Loneliness is on the rise. I see this as a serious warning signal for all of us. According to the Cigna report cited in Part 1 of this blog series, adults from more recent generations scored higher on the UCLA loneliness scale than the adults from older ones. That difference in loneliness was not attributable to social media use. I am not surprised. I think there is something deeper and more insidious at work here. Something that is undermining the capacity of today’s young adults to form and maintain strong social connections.
Individuals from the Greatest Generation, people like my parents who were born before 1945, were not wildly different on a molecular level than my Gen Z children born in the 1990’s but their childhood experiences and the corresponding social norms were incredibly different. As I have laid out in Parts 1 and 2 of this blog series, I believe that both universal and gender-specific adaptations have fostered our biological success through the evolution of psychological needs that gave a selective advantage in securing our physiological needs. Thriving in the past was inextricably linked to the process of surviving whereas thriving now requires making conscious, often counter-culture, lifestyle choices. These choices are hard to make without a solid reference point of experience-one needs to know what “good” actually feels like, physiologically and psychologically, to be able to figure out how to re-create such feelings. This is especially true from a social standpoint. Human children are dependent on adults until the age of about 13 years, in part because they need to experience and learn how to form attachments. Feeling deeply connected to family and community as a child provides both the motivation and the opportunity to learn behaviors that lead to healthy relationships.
However, everyone arrives at adulthood with patterned behaviors that reflect the two complementary strategies they learned to defend against the inherent vulnerabilities of life- avoidance of harm and trusting affiliation. Resiliency is the optimal outcome. It reflects simultaneous competency in navigating self-sufficiency and in developing and maintaining relationships with other people. Resiliency derives from a clear understanding that there is vulnerability in focusing solely on one’s own needs as well as vulnerability in giving, or receiving, more than one’s fair share in relationships with others. Resilient people are rarely, if ever lonely. It is useful to understand what it is that they do differently.
Most importantly, they are able to seek and maintain secure attachments by recognizing, understanding, respecting, and accepting the needs of others. They are interested in mutually beneficial outcomes rather than power. They respond to the vulnerability of others with concern and care rather than displays of competitive advantage. They also approach relationships with a corresponding expectation of reciprocity and experience the deeper connection that results from the natural balance of give and take. Even in the face of an impactful loss in their support network caused by death, divorce or relocation, resilient individuals move to build new relationships. They are comfortable being self-reliant in the process. Is it possible that the loneliness epidemic represents the leading edge in an overall decline in resilience? If so, what is the root cause?
In the last five decades, I have witnessed intrusions to bonding and the development of social ties at both the family and community level that have led to an overall weakening of attachments in general. Although generations prior to mine dealt with the stress caused by wars, social injustice and the Great Depression, their collective vulnerability created a genuine, shared commitment to peace, justice and greater prosperity which resulted in a culture of cooperation and some positive changes. Things seem different today. The fixation on income inequity has arisen from the expanded awareness and co-existence of the economically stable with the economically vulnerable. One result is a collective focus on financial success and the education it takes to secure it. Loneliness may be an unintended consequence.
I believe that the national hyper-focus on “school” ignores the negative effects of the competition (e.g. incessant grade reporting and achievement testing) it promotes. Success in school, as measured by gaining entrance into a good university, is dependent on competitions and contests that start in the pre-school years. The never-ending stream of “pride posts” can now be seen on every social media platform out there. As a result, there are strange new social silos created in childhood and a more pathological form of parenting that hijacks healthy self-interest. Children, through no fault of their own, have become more prized and praised by adults and oddly reliant on their parents for much longer periods of time. I contend that both the winners and the losers in the great K-12 competition are less resilient and less ready for adult relationships as a result.
In a 2010 paper that addresses the “shrinking world of childhood”, the authors cite a report that showed nearly half of adults surveyed in the UK expressed the view that “children under the age of fourteen should not be allowed to go outside with their friends without an adult”. To put that statement into perspective, my British father was fourteen in 1945. After the Second World War ended, he went to work as a courier, navigating the city of London alone and on foot. He needed to help support his family after having spent six years evacuated from them, moving from farm to farm living with people he did not know. He managed to get a 7th grade education and have only two brief visits home in the process. In short, he was trained by his early childhood experiences to be resilient. I think his whole generation was. Maybe this is why they are less lonely.
Luckily, learning to live an uplifting life is something everyone can do. What I learned from my grandparents, parents and various mentors from other generations are the ten “tried and true” behaviors at the end of this post. I am also providing a table with explanations and cautionary advice for those who are interested in more details. Ultimately, the antidote to loneliness is having a sufficient number of connections to people who are close enough in proximity to allow frequent enough, in-person interactions. In short, that means making other people feel like they matter and being sure you feel the same way. To unlock the cell of loneliness, test these behaviors out or make a point of modeling them or teaching them to others who seem to struggle. Trust me, they work.
- Express interest in those with whom you might share an interest
- Be prepared to communicate your needs clearly and encourage others to be open with you
- Initiate outings and/or invite people over to your home
- Respond promptly, decisively and politely to any invitations you receive
- Keep the commitments you make and be present for them (ditch your “device” not your “date”)
- Show up on time so people are not forced to wait for you, and leave before the very end so others are not left to wait on you
- Express appreciation and gratitude often and celebrate the success of others
- Offer specific support when you see someone is struggling
- Do not request an evenly split check if you stand to gain from the transaction
- Give small “gifts” that reflect your understanding of who others are and remind you of them
If you have any other tips or thoughts, I would love to share them in a future blog- anonymously or full credit given, whatever you prefer.
 Place Matter: The Significance of Place Attachments for Children’s Well-Being. Gordon Jack. British Journal of Social Work (2010) 40: 755-771