Why the Young are Lonely & What Can Help
It sometimes seems impossible that we could suffer from loneliness in a society so able to stay in touch and communicate. Do you remember when Lady Gaga confessed to feeling lonely at the Oscars? Her admission might seem surprising, when she’s surrounded by some of the most fascinating, entertaining and fun people on earth! So how can this be?
If we explore the true nature of loneliness, Gaga’s pain becomes easier to understand, as does the fact that loneliness is unfortunately a growing phenomenon…
More than 9 million of us in the UK (close to a seventh of the population) are ‘often or always lonely’; and it’s no longer just a scourge of the elderly, young people are feeling it worse! 16-24 year olds are three times more likely to feel lonely than the over 65’s. In fact young millienials have been described as ‘the most digitally connected yet socially isolated generation’.
Worryingly, loneliness can have serious consequences for our health and wellbeing – more damaging than smoking 15 cigarettes a day and a bigger killer than obesity. The magnitude of the problem prompted the Government to appoint a Minister for Loneliness in 2018, to help address the issues.
‘Lonely’ is not the same as ‘alone’
Professor John T. Cacioppo, social neuroscientist, talks of the common misconception that loneliness equates to being alone, which drives people to seek the wrong solutions.
You can of course be alone without being lonely – solitude can be welcome, peaceful, even therapeutic. But feeling, that can be draining and distressing. Most of us can recall situations where we’re surrounded by people yet feel totally isolated: starting university, the new job, a dreaded social event…
Cacioppo explains the difference between being alone and feeling alone. Loneliness is a state of mind, where you feel ‘disconnected’ from the people around you: believing that they don’t truly understand you, they’re not the same as you, they might not accept the ‘real’ you.
How we feel > affects how we relate to people > affects how we feel
Quality not quantity
Social satisfaction is not dependent on the number of people we know, it’s the quality of relationships that really matter. You can have a thousand Facebook friends and still feel isolated. But you just need a handful of close friendsand family members to properly engage with – people who accept you for yourself, whom you can confide in, who give support when you need it and get support from you in return. It’s that feeling of belonging, which provides a sense of purpose and boosts our self-esteem. Strong social connections are vital for our happiness and our health. (Cacioppo)
Why the young are lonely
Once we understand the nature of loneliness and its causes, it seems less surprising that young people are so acutely affected.
Chronic loneliness is often triggered by life transitions involving geographical or social separation. Given the number of major changes we go through in our late teens and twenties, it’s no wonder that young people feel crushingly lonely at times (e.g. leaving home for university, graduation, starting a new job, moving to a new area/country, possibly ending a relationship or experiencing family breakdown or bereavement).
After a whole life of being cocooned in the family and school environment, they suddenly
face huge changes without the supportive safety net of family and close long-term friends. And, even if they are surrounded by like-minded people, it takes a while to build the strong connections which are so crucial to happiness and wellbeing.
Various studies bear this out:
- One of the top 3 profiles of people at particular risk from loneliness is ‘younger renters with little trust and sense of belonging to their area’.
- People who are unemployed (and seeking work) report feeling lonely more often than those in employment.
- Nearly half of UK students (46%) have felt lonely at times.
It comes a shock when you learn, very quickly, that it’s entirely possible to be surrounded by so many people your own age and to feel almost claustrophobically alone. I spent three years studying design at university. I worked hard, played harder and made friends for life. But my first year in academia was also the most insecure I’ve ever felt.
Sophie, Co-Founder of HelloGrads
Not so ‘social’ media?
Social media is often blamed for loneliness amongst young people, but is it a curse or cure?
Social media has massively increased connectivity, but that doesn’t mean we feel more connected. A large number of Facebook friends might make people feel ‘accepted’, but these virtual relationships won’t make them any less lonely.
Cacioppo highlights the importance of social networking to facilitate – but not replace – social interaction. Using connections to meet face-to-face can reduce loneliness (e.g. online dating, socialising with friends, or finding a local group for French conversation, five-a-side, or whatever floats your boat). But a recent study showed that the more time you spend on social media, the more isolated you feel; our obsession with scrolling leaves less time for socialising and can cause FOMO – the perception that others lead far more exciting lives or have all their s*** together fuels feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem and loneliness. Compare and despair!
How to prevent or overcome loneliness
The good news is that even when we are lonely, we can nurture and build social connections, by reaching out to family, catching up with old friends, and cultivating new friendships. And as we have seen, making new friends does not involve surrounding ourselves with loads of other people, but putting ourselves in situations where we can develop meaningful relationships. Here’s how to take those all important first steps:
Have a plan
It’s not always easy, particularly if you’re lacking confidence, but be reassured that it is possible to overcome loneliness by taking active steps. So push yourself slowly, to get out into social settings that appeal, where you can meet like-minded people. Ask questions to get them talking about themselves, and show interest. Every positive outcome will make the next step easier. And if you just don’t gel, don’t be put off, simply move on to different people.
Be prepared to Invest time and effort
Friends are made not found: American research suggests it takes around 50 hours of socialising to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend, and 200 hours to build a close friendship. So put yourself in situations where you see the same people frequently and regularly e.g. go to your uni lectures (even if they’re online), work in a co-working space or buzzy café, join a local club or society.
Do what you enjoy
Choose meaningful or enjoyable activities where you feel comfortable and therefore more confident. People like people who share their interests and values, so you’ll find it easier to bond when you have something in common – it’s a natural basis for building friendships.
If you’re at university, join one of the many clubs or societies on offer.
If you’re stuck for ideas, or can’t find what you’re looking for in your area, search Meetup.
Helping others makes us feel valued and gives a sense of purpose. People respond to kindness with gratitude, and are generally nice in return. Also, you will likely be working within a team with shared goals and interests. So on many levels, volunteering can make us feel good and reduce loneliness.
Find out more about volunteering and opportunities in your area
Be sensible with social
Use social networking for the invaluable tool it can be… to find and connect with social groups and like-minded people and arrange face-to-face meet-ups.
But don’t let it make you unsocial…
Research suggests that limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day can lead to a significant improvement in wellbeing. Live your life, not one through other people.
Everyone feels lonely at times. Tell someone how you’re feeling, even if it’s difficult. Know that if the situation was reversed, you would want to help; it really is a case of ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. If others are in a vulnerable position (e.g. starting university or a new job), be aware of what they might be going through and strike up a conversation.
Expect the best, not the worst
Don’t go into social settings expecting to be ignored or disliked, or it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Be open, give people a chance. If you smile and show warmth, it is likely to be reciprocated. Simple friendly interactions can give you positive feelings that build over time
The benefits of social interaction, and the damaging effects of social isolation are very clear.
As individuals and as a society, we have everything to gain, and everything to lose, in how well or how poorly we manage our need for social bonds.
‘Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection’ John T. Cacioppo
So, we all need to spend significant time and effort in developing and maintaining friendships, but it’s so worth it: strong relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy, healthy life.
If loneliness is causing you stress or affecting your health, seek professional help from your doctor, or contact one of these helpful resources: Mind, CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), or online support community Elefriends.
Journals.plos.org – Main Study Julianne Holt
American Journal of Preventative Medicine Online
John Cacioppo, author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection
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