Defining Loneliness and Isolation

In the modern age, we commonly apply labels such as isolated, lonely and alone to express our emotional states. We feel isolated when we spend Friday nights at home, while others may be out partying. We feel lonely when we don’t have anyone to talk to. We feel alone when the world moves on, without regard to our inner turmoil. While these terms are often used interchangeably, there is a key difference between them that can help us understand complex cognitive states.

Social isolation is characterized by an individual’s physical lack of close contact with other individuals and limited social interactions [1]. Isolation makes an individual more susceptible to health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression, likely due to its influence on health behaviors such as sleep, diet and physical activity [1,2]. The combination of negative individual, relationship, community and societal factors makes an individual more likely to experience social isolation [1].

Loneliness, on the other hand, is a psychological condition, or feeling, that results from a perceived discrepancy between an individual’s preferred and actual level of social relations [3]. By definition, it implies a lack of connection to others or a perception of a hostile social environment. It can lead to other states such as social anxiety and depression, which gradually take a toll on one’s health [3]. All individuals are susceptible to loneliness, regardless of age, living conditions or size of friend groups. Loneliness is further characterized by intimate, relational or collective loneliness, depending on the scale it encompasses, such as a marital relationship, familial connection and network of shared interests, respectively [3].

While being “alone” is merely defined as having no one present (according to Oxford Languages), people across different age groups perceive “alone time” in dissimilar ways. In a study with 1089 participants with an age range of 72 years, people defined “alone” as physical separation, loneliness or even a freeing experience, such as a “break from reality” [4]. Adolescents were more likely to describe being alone as a negative experience more often than adults. This shows that age and expectation play a large role in creating a subjective feeling from an objective experience. Further emphasis on the positives of being alone finds that solitude, a state of being alone and enjoying it, is an experience that can promote personal growth [3]. In fact, according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, solitude is a characteristic of an individual who has achieved self-actualization. By the time they reach this level, the individual has already satisfied their basic needs and can now focus on developing a positive identity and cultivating other cognitive competencies [5].  

Nevertheless, not all individuals are able to enjoy “alone time,” especially when prolonged seclusion can lead to other symptoms. Merely being alone can progress to social isolation or loneliness, both of which will be addressed in turn.  A 2018 study identified different ways to combat social isolation, including forming one-on-one friendships, enjoying group activities by a common interest, keeping connected by technological means and volunteering in the community to foster stronger bonds between people [1]. Overall, a combination of local, regional and national involvement is recommended to limit feelings of social isolation within a community [1].

Loneliness can be reduced by a similar set of interventions — despite the complexity and highly individualized aspects of “loneliness,” public efforts are able to prevent long-term consequences [3]. Efforts to reduce loneliness involve encouraging interactions, whether by group therapy or mentorship, creating social events for ease of connection and teaching effective use of social skills [3]. There are also potential pharmacological treatments that can help with loneliness, acting in a similar mechanism as antidepressants, neurosteroids or oxytocin, which have proven successful in treating a variety of other mental disorders [3]. 

Keeping in contact with others or even finding someone to talk to can be difficult, regardless of the widespread use of technology, which sometimes forces people apart rather than bridging them together. It becomes important for each individual to remember their greater community and take into account the situations of the people they interact with. Reaching out to others in times of need, remembering to smile, acting with compassion towards others and other simple actions can help integrate people and help them feel less alone, isolated or lonely, no matter what life stage they are in.

[1] Preventing social isolation in older people – ScienceDirect
[2] Health Behavior – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
[3] Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions – PMC
[4] What does it mean to be alone? An analysis of interpretations of solitude among adolescents and adults – PMC
[5] (PDF) A Cognitive-Systemic Reconstruction Of Maslow’s Theory Of Self-Actualization