Research to understand loneliness and isolation in a society and understand part of the experiences for different situations

From Greek mythology and the Bible to modern critiques of the digital age, loneliness has been portrayed as part of the human condition. With modern society requiring more and more attention away from family, its currently being recognized as a significant adverse consequence of loneliness  and health.

Loneliness and isolation are increasingly part of the experience for many. As societies are evolving globally in many different ways as, reduced inter-generational living, different societies coming together, greater social and geographical mobility, the rise in one-person households – all of these trends mean that many people may become more socially isolated.


Loneliness could be defined as ‘isolation’ – a sensation of being alone when someone doesn’t want to be.  Isolated individuals can feel like they are the only person alive, going for days without talking to anyone else.  This is often despite the fact that they are generally surrounded by people, especially if they live in urban environments.  The causes for such isolation can be varied.  Mental health is a factor, physical health is another.  Often people with chronic health care requirements will have to adopt lifestyles that are more restricted and contained, leading to them being more immobile.  This can affect them, and additionally, the people that care for them, again leading to isolation for both those suffering from illness and the people that care for them.

After health, there are aspects of identity and group membership that can also lead to isolation.  For example, people who belong to minority groups and communities can see their social and support networks change over time, particularly as they age.  This can lead to people in ethnic minorities, immigrant or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual (LGBT) communities feeling like they are in smaller and smaller groups as they go through life.

Further to the sense of things changing beyond their control, further changes occur through life that also increase isolation.  Divorce, bereavement, children growing up, all these changes can see people having a lot less social contact then they used to have, and a sense of frustration and a general lack of control that can further drive the stresses of their situation.

For others made vulnerable by sickness or poverty – perhaps after a lifetime of poor access to healthcare in countries without comprehensive welfare provision – the impact of loneliness and isolation may be profound. The experience and consequences of loneliness and isolation vary with social position. Tackling these issues, therefore, has the potential to play a role in reducing health inequalities, as well as improving individuals’ quality of life.

Loneliness and social isolation are distinct concepts: individuals can be lonely without being socially isolated; experience both loneliness and isolation; or be socially isolated without feeling lonely. One of the most widely used definitions has loneliness as a subjective negative feeling associated with a perceived lack of a wider social network (social loneliness) or the absence of a specific desired companion (emotional loneliness). There is much less of a consensus about how to define social isolation. Many studies have approached it as a unidimensional concept, defining social isolation as the objective lack or paucity of social contacts and interactions with family members, friends or the wider community. Alternative, multidimensional, definitions have incorporated the quality, as well as the quantity, of relationships – with loneliness falling under the subjective component of social isolation.

Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline.  Additional New research shows the brains of lonely people respond more negatively to social situations, seeing signs that the immune systems of lonely people are working differently.

How people define loneliness and social isolation is important because it influences how they measure these concepts. There are a number of widely used self-report measures for loneliness, such as the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Loneliness Scale or the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale. The UCLA measure contains items to measure self-perceived isolation, and relational and social connectedness. The De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale combines social and emotional subscales, and encompasses such issues as a sense of emptiness and missing having people around, with the presence of people to rely on, trust and feel close to. A broader range of approaches have been applied to the measurement of isolation, from judging the levels of social contact and the size of social networks to recording marital status or household composition.

Often though it’s the collective mindset and the values and beliefs of wider society that need to be addressed, and although this is challenging to achieve, it can happen, generally one person at a time.

Quantifying the extent of loneliness and social isolation is essential, but it has been a challenge to researchers. Variation in the current estimates partly stem from the absence of universally accepted definitions and the difference in the phenomena observed, as well as from the range of indicators and measurement tools used. Experiences of loneliness and social isolation are not uniform across the life course: individuals may become lonely or isolated in old age, be lifelong isolates, or experience loneliness or isolation as a result of a triggering event such as retirement or bereavement. Loneliness can be a persistent or short-lived feeling, and one which individuals may be reluctant to share.

When you look at how different societies treat and respond to loneliness, you start to understand how social policies, norms and traditions do have a big part to play.  

Credit : wansea University College of Human and Health Sciences (youtube video)

National lib of Medicine

Prof Victor and Dr Sullivan (youtube video)

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