Understanding and defining loneliness and social isolation

Content type
Resource sheet
Published

December 2022

Researchers

Overview

This resource sheet explores how we understand social isolation and loneliness and provides common definitions to support practitioner understanding of people experiencing challenges with social relationships and connections.

Introduction

There has been an increased focus on supporting people experiencing social isolation and loneliness since the world experienced widespread social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Loades et al., 2020; Smith & Lim, 2020). However, social isolation and loneliness were identified as important health and social issues for Australian families before the pandemic (Ending Loneliness Together, 2020). Research shows that experiences of social isolation and/or loneliness are associated with negative mental and physical health outcomes (Beer et al., 2016; Ending Loneliness Together, 2020; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Howard, Agllias, Bevis, & Blakemore, 2018; Hussain, Wark, & Ryan, 2018; Loades et al., 2020)

Young adults aged 18–25 years and adults over 65 years are more at risk of experiencing loneliness or social isolation and the associated negative health outcomes (Lim, Eres, & Vasan, 2020). Young people experiencing isolation and loneliness are more likely to experience future mental health issues (Loades et al., 2020), and older people experiencing social isolation are more at risk of elder abuse (Qu, Kaspiew, Carson et al., 2021). People with disability, carers, people from a migrant or non-English speaking background, lower income households, and people living alone are also more likely to report problematic experiences of loneliness or social isolation (Ending Loneliness Together, 2020; Hussain et al., 2018; Lim et al., 2020).

Defining ‘social isolation’, ‘loneliness’ and other related terms is important because they affect how we understand and measure social relationships and how we support people experiencing problems with social relationships and connections (Valtorta & Hanratty, 2012; Westrupp et al., 2021; Zavaleta, Samuel, & Mills, 2017). This resource sheet explores the key features of social isolation and loneliness, and other related concepts, to help practitioners understand individuals’ experiences and select effective interventions to support them.

What are social isolation and loneliness?

It can be difficult to precisely describe and measure how we experience and perceive social relationships and connections (Hawton et al., 2011; Zavaleta et al., 2017). Research evidence on the relationship between experiences of social isolation and loneliness is varied (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015); the terms are often used interchangeably or inconsistently and are measured in different ways (Fakoya, McCorry, & Donnelly, 2020; Hawton et al., 2011; Newall & Menec, 2017; Zavaleta et al., 2017). As a result, there is confusion about what people experience, how to measure it, and what works best to support those experiencing it (Fakoya et al., 2020; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Smith & Lim, 2020).  

Table 1 outlines the key features of social isolation and loneliness as used in research and describes where the terms overlap or differ. Being clear about what terms mean, and how they are related, can help encourage effective, targeted interventions to support families (Fakoya et al., 2020; Ending Loneliness Together, 2020; Zavaleta & Samuel, 2014; Zavaleta et al., 2017).

Table 1: Definitions of isolation and loneliness from the research
Term Definition
Social isolation  
Synonym(s): Objective social isolation

An objective, measurable lack of contact with social connections, usually when a person experiences a low number of social interactions (Gierveld, Van Tilburg, & Dykstra, 2018; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Hwang, Rabheru, Peisah, Reichman, & Ikeda, 2020; Leigh-Hunt et al., 2017; Mojahed et al., 2021).

Social isolation is sometimes used to describe the quantity and quality of social interactions. For example, a person may engage in social relationships but both the frequency and amount of engagement within the interactions do not provide enough social connection (Fakoya et al., 2020).

Physical isolation 

Synonym(s): Geographic isolation

Different to social isolation, this term describes how physical living environments can lead to people becoming isolated from social networks and/or service organisations (Tittman, Harteau, & Beyer, 2016).

For example, people living in rural and remote areas or people with disability or limited mobility (and their carers) can experience physical isolation due to geographic distance or lack of access to services and transport (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 2022; Howard et al., 2018; Hussain et al., 2018).

Loneliness

Synonym(s): Subjective social isolation, perceived social isolation

A person’s subjective feeling about, or perception of, the quality of their social connections. Usually, a negative feeling of being unsatisfied with their social relationships and connections (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2014; Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009; Gierveld et al., 2018; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Loades et al., 2020; Newall & Menec, 2017).

