By Melissa Riddle Chalos

It used to be that loneliness was thought of as a plight that belonged to those in their later years. It was something experienced at the tail-end of life, perhaps arriving once you’ve outlived your prime, your spouse and your health. But today, loneliness is growing younger and younger.

A recent survey of 20,000 U.S. adults by nationwide health insurer Cigna — using the UCLA Loneliness Scale — reveals that more than half the U.S. population feels lonely. In this survey, the scores of millennials (those born 1982-2000) and Generation Z (which starts in 2001) were even higher than that of baby boomers or older.1

Elsewhere, the news isn’t much better. One British study by the Office of National Statistics found that loneliness was three times higher among 16- to 24-year-olds than among people over age 65.2 According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has tripled since 1985.3

Loneliness is detrimental to stress levels, immune function, emotional and mental wellness and cardiovascular and cellular health. One recent study found that social isolation may be a more significant health issue than obesity, smoking, nutrition or exercise, increasing your risk of death by an incredible 30 percent. In fact, in the U.K., self-harm is the biggest killer of young people in their 20s.4

Getting to the Root

So, what’s happening here? What are the causes of loneliness among the young? And why is there such a stigma attached that few young people are willing to address it? Truth is, it’s a complicated, multi-faceted issue. But here are six significant reasons:

Society’s standard of self-sufficiency

The pressure young people feel to be independent — emotionally, financially, etc. — makes human connection difficult. “Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others,” George Monbiot writes in The Guardian, “everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”5

Life in constant transition

Life moves really fast once you hit adolescence. As we transition from the high school years to the college years to the adulting years, that sense of belonging — if we ever experienced it in childhood — is harder to come by. Why? Because as we grow, our identity — how we see ourselves in the world — shifts. Our sense of self feels adrift, unable to anchor. It’s difficult to make these big life adjustments without guidance, which, in this age of self-sufficiency, isn’t often sought.

No real community

As we transition from childhood to adulthood, we feel societal (and sometimes parental) pressure to move from one achievement to the next — graduation to graduation to employment to financial independence. There is little time or energy to build real, lasting social connections. Often friends in high school aren’t friends in college. We’re no longer part of the team, the club, the church youth group or anything else. Finding those real-life connections — the people you do life with in real time, not in screen time — is challenging when life demands you keep your head down and keep moving forward.

Real intimacy is a unicorn

Sex in the digital age — the marketed version of sex — is supposed to make everything in life great. But in a swipe-left, commitment-averse culture, real intimacy is a unicorn. When so many are casually cohabiting but not necessarily romantically involved, it’s easy to feel lonely in a house full of people. Sex that is emotionally detached seems more like a transaction than an intimate human connection.

Money, Money, Money, Money

While some experts say millennials and Gen Zers carry less debt than Gen Xers, 35 percent of millennials carry significant educational debt — more than any other generation.7 Lacking other options, many wind up in rental agreements with near-strangers or move back in with their parents, which only increases the stress and anxiety of not meeting societal or parental expectations of adulthood. “We can’t afford to buy houses or have children,” writes Eleanor Morgan in VICE, “and if we’re not unemployed, [we] have entered a job market that’s rigged against us and will pay us a hell of a lot less than our predecessors.”6 Debt and lack of income makes social interaction and going out less feasible, which only fuels loneliness.

The Digital Age

Truth be told, the more we feel lonely, the more we retreat into the virtual world to escape the real one. And yes, the digital world can provide a sense of connection for those seeking it, but it’s a quantity vs. quality proposition. For younger generations who have grown up learning how to communicate via text and measuring every aspect of their lives by Instagram likes, real conversation is less comfortable and seems less meaningful. Non-digital relationships become less satisfying than virtual, unreal connections.

Moving Out of the Maze

Monbiot, quoted earlier, believes that to really do something about the “silent epidemic” of loneliness would require “the reappraisal of an entire worldview.”6 But in the meantime, there are some simple things we can do as individuals to start changing the tide.

First, we can all grasp a fundamental understanding of the six basic human needs that, if not met, cause loneliness. Sociologist Robert S. Weiss, who constructed the first theory of loneliness, identifies them as:

  • Attachment
  • Social integration
  • Nurturance
  • Reassurance of worth
  • Sense of reliable alliance
  • Guidance in stressful situations6

It doesn’t require a college education to get what these are about. The bottom line? Loneliness is a foregone conclusion if there is no one to form attachments to, to interact with socially, to nurture and be nurtured by, to encourage and build up, to rely and by relied upon — someone who cares.

Everyone has feelings of loneliness. It’s no small thing to verbalize your feelings and to reach out to those who care, no matter how awkward it feels. Refuse to buy into the stigma. If you are fortunate enough to have friends or family who love you, be vulnerable enough to tell them and tell them often. Maybe send them the link to this article as a way to begin.

Everyone needs and wants to belong. It’s no small thing to look around you and be aware of the people in your life who likely struggle with loneliness or depression. If you lack people in your life who seem to care, you can be someone who offers that to someone else. You can be the one to reach out to a friend who is struggling and remind them that they are not alone.

Think about what you’re good at or what kind of activities you love and give one or two hours of your month to an organization that needs your talents. Whatever you can do to build and community will not only inoculate the world against loneliness, but it will likely keep emotional isolation at bay in your life, too.

These are not comfortable ideas, but if you act on them, you just might save a life. And what could be better than that?


Sources

1 “Chatterjee, Rhit. Americans are a Lonely Lot, and Young People Bear the Heaviest Burden.” National Public Radio (NPR). May 1, 2018.

2 Coughlan, Sean. “Loneliness more likely to affect young people.” April 10, 2018.

3 Heid, Markum. “You Asked: How Many Friends Do I Need?” for Time Health. Time Magazine. March 18, 2015.

4 Boseley, Sarah. “Self-harm the ‘biggest killer of people in their early 20s’ in the UK.” The Guardian. May 9, 2016.

5 Monbiot, George. “Neoliberalism is creating loneliness; that’s what’s wrenching society apart.” The Guardian. October 12, 2016.

6 Morgan, Eleanor. “Why Loneliness Affects So Many People.” February 15, 2017.

7 Kumok, Zina. “A Peek Into American Debt by Generation.” ZING by Quicken Loans. December 22, 2017.