mobility and functional status (12).

About the Author

Alexandra Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology, working within the Evolution and Social Interaction Research Group and supervised by Professor Thomas Pollet. You can read more about the work of the research group over in this section of the blog

References

  1. Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., & Hanratty, B. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 25(13), 1387–1396. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487318792696
  2. Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234
  3. Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
  4. Brinkhues, S., Dukers-Muijrers, N. H. T. M., Hoebe, C. J. P. A., Van Der Kallen, C. J. H., Dagnelie, P. C., Koster, A., … Schram, M. T. (2017). Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – The Maastricht study – The M. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
  5. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
  6. Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, (January), 110066. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066
  7. Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.613875
  8. Lee, G. R., & Ishii-Kuntz, M. (1987). Social Interaction, Loneliness, and Emotional Well-Being among the Elderly. Research on Aging, 9(4), 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027587094001
  9. Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Leitsch, S. A. (2010). The role of social relationships in predicting loneliness: The national social life, health, and aging project. Social Work Research, 34(3), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/34.3.157
  10. Thompson, A., & Pollet, T. (In Press). Friendships, loneliness and psychological well-being in older adults: A limit to the benefit of the number of friends. Ageing & Society.
  11. 11. Dunbar, R. I. M., & Spoors, M. (1995). Social networks, support cliques, and kinship. Human Nature, 6(3), 273–290. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02734142
  12. Theeke, L. A. (2009). Predictors of Loneliness in U.S. Adults Over Age Sixty-Five. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 23(5), 387–396. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2008.11.00

The Big 5 Ep 17 Kristans Nemkovics “I embarked on this journey to find the pillars that are important to succeed in your studies.”

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In this episode, Kristians Nemkovics tells us about studying during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kristians went on a journey to develop new health sleep, study and eating habits. Kristians gives students advice on how to succeed at university.

Show notes:

For more information on developing good study habits check out this advice from the Amercian Psychological Association.

For some tips on improving your sleep hygiene check out this website. If you’re interested in studying sleep we have many excellent sleep researchers in the department. You can read a blog about their work here and find out why you sometimes feel like you’re falling when you go to sleep.

For some tips on how to start an exercise regimen, check out this advice on the Mayo Clinic’s website and here are some free excercise videos from the NHS.

You can find the show transcript here.

The Big 5 Episode 13: Annabelle Noble “[an internship] just gives you some really good employability skills.” (paid internships)

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In this episode, student Annabelle Noble, tells us about what it was like to do a paid internship. We talk about the skills she developed and the final work she produced which is currently influencing research practice at Northumbria University. She also gives some great advice to other students about how to make the most out of their uni experience.

Show notes:

Outputs from Annabelle’s internship:

Best practice guidelines for asking about gender and sexual orientation in research with human participants

YouTube video explaining the importance of having inclusive research practices. (Thanks to our animator @Russponse)

More information about the internship scheme:

Please keep an eye on your Teams and Blackboard Organizations pages.

You can also contact Dr. Liz Sillence, elizabeth.sillence@northumbria.ac.uk.

You can find the transcript for this episode here.

The Big 5 Episode 12: Ansel Lawson “A lot of [trans and non-binary] people said that the North East was like freedom to them.”

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In honor of LGBTQ history month, on this episode Ansel Lawson tells us about their experience as a trans student at Northumbria University and talks about their research on well-being in trans and non-binary people living in the North East, UK.

Show notes:

Trans, non-binary, or gender diverse and looking for support? Check out Gires for a wide range of resources available.

You can find a transcript of the episode here.

Postgraduate Research Degrees in Psychology

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AUTHORS: Libby Orme (Deputy Head of Psychology), Michael Smith (Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange), Crystal Haskell-Ramsay (Postgraduate Research LEAD)

In the psychology department, we have around 30 students studying for postgraduate research (PGR) degrees. The majority of these are working towards a PhD in Psychology

We are currently recruiting for some new funded PhD opportunities, and so have published this blog to give prospective PhD students an idea of what a PhD in the Psychology Department at Northumbria involves. At the end of the post, you’ll find links to more information about each funded opportunity currently advertised, and some details of other opportunities for postgraduate research

What is a PhD in Psychology?

