What is Social Isolation?

What is Social Isolation?

Couple Holding Hands

Looking through the more formal literature, social isolation is sometimes defined as “a social state characterized by limited to no contact with other people” (Brown et al., 2016).  While scanning through the current public discourse, however, the definition of “social isolation” is anything but clear.   Often, articles like the recent “How Social Isolation is Killing Us” in the New York Times seem to use “social isolation” and “loneliness” interchangeably – even though this particular article was written by a medical doctor!  We see the same in reports like “Loneliness and Social Isolation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan: An International Survey – Section 1: Characteristics and Experiences of Those Who Report Often Feeling Lonely or Socially Isolated” where no definition of either term is given and both “loneliness” and “social isolation” can be read as meaning the same feeling or mental state throughout.

Psychology Today, as somewhat of an outlier, immediately defines the difference between isolation and loneliness, with isolation “defined as a state or situation characterized by being physically separated from other people – whether intentional or not”, and loneliness as “defined by an internal feeling” (Plata, 2018).  Other articles explicitly call out the difference between solitude and isolation, with the solitude being time set aside to be alone to rest, self-care, or rejuvenate (What’s Your Grief, 2019). The What’s Your Grief blog explicitly opines: “Social isolation is not the same as alone time or solitude. Social isolation is not introversion.” If it is not these things, then what is it?

The piece continues, describing what social isolation feels like to the isolated.  At times, they explain, it feels like nothing is wrong whatsoever, but this can soon spiral into a series of self-rationalizations for why one might be ignoring loved ones and friends who do try to reach out. Social isolation can look like someone’s attempt at healthy solitude – attending yoga, going to the movies, going to work – but become a more chronic form of disengagement where a person “shows up” but is not emotionally connecting with anyone where they are (What’s Your Grief, 2019).

What definitions of social isolation have you come across in current public discourse? Share them in the comments!


Brown, C. & Besterman-Dahan, K. & Chavez, M. & Njoh, E. & Smith, W. (2016). “It gave me an excuse to get out into society again”: Decreasing Veteran Isolation through a Community Agricultural Peer Support Model. ​Journal of Veterans Studies​. 1. 163. 10.21061/jvs.42.

Plata, M. (2018, August 29). When Isolating Yourself Becomes Dangerous. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-gen-y-psy/201808/when-isolating-yourself-becomes-dangerous    

What’s Your Grief. (2019). This is What Social Isolation Looks Like. Retrieved from https://whatsyourgrief.com/social-isolation/

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