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GSS > Policy and guidance hub > Loneliness harmonised principle

Loneliness harmonised principle

Policy details

Metadata item Details
Publication date:13 May 2020
Author:Sofi Nickson
Approver:William Perks
Who this is for:Users and producers of statistics
Type:Harmonisation guidance and principles

What is harmonisation?

Harmonisation is the process of making statistics and data more comparable, consistent and coherent. Harmonised principles set out how to collect and report statistics to ensure comparability across different data collections in the Government Statistical Service (GSS). Harmonisation produces more useful statistics that give users a greater level of understanding.


What do we mean by loneliness?

Loneliness is “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want” (Perlman and Peplau, 1981).


Questions and response options (inputs)

The harmonised questions on this topic are designed to collect basic information, for use in the majority of surveys. They are not designed to replace questions used in specialist surveys where more detailed analysis is required.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have developed a national indicator of loneliness in England. We recommend this as the harmonised measure of loneliness.

Separate questions have been created to measure loneliness in people aged 16 and over (the adult measure) and people aged 10 to 15 (the children and young people measure).

Introducing the questions

For all respondents, the suggested introduction to the questions is:

The next four questions are about relationships with others. For each one, please say how often (if at all) you feel that way.

The adult measure

Question stemResponse options
How often do you feel that you lack companionship?Hardly ever or never
Some of the time
How often do you feel left out?Hardly ever or never
Some of the time
How often do you feel isolated from others?Hardly ever or never
Some of the time
How often do you feel lonely?Often or Always
Some of the time
Hardly ever

The children and young people measure

Question stem Response options
How often do you feel that you have no one to talk to?Hardly ever or never
Some of the time
How often do you feel left out?Hardly ever or never
Some of the time
How often do you feel alone?Hardly ever or never
Some of the time
How often do you feel lonely?Often or Always
Some of the time
Hardly ever


Using this principle

Question placement

It is recommended that these questions are placed with a related topic such as health or well-being. It is suggested that they should not be the final items on the survey as this could leave respondents feeling low.

Guidance for devolved administrations

As tackling loneliness is a devolved issue, both Wales and Scotland have different national indicators. Wales uses the De Jong Gierveld measure of loneliness, and Scotland has adopted the European Social Survey question. Northern Ireland does not have a national indicator for loneliness. However, the majority of government surveys in Northern Ireland ask the harmonised measure we recommend.

We have published additional harmonisation guidance related to loneliness (PDF, 297KB) that discusses the differences between the UK nations in more detail.

Types of data collection this principle is suitable for

These questions were tested for self-completion in both paper and online modes. They were also tested for interviewer led telephone interviews. Cognitive interviewing suggests respondents may be more likely to answer openly in self-completion formats.


Presenting and reporting the data (outputs)

For the first three questions, “hardly ever or never” equates to one, “some of the time” to two, and “often” to three. After scoring these, they are summed to create a total for each individual. From this, the lowest possible total score is three and the highest nine. There is no accepted level for which to consider a person “lonely”. However, it is useful to observe changes in average score over time.

The fourth question can be reported by percentage of respondents selecting each response option. For example, this could be the proportion stating that they “often or always” feel lonely, or the proportion that state they “never” feel lonely.

If you find divergence in the results of these two measurement approaches, it would be helpful to indicate this in your reporting.



Outputs that come from using this harmonised principle are comparable with other surveys that also use this principle.  However, we would not recommend comparing levels of loneliness from this output with other levels of loneliness from publications that do not use this harmonised principle.


Examples of when this principle has been used

Surveys that used this principle

A review in 2019 identified surveys using the harmonised principle for loneliness. Some adopted only a subset of the principle – for example, they used just the direct measure (the fourth question which directly asks about loneliness) or just the indirect measures (the other three questions).

Surveys which provide data perfectly comparable to the harmonised principle:

  • Continuous Household Survey (2019-20), direct measure only
  • Community Life Survey (2017-18), direct measure only
  • Understanding Society (2019-21), isolation and left out only
  • Health Survey Northern Ireland (2019-20), direct measure only
  • English Housing Survey (2019-20), direct measure only
  • Taking Part Survey (2019-20), direct measure only
  • Octavia Social Isolation in Greater London (2017)

Other surveys which provide data that is probably comparable or near comparable to the harmonised principle are:

  • Health Survey Northern Ireland (2017-18), indirect measures only
  • Understanding Society (2019-2021), companionship and direct measure only
  • National Travel Survey (2020 questionnaire proposal), all measures
  • The Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study of Ageing – NICOLA (2017-2019)
  • Healthy Ageing in Scotland (HAGIS) asks similar or near similar questions but at present the response options for this survey are not known

More detail about comparability across different surveys can be found in our additional harmonisation guidance related to loneliness (PDF, 297KB).


Development of this principle

The Jo Cox Commission led to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) developing a national indicator of loneliness in England. These questions were then adopted as the GSS harmonised principle. A full explanation of the question development can be found on the national measurement of loneliness page on the ONS website.



We are always interested in hearing from users so we can develop our work. If you use or produce statistics based on this topic, get in touch:


Review frequency:

This page will be reviewed annually.


Date Changes
13 May 2020

This page was reviewed and updated.

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