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme allow students to undertake an individual programme of original research in psychology, under the supervision of two or more academic staff. You can read about PGR courses at Northumbria in detail here

Each PhD is totally unique, but full-time a PhD lasts about three years and part-time it is typically five years. In this time, a typical doctorate normally involves

  • Carrying out a literature review
  • Conducting a series of original research projects
  • Producing a thesis that presents your conclusions
  • Defending your thesis in an oral viva voce exam

PhDs in Psychology typically start in October, and you would normally start the process by having initial meetings with your supervision team and starting to create a plan for your PhD. Within the first four months, you would then submit your plan, which would include your training needs, ethical considerations, funding and costs associates with your research and a detailed timeline showing the feasibility of your PhD plan.

Students then typically progress to carrying out their research projects, with the goal of producing different outputs throughout the course of the PhD. This might include journal articles, literature reviews and conference presentations. The goal is to make an original contribution to knowledge in your field.

Throughout the process, your supervisory team would keep track of your progress and give you regular guidance and advice. Each year, you will also have a formal panel, who will review your progress and confirm that you are still on track, review your training needs and revisit the timeline for your project completion.

At the end of the process, once your written thesis is ready and submitted, you will defend it through a formal oral discussion called a viva voce. This will include one or more experts in your field from another institution, along with an expert within Northumbria.

Training for PhD Students

The Graduate School at Northumbria provides a structured training programme with sessions on statistical analysis, bibliographic software, academic writing skills and ethics in research. Themed workshops are offered on things like ‘doctorate essentials’, ‘managing your research degree’, ‘giving your research impact’, and ‘life after your doctorate’. 

Taught research training modules within our Masters in Research programme are also available to PhD students, such as training in quantitative and qualitative methods, academic skills training (including sessions on dissemination of research, and grant application writing), training in specialist equipment (e.g. polysomnography), statistical analysis using R software and engagement with open science practices.

Part of the training for PhD students involves learning about all aspects of an academic role, including teaching and administration. We’ve previously published a blog about how academics learn to teach, this also forms part of the learning journey of a PhD student in the psychology department. We offer our PhD students the opportunity to develop their teaching experience by working as a Demonstrator, and support PhD students working as demonstrators to work towards Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.

Being a PGR Student in the Northumbria Psychology Department

PGR students in psychology work in one of our dedicated PGR or reseach centres within the Department on our City Campus. As a consequence of a strong and supportive framework for PGR supervision and training, we perform well in the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (85% overall PGR satisfaction in 2019 versus a sector average of 82% for the discipline).

PGR students attend departmental research seminars and give presentations within their particular research groups. They are also encouraged to present at international and national conferences (with travel funds awarded on a competitive basis).

The success of our PGR programmes is evidenced by students who win national prizes, including those presented by the BPS Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group  and BPS PG thesis award.

Advice from our current PGRs

If you love research, and are considering a PhD, its important to take some time and think about whether a PhD is right for you. We asked our current PGRs to tell us a bit about their experience, and for some advise for people considering undertaking a PhD

Studying for a PhD within Psychology at Northumbria is great. There is loads of support available throughout the department, and plenty of opportunities to socialise, but there’s also the freedom to escape into your thoughts if you’re more of a lone-wolf worker (like me!).

The thing I enjoy most about studying for a PhD is having the opportunity to explore my own research ideas and to see them develop into detailed studies.  I chose to pursue a PhD because I wanted to invest time in an activity which required a lot of thought, which seems a rarity in life today.  

For people considering a PhD, I would recommend asking yourself two questions: 1) Does the prospect of spending 3 years of your life in research excite you? and 2) Is there an overall research topic that you feel you could happily sink your teeth into for 3 years? If you answer ‘no’ to either question, don’t do a PhD.

Richard Brown

I really enjoy being able to solely research a topic that I am extremely interested in. It not only provides me with the opportunity to explore a topic of such importance, childhood obesity, but in doing so allows me to meet and network with some many other people in the field. It is exciting to know that the research you are doing could have such a profound impact on health practices moving forward.

I chose to study a PhD, because I had experience of being a research assistant at NU and really enjoyed it and wanted to continue along the research path. Since starting my undergraduate degree at Northumbria, I have always been interested in eating disorders and body image research, so when the opportunity came up to be involved in developing an intervention for childhood obesity, I took it.

If you are considering a PhD, I would say do it! Be prepared that it is going to be hard work and there will be challenging days, but when you’re researching a topic that you are passionate about, it really helps. It will all be worth it in the end.

The PhD community at NU are very supportive, and everyone is always there for each other for both research and emotional support. The staff have a great level of expertise in their field of research, and there is always someone who can help.

