What Works Wellbeing operated from 2014 to 2024. This website is a static repository of all assets captured at closure on 30 April. It will remain publicly accessible but will not be updated.  Read more
Feb 22, 2024 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

What we know about loneliness and connection 2014 – 2024

The quality of our relationships and friendships at home, at work and in our communities matters. If we feel lonely most or all of the time, it can have a serious impact on our wellbeing. 

Our focus has been to find out what works, and help turn this evidence into action to alleviate loneliness and improve social connections.

Here, we bring together our analysis, learnings and resources in this focus area, and consider what needs to happen next. 

Connection, loneliness, and social isolation

Feeling close to others is a core building block of wellbeing. Connections help us feel good about ourselves and feel positive, and offer both practical and emotional support, through having someone to rely on.  For example, someone to take you to appointments, or help process grief after loss.

Our distant and close social relationships are the building blocks of social capital and each interaction builds trust. This close personal trust often helps build bigger trust in institutions; cultivating the feeling that someone has thought about us, our needs, and is there for us in times of trouble. 

Loneliness can be thought of as “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want.Perlman and Peplau, 1981.

Most people will feel lonely at some point in their lives. It is when this is experienced often or always, that it can have a more damaging and long-term impact. 

Loneliness is related to but also distinct from social isolation, which is an objective condition that can be quantifiably assessed by the number and frequency of social connections and interactions. That’s why it is possible to feel lonely despite being socially connected or to experience a positive feeling of solitude when not interacting with others. 

Laying the foundations

Our work in this area builds on data from the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) social capital measures, which are incorporated in its UK Measures of National Well-being Dashboard, under the ‘relationships’ domain. Regular data is gathered on peoples’ satisfaction with relationships, whether they have people to rely on, trust in others, and loneliness itself.

As part of our early work to capture different perspectives and help develop our focus and 2014-18 delivery plan, we spoke to over 4,000 practitioners, researchers, policymakers and members of the wider public from across the UK. 

Through six wellbeing public dialogues we grew our understanding of what matters most to people: 

  • feeling loved, respected and appreciated, 
  • belonging, 
  • positive connections, 
  • time alone, 
  • appreciation of difference 
  • being part of something bigger. 
  • friendship, support, and safety. 

This engagement work underpinned our understanding that social connectedness and tackling loneliness are vital to wellbeing.

See our summary report for more detail.

Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness

We used our knowledge of existing insights, including our Scoping review: social relations and wellbeing, to help inform the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in 2017. 

The Commission’s final report published at the end of 2017 recommended a dedicated minister for loneliness, which we saw put into action in 2018. It also encouraged further investment in What Works centres to develop the evidence base, which led the UK Government to commission the Centre to explore what works to alleviate loneliness through a review of reviews (2018)

Our work helped shape the UK Government’s Loneliness Strategy, the world’s first for tackling loneliness.

Reviewing the evidence

The review of reviews identified:

  1. Several mechanisms for reducing loneliness
  2. No evidence of approaches doing any harm, except in some technology approaches, which can make loneliness worse if people are unable to use them.

It also found it was important to support meaningful relationships, avoid increasing the stigma of loneliness, and that tailored approaches are more effective than a one size fits all approach.

Approaches reviewed

Diagram with images of different approaches reviewed including leisure activities, therapies, social community interventions, educational approaches, befriending, and system wide activities.

The review identified key gaps in understanding:

  • A lack of consistency in the definition and measurement of loneliness, resulting in the need for greater conceptual clarity .
  • A lack of evidence specific to young and mid-life adults, reflecting the narrow conceptualisation of loneliness as a problem restricted to later life. 
  • A need for more large-scale, controlled study designs to draw confident conclusions about effective approaches.

In response, we looked to address some of these key gaps over the following years, including producing a conceptual review, an explanation of key definitions, describing events that trigger loneliness such as life transitions, and a measurement guide

We updated the review with new learning at the end of 2020, focusing on Loneliness evidence gaps and data needs. Together, with the Tackling Loneliness team at the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), The Tackling loneliness evidence review assessed the extent of evidence gaps and what we needed to know next to inform action. 

At this time we also examined the potential impact of the pandemic on loneliness, using data collected by the Covid Social Study from over 70,000 people.

The Campaign to End Loneliness 

Since our foundation, we have worked closely with other organisations and researchers in the field of loneliness, undertaking a series of research projects over the years to grow the evidence and find out what works to tackle loneliness. This includes the Campaign to End Loneliness, which the Centre has formally hosted since 2021.

The Campaign’s aims are to build loneliness evidence, support the loneliness community, and make the case for action on loneliness. 

Together we built and the Campaign runs the Tackling Loneliness Hub online community, funded by DCMS. The Hub has over 800 members from public, private, academic and charitable sectors. It enables members to connect with others working to reduce loneliness and interact in a supportive space. The Hub holds free workshops and events to share research and practice insights. The next event for members is a practice showcase on Thursday 29 February. 

The Campaign also brings together experts in the field of loneliness practice and research from around the world in an annual online International Conference. Read more about the latest conference, which took place on Thursday 8 February 2024.

Growing the evidence

Together with the Campaign, we built on previous work in our 2023 project, Growing the loneliness evidence base, which examined evidence on loneliness alleviation and mapped current practices in the field.

