There’s a growing crisis around the world, and it doesn’t have anything to do with climate change, the economy, or despots acquiring nuclear weapons.
People are reporting record level of loneliness. In fact, researchers are now saying it’s a bigger problem than obesity. And, of course, they’re even trying to develop a drug to combat it.
“Studies suggest loneliness is more detrimental to health than obesity, physical inactivity or polluted air.”National Post article
The fact that we need a drug to combat loneliness is sad. But what is perhaps even more concerning is the larger issue at hand. Two and a half decades after Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” (affiliate/non-affiliate) – where he documented a decrease in what he termed “social capital” – the challenge seems to be accelerating, resulting in psychological consequences.
Millennials, as it turns out, may be the primary victims.
According to a 2019 YouGov poll, “30 percent of millennials say they feel lonely. This is the highest percentage of all the generations surveyed.” Moreover, “22 percent… said they had zero friends.  percent said they had ‘no close friends,’ [and] 30 percent said they have ‘no best friends.'”
What’s causing the growing loneliness among millennials?
The YouGov poll didn’t go into why those surveyed felt lonely, but given the data about friendship (or lack thereof), it’s safe to assume that is a leading factor.
Friendships are easy to come by while in school, but post-college life doesn’t always lend itself to neither maintaining friendships nor making new connections. Friends move away, start families, get busy with life and work, etc. But it’s more than that.
Traditionally, adults would make friends through their community affiliations – churches, clubs, organizations, and other similar groups. Interestingly, participation in these institutions is dropping as well.
According to Pew, 34% of millennials seldom or never attend religious service, with 38% going either once or twice a month, or only a few times a year (undoubtedly, on churchgoing holidays or when visiting family). Outside of church, evidence shows involvement in community organizations among millennials is also down. The best estimate I could find is that about 40% of millennials are involved in one (although the level of involvement varies. If I had to make another educated assumption, many are involved, but not active). The challenge is, these organizations are now perceive as non-essential and even old-school.
A cure for loneliness (?)
In developing that anti-loneliness drug, what they’re hoping to do is, as my smarter friend Will Estes noted, mitigate the mistrust and social withdrawal that accompany loneliness rather than suppression of that emotion.
Apart from medication, there are a number of other possible solutions for tackling this epidemic.
First, community organizations need to become better at engaging younger generations. As a whole, associations are experiencing challenges recruiting millennial members. Those perceptions of them being non-essential to a good life, or old-school, are likely leading factors. However, that’s not to say a community organization is bound to fail.
One interesting finding comes from a Buzz Marketing Group study, which found a 67% of millennials would, “prefer to join an organization founded by peers of a similar age.” That is both interesting and promising. It also provides a possible roadmap for how existing organizations can beef up outreach.
Community organizations provide a vital link between a community and its residents. As the desire to connect with like-minded people grows, so does the need for organizations to update and improve their outreach infrastructure.
Second, we have to look at our use of social media. We’re still in the wild-west days of the Internet, with norms and best-practices still being developed every day. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve experienced the negative effects that social media has on one’s perception of themselves and life. Your “friend” is spending their Tuesday afternoon on a yacht in the Mediterranean while you’re in an office nursing your third cup of coffee. But as we already subconsciously know, perception is not always reality. For a number of reasons, I’ve instituted changes in my media diet.
We already know the negative effect social media use can have on one’s psyche. The University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University, for example, found negative experiences contribute to feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Hardly a shock.
As humans, we need rules for ourselves. And there is no better area in our lives for rules than digital media. For example, I have the following rules for myself:
- Only follow people you care about (i.e. no “influencers”)
- Limit time across all platforms (set up RescueTime to monitor your internet usage, or set a social media time limit on your phone)
- Clean off your phone. On mine, I have Instagram only because there is not a browser-version for posting, but I don’t have the Facebook or Twitter app.
Third, expanding access to psychological assistance and creating a society where one can be open about feelings of social isolation is crucial. We’ve seen from recent mass shootings the devastating effect that such feelings can have on a person. Most people experiencing loneliness aren’t going to turn to violence, but the negative health effects are clear and dangerous nonetheless. The good news is, millennials are embracing therapy more than previous generations. They’re trying to find ways to pay for it, which is another issue, but the fact that they seek help out is promising.
This growing loneliness epidemic is troubling, but the idea that this has to be the new normal is incorrect. By focusing on creating healthier communities, improving mental health, and some self-discipline with our media consumption, this trend can be reversed, with millennials and subsequent generations serving as a model for making genuine connections in an increasingly disingenuous world.
I have the most random yet vivid memories from my childhood.
One of them is of the time I snuck a shovel out of the garage and began digging a hole in an abandoned flowerbed on the side of our house. I was trying to see how far I could dig. The thought of going all the way to the core of the Earth was exciting.
When my parents found out I was spending my days digging a big hole on the side of the house, they initially wanted me to stop. But, eventually, they let me do it. I wasn’t hurting anything, and digging holes was better than getting into trouble. My siblings did enough of that.
They let me have a sandbox – a safe environment to goof around in. And not just in the instance of the flowerbed. Throughout my childhood, they allowed me the freedom to experiment. It’s the reason I ended up with blonde highlights in junior high.
On second thought, maybe they should have instituted boundaries.
People need spaces to try new things on our own terms. Places to dig around, experience some failure, and get a little dirty in the process. Whether it leads us to discovering a profound passion or calling it quits after a day, the important thing is an ability to scratch the itch we inherently have.
People crave (and need) autonomy. And when they get it, it makes them more happy, motivated, fulfilled.
You may not have an old flowerbed available around the corner of your house, but somewhere, there is a space for you. Go find it.