Beth Ridley

Applying for a PhD Position in Psychology

PGR students are a central part of our research culture and the University provides a Research Development Fund offering fully funded studentships. This includes funding for the tuition plus a stipend to support your living costs. These are opportunities designed by a member of staff (or a team of staff), which have been reviewed within the department and selected through a competitive process. We then advertise these projects to prospective students, and then the candidate and the project are put forward to the university who make the final decision about whether the project will be funded.

In addition, staff often receive funding from other sources to support PhD programmes and these are then advertised via the university’s research degree opportunity pages.

Students are also able to self-fund research degrees, or contact relevant staff members to discuss applications for funding if you have particular ideas. We’d always recommend discussing it with a member of staff first, but details of how to apply for self-funded PhDs can be found here.

Read more about our current opportunities here

In the department of psychology, we currently have six funded PhD opportunities advertised with a deadline of 18th February 2022. We’ve created a blog for each one below. You can find more information about the application process here

Developing a Framework of Community Well-being in Universities (Supervised by Dr Alyson Dodd)

Misogyny Online: Why does it happen and how can we stop it? (Supervised by Dr Genavee Brown)

Understanding the nature of sleep disturbances in caregivers for people with dementia with Lewy bodies (Supervised by Dr Greg Elder)

Languageless visual messages to prevent Covid-19 transmission (Supervised by Dr Nicki O’Brien)

Coordination in Context (Supervised by Dr Merryn Constable)

Understanding persuasive effects of message framing for vaccination uptake in university students (Supervised by Dr Angela Rodrigues)

The Big 5 Episode 6: Barbora Duskova “You get to know yourself, what you like, and what you want to do as your career.”

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Today is National Philanthropy Day, a time to reflect on how we can volunteer our time and money to help others. On this episode of the podcast, Northumbria Psychology student, Barbora Duskova tells us about her experience volunteering for the European Federation of Psychology Students Association and working in Dr. Katri Cornelisson’s lab as a research assistant. At the end of the episode, you’ll also hear about three psychology related volunteering opportunities. Details for these are in the show notes below.

Show notes:

Wanna join the European Federation of Psychology Students Association? Find out more here.

If you’d like to become a Nightline volunteer. Check out this student union page.

If you’re interested in becoming a mentor for other psychology students, please check out this page.

If you’d like to take part in the Volunteer Research Assistant scheme, you can contact michael2.craig@northumbria.ac.uk and look out for information about the scheme on your program level Blackboard site. (Please note that this scheme is only for current Northumbria students.)

A transcript of the podcast can be found here.

The Big 5: Episode 4 Jen Merritt “I just kind of want to continue doing research in my career.”

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This week on The Big 5 Northumbria Psychology Department alumni, Jen Merritt, gives us some tips and tricks for succeeding at a Level 6 dissertation project and also talks about how to get a job with the NHS.

You can get in touch with Jen on her LinkedIn account.

You can get in touch with me, the host, on Twitter @BrownGenavee or genavee.brown@northumbria.ac.uk.

Interested in getting a job with the NHS like Jen? Here’s a link to their jobs website: https://www.jobs.nhs.uk/

A link to the transcript of this podcast can be found here.

Northumbria researchers win Prolific Grant Competition

Richard Brown and Dr Gillian Pepper’s research proposal was crowned the overall winner of  Prolific’s Grant Competition. This will provide valuable funding for Richard’s next PhD study, supervised by Gillian, which aims to investigate perceptions of control over risk.

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Over 2000 users of the recruitment platform Prolific voted to select the top 5 proposals out of more than 100 entries from universities and research institutions from around the word. Prolific’s internal review panel then selected the Northumbria Psychology Department’s research duo as the overall winner. The proposal requested £4,700 to pay for future research costs and the winners were awarded this amount in full.

Their winning proposal was entitled “Die young, live fast? Does the feeling that you’ll die young, no matter what you do, encourage unhealthy behaviour and worsen health inequalities?” The study will aim to investigate what causes of death are widely believed to be uncontrollable and what information people use to assess personal risk. This looks to build on previous research conducted by Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University into the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis (1, 2).

The Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis

This suggests that people who believe they are likely to die due to factors beyond their control take less care of their health because they are less likely to live to see the long-term benefits of a healthy lifestyle. This is of particular relevance to social class differences in health behaviours. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are typically exposed to greater levels of uncontrollable risk. This may cause them to be less motivated to engage in preventative health behaviours, thus worsening existing health inequalities. To encapsulate the point, the proposal asks, “If you believed you were likely to be a victim of a stabbing before the age of 30, would eating your 5 a day seem very important?”

