What is Loneliness? | Shot of Psychologist Joanna McHugh-Power

Joanna McHugh-Power feels incredibly lucky; she gets to ask questions for a living. Humans are fundamentally curious beings, but that curiosity can fade if it’s not fed. But Joanna has never lost her drive towards asking questions. Now, as a researcher in psychology, Joanna gets to spend her days engaging her curiosity and finding different ways of answering questions. That’s what a life in science is all about.

Joanna is a research fellow at Queens University Belfast, but actually lives in Dublin. There, she lectures in psychology at National College Ireland.

Joanna’s current research focuses on loneliness and its effects. It’s an interesting change from her earlier work, in which she looked at social cues and crowds. Her PhD, which she undertook at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, saw her working alongside computer scientists and engineers as part of the Virtual Dublin project.

“I’ve always been a bit multi-disciplinary!” Joanna says.

Still, the switch from studying multisensory cues in Project Metropolis to studying loneliness in older people seems like a big one, and Joanna admits it wasn’t always easy.

“I wanted to do something that would definitely help people,” she says. “It was tricky to make that leap. I had to learn a whole new ballgame, and it did take a little while to acclimate.”

Knowing from a young age that she wanted to work in science, Joanna’s first degree was in psychology. She figured that psychology is one of the fundamental scientific areas. “The brain is how we understand things,” she says. “We perceive reality through a filter.” It is by examining that filter that we can find out the truth, and finding truth seems to be Joanna’s main motivation.

Finding the truth, and asking interesting questions.

The question that is most intriguing Joanna right now is: what is loneliness? It seems easy, but the answer you get back will depend on who you ask. It varies across countries and cultures. “And loneliness will be described differently in 10 years,” Joanna says. “The way that loneliness is described now is not quite right. We have a sense of what we mean, but it’s not very well characterised.”

This will become increasingly important as our population continues to age. Loneliness is a growing phenomenon and it is linked to a series of health problems.  “A person can be socially integrated but still be lonely. There isn’t always a correlation between social isolation and loneliness.” Understanding what loneliness is and how it affects physical and mental health will, Joanna hopes, help to direct policy and funding in this area. Involving service providers with research will mean that they’re more likely to get involved with solutions.

In spite of her successes, Joanna is still very prosaic about working in research. “It can be hard to get a start in research. You need to think about whether long-term this is what you want; it can take years and years to get into.”

On a typical day, Joanna conducts meta-analyses using massive data sets from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) and English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). She does statistical analysis and looks at epidemiological data, as well as collaborating with other researchers and managing her teaching load. She likes that she is now at a stage of her career where she can develop her own hypotheses and apply them to the data.

I ask Joanna what advice she has for other people considering going into research: “PhDs are hard. They’re hard and thankless. Your motivation has got to be the first question. Think carefully about going into something you don’t really love. Think about the things that you are really drawn towards: the things that you talk about with your friends when you’re drunk, what email alerts you have set up. In practical terms, if you’re thinking about a career in research, train your attention span. You need to read for long periods of time.”

And always, always, keep asking questions.

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