Are You Lonesome Tonight?
A recent poll from YouGov found that 22 per cent of millennials have no friends. That's right: None. Thirty per cent say they feel lonely, which is twice as much as baby boomers. Before you make too much of these statistics, consider that 25 per cent of millennials report having no acquaintances. This is so astounding that either the whole poll is suspect, or millennials just don't know the word "acquaintances." I mean, it's not in their lexicon, after all, in a world with the binary choice of friending or unfriending.
So while we should be a little skeptical about the acquaintances, I'm not surprised that millennials feel lonely. According to a bunch of new studies, loneliness is an epidemic. It has increased sharply around the world, and in 2018, the U.K. appointed a Minister of Loneliness to help develop strategies addressing the issues caused by social isolation.
Loneliness is a relatively new concept, historically. Large families and involvement in the church tended to allow for little solitude, and the notion of individualism was not a reality before the nineteenth century. But loneliness has now been acknowledged to have corrosive health consequences beyond emotional distress. Research has shown that people who routinely feel lonely or cut off from friends and family are more likely to suffer high blood pressure, develop heart disease and be diagnosed with dementia. UCLA researchers have found that lonely people suffer higher levels of chronic inflammation, making them more vulnerable to a wide range of health conditions.
The notion of a Minister of Loneliness seems quaint somehow, like the Lollipop Guild in Wizard of Oz. But the office represents a bold move by the UK to tackle a public health problem that most people don't want to talk about. In the age of social media, loneliness has a new stigma. Once thought to be the domain of the very aged or the very deviant, social isolation occurs in all age groups, and when it becomes chronic it's an inarguable threat to well-being and survival.
When was the last time you had a meaningful or even casual conversation? One study shows that about 200,000 elderly people in the U.K. have not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in over a month. I can't even fathom the horror of this, but I'm glad it has come to my attention. Thinking about how vital human contact is to my day to day existence, I want to make a point of reaching out more often. I want to encourage others to look away from their TVs and devices and connect instead to another human being.
Face to face contact is different from texting. Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need, but young people may be mistaking their Instagram comments for conversations. Alarmingly, there is a vicious circle at play: Lonely people experience brain changes that make it more difficult to form new social connections. In other words, the longer one remains isolated, the harder it is to turn things around.
Examining the spread of loneliness and the missing social structures that compound the problem does not automatically lead to a solution. Working at home, leaving school, moving to a new city can make it hard to form bonds and make new friends. For introverts, it's even harder. Technology is to blame for eroding social skills but technology is finally producing some positive antidotes to social isolation. Friendship-making apps now allow you to meet someone with the express purpose of befriending them – Bumble BFF, Huggle on friendship mode, Hey! Vina, and Peanut for mothers. Taking that first step can be a hurdle, but the benefits are clearly worth the effort.
Having someone to talk to, to share experiences and concerns with, is the essence of life! If you're missing this, try naming your feeling of loneliness aloud, without any shame or embarrassment. Find the courage to get out and interact with other human beings in a meaningful way. Small steps like suggesting a walk or a cup of coffee can lead to a valuable experience. Don't assume that people have no interest in you. Show interest in others and you will likely be rewarded.
Technology is a double-edged sword, and the Internet has allowed for people to find kindred spirits. People with unusual beliefs or lifestyles, with secrets they dare not tell family and friends, seek each other out in online groups. Within these groups, the hidden can be revealed and validated, anonymously if desired. But time spent online can replace inward contemplation and real experience.
There's no substitute for human companionship. Genuine friends will see you through all of life's challenges, but small exchanges can also lift your spirits and help to break the cycle of loneliness. Millennials, nearly one-third of you report feeling lonely, the highest percentage of all the generations surveyed. You have the power to turn this around and enrich your lives. Go to Starbucks, join a yoga class or political group, invite that nice neighbor in for a cup of tea and for god sake, visit your grandma. You have nothing to lose but a compromised immune system, chronic inflammation and a lower life expectancy!