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Are loneliness and isolation the same?

Loneliness and isolation are not the same. We can be isolated (alone) and not feel lonely. We can also be surrounded by other people, yet still feel lonely.

What is loneliness?

We all feel lonely at times – it’s a natural human emotion. We're biologically wired for social contact, and loneliness is our signal that we need more. Everyone's experience of loneliness is different - it's subjective and personal to us.

You don’t have to be on your own to feel lonely - you might feel lonely in a relationship or while spending time with friends or family, on social media, in a city or in at university. You can feel lonely if you feel like you are not being acknowledged or understood by those around you. You can feel lonely when the relationships in your life are lacking in emotional depth, if you’ve grown apart from someone or if communication has broken down. You might feel lonely when you're by yourself. Other people might choose to be alone and live happily without much social contact. Loneliness can also be characterised by its intensity, or how strongly it is felt, which can change from moment to moment and over different durations of time.

What is isolation?

Social isolation is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have. It is about the number of relationships we have, and the number of people we interact with regularly. People may choose to have a small number of contacts, others might want more people in their life, but have difficulty making contacts.

Spending time lots of alone and being isolated are not necessarily the same. Being alone can be an active choice: we can choose to spend time by ourselves to rest and recharge, or to enjoy our own company and it is largely a positive experience (boredom can come into it too). Alone time, or downtime, is especially important in today’s world, where lots of us feel like we have to be ‘on’ the whole time. Whereas being socially isolated means we don't often come into contact with other people, and it's not necessarily a choice people make.

loneliness and isolation

Why are they often linked?

Social isolation and loneliness are both terms which relate to a degree of social disconnection. Social isolation can lead to loneliness, and feeling lonely can lead to social isolation. Many people are both lonely and isolated. People can experience different levels of social isolation and loneliness over their lifetime, moving in and out of these states as their personal circumstances change.

Research shows that we can start to fall into a cycle of loneliness: the longer we feel lonely the more we start to isolate ourselves. We can start to feel like there is something wrong with us, or that the world is an unfriendly and scary place when that normally isn’t the case at all.  First and foremost, loneliness is a normal human emotion. Left unchecked, chronic or long-term loneliness can lead to mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.

Why is it important to distinguish between the terms?

Loneliness has been an emerging social issue for many years, with Marmalade Trust and other organisations raising its profile. The World Health Organisation recently declared loneliness as a 'global public health concern'.

With this new impetus, it's crucial for everyone from policy makers and researchers to the media to understand the distinction between loneliness and isolation in order to ensure the solutions are not focussed simply on increasing opportunities for people to meet or speak, but on helping build, maintain and re-establish meaningful relationships. In other words, we need to focus not just on bringing people together, but promoting the importance of meaningful connection.

loneliness and isolation

What is the difference between being lonely and being alone?

Loneliness is something you feel that you have no control over and it feels like a negative experience. Being alone is an active choice: we choose to spend time by ourselves to rest and recharge, or to enjoy our own company and it is largely a positive experience (boredom can come into it too). Alone time, or downtime, is especially important in today’s world, where lots of us feel like we have to be ‘on’ the whole time. But the truth is that loneliness is a two-way street. We might find ourselves in a situation where we feel lonely – the next step is working out how we can change that.

Marmalade supports share their experiences:

Isobel, 18

"I'm at college all day with my friends, and when I get home I spend most of the evening talking online with friends. But I feel really lonely. I feel like no one really understands me, or who I really am."

John, 78

"I don't need many people in my life - I have my wife, I play Bowls once a week, and meet my brother for lunch each week. I used to feel lonely sometimes when I was a young man, but I don't anymore."

Helen, 32

"I have a chronic health condition and since Covid, I've had to be really careful about going out. I spend most of my time at home by myself, but I am a very social person so I have to actively make sure I have enough social contact in my life. I volunteer as a telephone befriender, I meet my friends online for a virtual drink, I am active on local Facebook groups, I call my parents regularly. Sometimes I sit on a park bench so I can be around others."

How many contacts should we have?

Our social needs change over our lives. When we are younger we tend to rely more heavily on our friendships, as well as the number of friends we have and how much we physically see them. It’s also important to have flexibility and space in our friendships. We all have different things happening in our lives, which means we might not always have lots of time to see friends or make plans. This especially plays out as we get older: we tend to have fewer friendships as family life, work and other commitments become our priorities.


A study by Norwegian researchers showed that amongst adults aged 30-64 the quality of friendships became paramount and didn’t correlate with how many friends people had or how often they saw each other. As we age, we have fewer expectations of our friendships, so don’t feel bad or guilty if you only have one or a handful of friends or confidantes. For more information on knowing more about the social contact you need click here >> 


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