Little is known about what causes of death are thought to be beyond individual control, or why. By investigating perceptions of control over death, and identifying the informational sources of these perceptions, this study hopes to provide valuable insights for public health interventions. These insights may inform structural interventions aimed at reducing specific types of environmental risk, or help to produce targeted health messaging to influence perceived levels of control. Ultimately, the aim is to produce findings that help to understand health behaviours and how to reduce avoidable deaths.

Richard and Gillian are thrilled with the outcome of the competition and would like to thank everyone that helped and voted for their proposal. Time to get to work!

References

1.         Pepper GV, Nettle D. Out of control mortality matters: the effect of perceived uncontrollable mortality risk on a health-related decision. PeerJ. 2014;2:e459.

2.         Nettle D. Why are there social gradients in preventative health behavior? A perspective from behavioral ecology. PLoS One. 2010;5(10):e13371.

Want to learn more?

Head over to our Health and Wellbeing Blog

The Big 5 podcast: Chantelle Francis “There is a bigger picture to academic attainment.”

On this episode, on Child Health Day, Chantelle tells us about her experience on the MSc Conversion course which led her to a PhD on pupil well-being. We discuss some of her work on children’s, teachers’, and parents’ views on schooling during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

To find out more about the MSc Conversion course you can look here.

If you’d like to get in touch with Chantelle, you can email her at chantelle.francis@northumbria.ac.uk or find her on LinkedIn.

If you’d like to learn more about Northumbria Psychology, please visit our blog or follow us on Twitter @northumbriapsy

If you’d like to stay updated on the podcast you can follow me on Twitter @BrownGenavee or if you would like to be a guest, you can email me at genavee.brown@northumbria.ac.uk.

Transcript for this episode can be found here.

Northumbria PhD Students’ Prize Winning Research

One of our current PhD students, Richard Brown, has been awarded runner up in the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group awards for his research conducted in his time on our MSc Psychology programme. Richard is now a PhD student, working with Dr Gillian Pepper, and Dr Liz Sillence and also works as a research assistant with Liz and Professor Lynne Coventry as part of the INTUIT project. He completed his Psychology master’s conversion course at Northumbria in 2020 after previously working in law and education.

Richard’s master’s research

Richard’s master’s thesis investigated perceptions of risk and health and information seeking behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic, surveying a nationally representative sample of 500 UK adults. From this study, he was able to produce two publications alongside Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Lynne Coventry.

The first paper investigated the relationship between perceptions of risk and health behaviours during lockdown. It was found that greater perceived threat to life from COVID-19 predicted increased compliance with infection control measures. It was also suggested that the pandemic may have made people feel less control over what is likely to kill them. Feeling less control over what may kill you was also associated with a worsening of health behaviours for diet, physical activity and smoking. This suggests that health messages that highlight threat to life may increase adherence to infection control, but may also lead to a reduction in health-promoting behaviours.

The second paper looked at demographic and occupational inequalities in experiences and perceptions of COVID-19. Men reported lower levels of perceived threat to life from the virus than women and, among workers, lower occupational class was associated with greater levels of perceived risk of infection and perceived threat to life. Most notably, key workers during the pandemic who reported feeling that they are insufficiently protected by their PPE experienced increased levels of perceived threat, which may lead to negative health behaviours. This highlights the need for employers to ensure that key workers feel they are adequately protected from COVID-19.

What’s next?

Richard is now looking to build on this research during his doctoral studies. He has submitted a position paper for publication that outlines the theoretical and empirical case for the expanded study of the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis, developed by his supervisor Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University. He has also finished collecting data for the qualitative study of feelings of control over different causes of death, which he hopes will expand into further quantitative research later in the year. Finally, he is planning to investigate health misinformation on Facebook to determine some of the key message characteristics that lead to enhanced sharing online.

Advice for students wanting to publish during their studies

Richard’s advice to students looking to publish their work is to cast the net wide when looking for opportunities and to be creative in disseminating their ideas. In addition to the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group, various organisations advertise student essay competitions which offer the opportunity to have your work published in their affiliated journals (for example the Royal Society for Public Health). There are also opportunities to pitch your ideas to The Conversation and other information outlets. For example, Richard published an article on Open Science in the Psychologist earlier this year. Finally, inspired by Dr Santosh Vijaykumar’s work on The Batsapp Project and Dr Daniel Jolley’s videos on conspiracy theories, Richard has created an explainer video to summarise his first study in a fun and accessible way. This provides a fresh and creative approach for getting your ideas noticed.

You can watch his video below!