Experts are calling it the "loneliness epidemic"
A study conducted in 2019, before the start of the pandemic, found that nearly 60% of young adults reported feeling lonely and having little to no close relationships. Despite the “re-opening” of our social world, the loneliness epidemic continues to strengthen and spread.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is a feeling of isolation despite the desire for social connections. According to experts, loneliness is less about being physically alone and more about feeling alone. For example, someone who moved across the country to start a new job may feel lonely despite being surrounded by an office full of people every day. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, weakened immunity, anxiety, depression and cognitive decline. Research has also shown that long-term loneliness can even shorten your lifespan.
What’s causing loneliness to spread in young adults?
In short, it’s complicated. The answer may change based on where you are in the world. Gen Z and millennials make up the largest population of young adults in the US and these generations report the highest incidence of loneliness. According to experts, these are some of the largest contributing factors:
An article published by the Pew Research Center found that, compared to previous generations, millennials were the most educated. Nearly 40% of millennials reported that they graduated from college. “Post-college Blues” is a common phenomena experienced in the immediate wake of graduation and is associated with loneliness experienced when grads transition out of their college environment. New grads trade the convenience of living next door to their long-time best friends for dinner for one in a dimly lit one-bedroom apartment.
It turns out that post grads aren’t the only ones struggling with social isolation. A survey conducted in 2021 by researchers at Boston University found that nearly 70% of college students report feeling isolated and lonely. Major colleges and universities often feature large class sizes and dormitories that house hundreds of students. Despite the closeness to so many potential friends, it is easy for new students to feel invisible or overwhelmed by the sea of people.
More young adults live alone now than in any other time in history. It's suspected that this may be due to the delaying of marriage and family. In 2019, only 46% of millennials were married and many delayed having children until their thirties. Further, with the growing trend of working from home, many young adults find themselves both living and working at home; alone.
Change in societal expectations
According to the same Boston University survey, societal values have become “more extrinsically motivated (making more money or getting more followers), rather than intrinsically motivated (being a good member of the community).” The pursuit to improve public perception has led to the deterioration of values that center on maintaining personal relationships. Whether it be a desire to fit in or fear of #cancelculture, it’s trendy to foster surface level relationships and shy away from deep or truthful conversations.
While there are many instances of social media being a tool for connection, there’s also evidence that shows a negative impact on socialization. Many young adults are glued to their devices; constantly checking for notifications, posting every part of their day, and “doom scrolling”. The perpetual connection to your device limits opportunities for meaningful interactions in real life.
The lost art of intimacy
While friendships can form based on a few shared interests, shared character traits and intimacy are required for genuine friendships to thrive. John 15:15 is perhaps one of my favorite verses in the bible. Jesus tells his disciples, “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Everything that He knew about God, he shared with his disciples. And because he shared everything with them, he deemed them worthy of friendship.
Intimacy requires that you share your true identity with someone that you trust and love. That identity must include every part of you, including your flaws. Intimacy requires a willingness to be vulnerable and to embrace the vulnerabilities of other people. There is no greater feeling than being truly known and truly loved at the same time.
How to break the pattern of loneliness
Loneliness is a state of being. Someone may feel lonely even if they are surrounded by people. There must be a willingness to change your mindset. Lonely people are often more sensitive to, and on the lookout for, rejection and criticism. They remember more of the negative things that happened during an encounter with another person and fewer positive things. This creates expectations of future social disappointments. They don't expect things to go well for them, and consequently, they often don't.
Be yourself, unapologetically
The first step is having a willingness to seek and engage in social interactions with others, regardless of the outcome. In those social interactions, it’s important to be honest and highlight genuine aspects of who you are. The goal is to establish authentic relationships. Authenticity paves the wave for intimacy to develop. You must be willing to put forth your true identity regardless of the outcome. It’s better to lose someone who isn’t a good fit than to pretend to be someone you’re not in order to keep that person around.
The second step is to be open to forgiveness. Forgive others when they do things that you find offensive. Forgive yourself for saying or doing things that offend others. Forgive relationships when they inevitably don't work out. There is a learning curve when you put yourself out there for the first time. Think back to childhood friendships! How many times did you get into an argument or falling out with a classmate or peer? We accept that romantic relationships come and go in our quest for "the one". The same is true for friendships. You shouldn't give up on finding meaningful friendships just because some of them didn't work out!
Lower your expectations
Whether it's trying to be someone you're not, or trying to emulate your favorite influencer's #bestie relationships, take a break from the social media comparisons. Even influencers are starting to admit that the instagram "lives" aren't reality. Lower your expectations of yourself and of others. Though the media may make us feel like we are living in a James Bond film, we are not! Real people, with real virtues and flaws, exist in our reality. We all deserve a little grace when it comes to this thing called life.
Changing your mindset takes time and practice, but in time, you’ll find connections that make it all worth it. The quality of your relationships will improve and those feelings of loneliness will be far more manageable. It just takes a leap of faith and a commitment to your future well-being.