Loneliness is often a catch-all term for how people feel when there is a gap between their actual and desired levels of social relationships and connection. However, some approaches differentiate between types of loneliness (Gierveld et al., 2018; Weiss, 1973):

  • Positive loneliness: voluntarily reducing the quality and quantity of social connections, usually temporarily, e.g.  for solitude, privacy (Gierveld et al., 2018).
  • Negative loneliness: a feeling that social interactions and connections are less than someone would like, often described as ‘unpleasant’ (Gierveld et al., 2018). Usually just referred to as ‘loneliness’.
  • Emotional loneliness (synonymous with emotional isolation): a perceived lack of close emotional or intimate connection, often from a specific companion (Gierveld et al., 2018; Weiss, 1973).
  • Social loneliness: a perceived lack of social connections with people who have similar interests (Gierveld et al., 2018; Weiss, 1973).

The relationship between social isolation and loneliness

Social isolation implies a low level of social interaction and connection (Beer et al., 2016; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Leigh-Hunt et al., 2017). Loneliness is a feeling that people may experience when they are unhappy with the level of social connection they experience, regardless of how frequently they interact with people (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Social isolation is often seen as a risk factor for loneliness and poor health but feelings of loneliness can also indicate experiences of isolation and lead to negative health outcomes (Lim et al., 2020).

Understanding people’s experiences of social isolation and/or loneliness has implications for the interventions that can provide support. For example, supporting someone to increase social contact may support loneliness if the individual is unhappy with a lack of social interaction. However, if someone is lonely but not socially isolated these supports are unlikely to be effective (Beer et al., 2016; Fakoya et al., 2020; Smith & Lim, 2020).

Research evidence suggests that practitioners should consider both social isolation and loneliness when supporting individuals and their families (Newall & Menac, 2017). Newall and Menec (2017) identified four general groupings to help describe individual experiences of social isolation and/or loneliness (see Figure 1). These groupings can help practitioners to choose appropriate interventions or supports.

Figure 1: Four groups that describe experiences of social isolation and/or loneliness*

Figure 1: Four groups that describe experiences of social isolation and/or loneliness* Socially isolated: Usually seen in people who enjoy solitude; Not lonely: The majority; Not socially isolated: people who experience loneliness in a crowd; Lonely: A priority group that can  be difficult to engage 
Source: Figure based on Newall & Menec, 2017 

Supporting individuals to foster meaningful engagement has been shown to be effective at reducing feelings of loneliness both in group settings (such as befriending or facilitated socialising) or individually focused supports (such as psychosocial therapy or relationship education) (Beam & Kim, 2020; Fakoya et al 2020; Smith & Lim, 2020; Williams et al., 2021). There is less evidence on whether this is effective for people experiencing social isolation or a combination of both (Beam & Kim, 2020; Fakoya et al., 2020; Smith & Lim, 2020; Williams et al., 2021). Additionally, an individual’s needs and the causes of their experience will affect whether an intervention is successful (Beam & Kim, 2020; Fakoya et al., 2020; Smith & Lim, 2020; Williams et al., 2021).

The links between social isolation and loneliness are well-established but the success of interventions depends on how well practitioners understand an individual’s needs and the causes of their experience (Beam & Kim, 2020; Fakoya et al., 2020; Smith & Lim, 2020; Williams et al., 2021). Research and practice should use consistent definitions and approaches to be able to accurately measure the prevalence of either social isolation or loneliness, select appropriate interventions and assess their effectiveness.

Conclusion

Experiences of social isolation and loneliness shape the frequency, quality and perception of our social connections (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Westrupp et al., 2021). Understanding social isolation and loneliness as distinct but interrelated concepts can help practitioners provide appropriate supports that address individual's needs and experiences (Ending Loneliness Together, 2020; Fakoya et al., 2020; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015; Newall & Menec, 2017; Smith & Lim, 2020, Zavaleta et al., 2017).

Resources and organisations

  • Ending loneliness together 
    A hub of information and resources, from Ending Loneliness Together, for Australian practitioners and services supporting families experiencing loneliness. Resources include two practice guides to support evaluating and measuring loneliness designed for community organisations.
  • The Young Australian Loneliness Survey 
    Information and data, from VicHealth, on young Australians’ experiences of loneliness and social isolation.
  • Community Connections 
    A South Australian-based program by their Department of Human Services that supports community members to connect with people, find social activities and access services in their area.
  • Friends for Good 
    An Australian not-for-profit that provides education and services for people experiencing loneliness, including a FriendLine chat service.
  • Seniors Connected Program 
    Information on the Department of Social Services Seniors Connected Program, services and Village Hubs to support older Australians experiencing social isolation and loneliness.

References

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