We conducted:

  1. A rapid systematic review of what interventions work to tackle loneliness.
  2. Stakeholder engagement to map current delivery and evaluation practices in the field, involving interviews, focus groups, an online survey, and two round table discussions with professionals involved in delivering, funding or researching interventions.

This work was commissioned by the DCMS Tackling Loneliness Team.

Successful interventions were identified, including:

  • Structured therapeutic support and approaches to develop emotional and social skills.
  • Social support that develops social skills through targeted relationship-building and discussion-based activities.
  • Art and dance activities delivered in community-based settings.
  • A range of social interaction-based activities, such as facilitated animal or robot interactions, food delivery, and health promotion activities.

Visit our project page for more, including findings, research implications, and recommendations.

Loneliness across the life course

We previously found gaps in our knowledge about the associations between social isolation, loneliness and subjective wellbeing across our lives and between generations. 

Together with the Campaign, our research project led by Professor Praveetha Patalay at University College London, sought to address this gap. 

Findings from the first report use data from five British longitudinal cohort studies to explore social isolation trends over time, highlighting the value of longitudinal data and a multi-context approach. 

The second report in our project looked specifically at experiences in later life before and during the Covid-19 pandemic. The social restrictions imposed during this period offered a unique opportunity to better understand loneliness and social connection.

Loneliness in young people

Young people have traditionally been missing from loneliness analysis – even though evidence shows 16 to 24 year olds report the highest rates of loneliness in the UK, with younger adolescents reporting being more lonely than older groups. 

To grow our understanding and develop recommendations, we worked with Dr. Emily Long from the University of Glasgow, on our Loneliness and wellbeing in young people project.

The project resulted in four papers:

  1. Identifying risk and protective factors for loneliness in young people
  2. Examining mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools
  3. Examining links between loneliness, mental health and wellbeing
  4. Determining trajectories of loneliness during Covid-19

Discover more on our project page.

Loneliness inequalities

Loneliness by its nature can be hard to identify and can be hidden amongst people, especially marginalised groups. We looked at loneliness in place, in our Reconceptualising Loneliness in London 2022 project. We considered the structural influences, drivers and unequal distribution of loneliness in the UK’s capital. 

The main report from the project was authored by the Centre, the Campaign and Neighbourly Lab, and was commissioned by the Greater London Authority

Findings indicated loneliness is felt unequally and disproportionately impacts some groups. For instance, there was strong evidence that people who had moved to London within the last five years were at higher risk of loneliness. Also, rates of loneliness were higher for younger, low-income, LGBTQ+, single parents, Disabled or Deaf Londoners, and for some ethnic minority groups. 

The work provides potential insights beyond London about how wider, structural problems contribute to the emotional and physical isolation of severe loneliness.

Next steps

We have moved forward a great deal over the past ten years in understanding loneliness and connection. We have progressed from knowing it’s important for wellbeing and identifying some possible interventions, to having much more research, analysis, and confidence about what works.  

What we want to see moving forward:

  • Continuation towards Living Evidence Reviews, with evidence gap maps to inform research and field development.
  • All public sector evaluations are uploaded to the Evaluation Registry, so they can be found and accessed more easily.
  • Addressing practice or implementation gaps related to psychological interventions.
  • Developing methodology in reference to evaluation of practice findings.
  • Looking at tackling loneliness alongside wider community or social capital work, for example when considering places, heath, social connection or mental health.

After the Centre and Campaign close at the end of April 2024, our resources and information on this vital focus area will be combined with and continue to be accessible on the The Campaign to End Loneliness’ website for future use.

Other organisations working in this field to look out for: 


Practice Examples
Nov 30, 2023
Connecting people and places: Bringing communities together in East Sussex
May 21, 2021
Developing a community-led loneliness strategy for North Yorkshire
Oct 3, 2019
Young people, loneliness, and exploring friendships
Jul 25, 2019
Older people, social isolation, and loneliness
Nov 30, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Social isolation and loneliness in later life: learnings from the pandemic
Guest Blog
Sep 28, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Five years on: what works to tackle loneliness in research and practice?
Guest Blog
Jun 15, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Tackling loneliness – our work growing the evidence base 2018-2023
Guest Blog
Jun 15, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Exploring social isolation: insights from five British longitudinal studies
Guest Blog
Apr 20, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Key insights into loneliness and wellbeing in young people
Guest Blog
Jan 26, 2023 | By Dr Claire Goodfellow
Loneliness in young people: mental health and loneliness in Scottish schools
Guest Blog
May 26, 2022 | By Stewart Martin
Learning from an £87m programme: the relationships between social contact, loneliness and wellbeing
Centre Blog
Apr 21, 2022 | By Dr Emily Long
Loneliness is strongly related to poor wellbeing – and good community connections can help
Centre Blog
Mar 31, 2022 | By Nancy Hey
Loneliness in London: what do we know and where are the evidence gaps?
Centre Blog
Jan 20, 2022 | By Centre
Loneliness in young people: what are the risk factors?
Centre Blog
Jan 6, 2022 | By Helen Saul
How can we reduce the toll of loneliness in older adults?
Guest Blog
May 26, 2021 | By Jenny Manchester
How can employers help tackle loneliness at work?
Guest Blog
Feb 1, 2024 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
What we know about wellbeing in place and community 2014 – 2024
Guest Blog

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