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What’s the difference between loneliness and social isolation?

Most people have experienced loneliness, social isolation, or both at some stage in life. Despite sounding like they may be the same thing, they can in fact be quite different. That’s because social isolation generally results from a person’s physical circumstances, whereas loneliness is a feeling that results from a person’s state of mind.


The difference between loneliness and social isolation

The concepts of loneliness and social isolation often overlap despite not necessarily being the same thing. A person can feel lonely even though they have nominal contact with other people, just like they can feel contented or satisfied despite having limited social contact.

Nonetheless, loneliness and social isolation are becoming recognised social problems. In fact, there is growing evidence that suggests loneliness is becoming an epidemic with real consequences for the wellbeing and even physical health of society.


What is social isolation?

Social isolation refers to conditions that result in physical isolation. Often this is due to geographic isolation, such as travel distance, or it may be due to a lack of mobility due to disability, illness, or legal or financial barriers to driving.

Geographical distance from other people is not the only cause of social isolation. Someone can be socially isolated due to a language barrier, irregular work hours, a physical or mental condition that interferes with communication, or because they lack phone or internet access.

Social isolation is referred to as something that is objective. This means that the nature and size of a person’s social network can be defined and identified.


What is loneliness?

Loneliness, although often linked to social isolation, is harder to define. Loneliness is a feeling of distress that occurs when the quality and quantity of a person’s social relationships are perceived to be inadequate. The key term here is perception — the nature of how a person feels about their situation is influenced by their perspective and expectations.

For this reason, loneliness is referred to as something that is subjective. This means that a person’s social connectedness has a lot less to do with a ‘measurable’ factor (e.g. number of friends or family) and is more closely related to how they perceive their situation. Indeed, a person can feel lonely even though they are not socially isolated, and vice versa.


Is loneliness a public health crisis?

Human beings have always been susceptible to loneliness. However, it’s only in recent years that more research has started to identify the concerning effects that loneliness may have on mental health, wellbeing and physical health.

One of the most famous studies in this field, the Grant and Glueck studies, tells us a lot about the importance of human connectedness.

The extraordinary study sought to answer an age-old question: what makes people happy? It did so by periodically monitoring the mental and physical health of two sample groups of men, one from a college class (and therefore expected to do well in life), the other from a poorer suburb.

Incredibly, this study began 80 years ago and is still going. Today, even with most of the original participants no longer with us (although the study subsequently expanded to include their descendants), it came up with some compelling findings. Namely, that social background, wealth and genes can, in the long-term, have some influence to how we feel about life, but ultimately there is one thing above all that makes the biggest difference to our happiness. This is the warmth and satisfaction of a relationship.

The evidence correlating long-term happiness and wellbeing with relationship satisfaction was compelling. In fact, researchers felt they could confidently state that “people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were” and that “the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

The study is of course not the only research to link physical health with connectedness. As reported previously in this post: “Numerous studies have shown that loneliness may increase the risk of premature death by as much as 50 percent — and that loneliness now kills more people annually than obesity. Unsurprisingly, loneliness is an integral part of many mental, physical and social health problems.”


How widespread is loneliness in our society?

The situation appears concerning when you realise how prevalent loneliness is in our society and then consider its known implications on health and wellbeing.

For example, northern, western and central Melbourne has certain areas with rates of social isolation reported as high or very high, including Maribyrnong, Yarra and Hume (in Yarra, it’s up to 22 per cent of the population). Similarly, two out of five people aged 75 and over in the areas of Yarra and City of Melbourne were living alone

Although the trend of loneliness is not limited to this part of the country — one Red Cross study concluded that 5.6 million Australians experience loneliness — it is also clear that elevated rates of loneliness and social isolation remain a problem among the population among certain parts of the region.


Concerned about loneliness or social isolation? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.