WWCW Highlight Call: Understanding social isolation and subjective wellbeing across the life course: a project using five British birth cohort studies

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Social Science


Social connectedness is considered to be a basic psychological need, and social isolation is associated with a range of negative outcomes including poorer mental health, cognitive decline and mortality. Recent policy efforts have been set up to address some of these challenges, including a drive to understand and reduce social isolation and loneliness. The existing literature considers social isolation to be an objective characteristic of someone's experience and it is assessed based on factors such as living alone, having few social relationships and infrequent social contact. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a subjective assessment of one's relationships and experience. Despite this increase in policy interest, there lacks empirical evidence from large scale, representative datasets on the extent of social isolation experienced by individuals through their lives and the extent of the link between social isolation and wellbeing at different ages and in different generations.

This research proposal aims to address this gap by documenting the life course perspective on the relationship between social isolation and wellbeing; and uncover generational differences in trends of social isolation and wellbeing.

We will make use of five longitudinal British cohort studies following children born in 1946, 1958, 1970, 1989 and 2001 to generate comparable measures of social isolation to understand the patterns and trends by life course and by generation. This data intensive aspect of the project will generate harmonised variables which will be an important resource for the research community facilitating future research in this area.
Much of the previous research focuses on social isolation in late adulthood, this proposed research will extend the existing literature by examining how social isolation varies across the whole life course, from childhood, adolescence, early-adulthood, mid-life and older ages. Thereafter we will investigate whether things have changed across generations in the UK over the last 60 years and investigate whether there are any observed differences. Differences might be expected as a result of different exposures by each generation, for example, increased access to higher education, changes in the labour market or access to the internet. These analyses will be able to confirm whether any differences are observed in these national cohorts and if yes, the direction of observed changes.

Next, we will examine the relationship between social isolation, loneliness and subjective wellbeing at different ages. Unpacking the relationship between social isolation, wellbeing and age is important for developing life course specific policy interventions. In order to understand these relationships in more detail, we will investigate whether the experiences of social isolation are different for men and women, and whether they are differentially associated with wellbeing by gender. Similarly, we will investigate the experience of social isolation by socio-economic advantage or disadvantage and investigate how it is associated with wellbeing across these groups. Using the loneliness measures (where available) we will examine in what ways social isolation and loneliness are interrelated. Social isolation and loneliness are not highly associated as it is possible to be socially isolated and prefer seclusion and inversely to be socially connected but to still feel lonely. Hence, we will investigate whether social isolation and loneliness separately explain the variation in wellbeing. We will also examine groups of individuals based on whether they are experiencing both, either or neither to help understand the relationships of these different combinations of experience with subjective wellbeing at different ages.

Planned Impact

In the shorter term the project will impact the academic research community and policy makers by providing life course estimates of social isolation, how these are changing between generations and estimates of the associations between social isolation and loneliness and subjective wellbeing. This will lead to medium to longer term impact in shaping future research in the areas of social isolation, loneliness and wellbeing. Third sector organisations, especially interested in social support, public health interventions and wellbeing will benefit from the findings and their involvement in the project and its dissemination will ensure wider audiences are reached with the findings. The Centre for Ageing Better is on the steering group for this project and are especially interested in the experiences of social isolation, loneliness and wellbeing in mid-life in the decades leading up to older age. Practitioners in social care and mental health have a direct interest in this work. Our research will present information on the wellbeing outcomes of those experiencing social isolation and highlight the extent of socio-economic inequalities in impact on wellbeing. Policy makers including Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) are on the steering group of the project and other government departments including the Departments of Health and Social Care, Education and Work and Pensions will be interested in the implications of this work for supporting social isolation, loneliness and wellbeing at different stages of the life course. Public Health England are interested in this work, sit on the steering group and have written a letter of support to demonstrate the relevance and impact that this research will have on public health policy and planning nationally. Individuals and their families, especially those who are experiencing or will experience social isolation, loneliness and poor wellbeing will benefit in the medium and longer term from this project if the findings eventually lead to changes in how these issues are tackled by local and national governments.

A multi-method dissemination strategy is planned (detailed below and in pathways to impact) throughout the duration of the project. This includes having a steering group involved from the beginning of the project to ensure the relevance and implications of the findings are well understood. We will host a dissemination event with key stakeholders at the end of the project to disseminate findings more widely. Supplementary dissemination activities will ensure we have regular communication with key stakeholders. Communicating about the project, its objectives, methods and approaches used and the findings will be consistently ensured throughout the project. The existence and objectives of the project will be given a profile from the start via online presence and a website and communicating with key collaborators and stakeholders. Findings from the project will be communicated to academic researchers via national and international conferences and to policy makers via briefing reports and meetings targeting this audience.
We will disseminate findings through OpenAccess publications in relevant journals ensuring the findings are accessible to a wide audience of interested stakeholders including international researchers, third sector organisations and policy makers. The end of project dissemination event will be publicised widely to stakeholders through relevant networks of the What Works for Wellbeing Centre and our steering group members to ensure that all interested parties have the opportunity to attend.
Further details of how the impact of this research will be maximised are available in the Pathways to Impact attachment and the costs associated with these activities are detailed in the Justification of Resources attachment of this application.


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