Human Connection Expert Unni Turrettini On How We Can Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People

An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

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Because loneliness is the belief of not being worthy of love and connection, it’s crucial to focus on self-love and self-confidence. Have a morning practice where you take ten minutes to meditate and journal. One of my favorite tips is to write at the top of a blank page: How can I love myself more today? Then I write whatever comes, and I try to give myself what I need. This would be a good practice to have in schools.

Our youth are facing a loneliness epidemic like never before. They have “social” media, but many are lacking healthy social lives. Many have likes and virtual “friends” but not real live friends. They can text and tweet but not speak and listen and connect. And they are feeling it. Humans were made for real live interaction, and we crave it when we don’t get it, or don’t even know how to go about looking for connection. How can we solve this loneliness epidemic that young people face?

As a part of our interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People’ we had the pleasure to interview Unni Turrettini, Norwegian-born author, speaker, and Human Connection Expert who helps people connect with their source of power so they can feel confident and excited about their life.

Unni is also the author of the award-winning The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer, which examines Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik from both a psychological and sociological perspective and focuses on what we can learn from that tragedy to prevent rampage killings spurred by loneliness.

With law degrees from Norway, France, and the United States, Unni is a member of the New York Bar, and worked in law and finance for nearly a decade before becoming a full-time author, speaker, and facilitator.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

I was born and raised in Norway, but I look at myself as a global and multicultural citizen. For the longest time, I was searching for belonging and connection. Growing up, my family moved several times and I often felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. Even within my own family and culture.

As a young woman, I was eager to travel and wanted to find a place I could call home. In high school, I went to the United States as an exchange student, which was the first time I was separated from my family for more than a year. I loved being in a place where my individual success was encouraged — very different from Norwegian culture. My host family had four adopted children, two black and two Asian, which taught me a lot about diversity. Later, I moved to France to study law, went back to the United States again, and then to Switzerland where I got married and founded a family.

But even with a family on my own, there was something missing. That’s when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to fill my emptiness with more material things, people, social status, or titles. I had to come to terms with me, my wounds, and reconnect with the young girl inside of me who was not only hurt and angry — but who is strong, courageous, and tells the truth. The final part of this healing came when I moved back to Oslo in 2016, after twenty years abroad.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Back when I was still working in finance, my boss sent me to represent our bank at a big finance conference in Moscow. I didn’t know anyone there, and the only other woman I saw was Madeleine Albright, who was there to give a speech. I remember feeling like a nobody.

One morning, I was in the elevator going down to the hotel lobby when a man entered. He looked at me and said, “Hi Unni, how are you doing this morning?” I had met this man briefly at one of the events earlier in the week, and I barely remembered him. But he remembered me, and he knew my name. That did something to me. It was like something in me shifted. His recognition gave me a boost of confidence, and I spent the rest of the conference getting to know everyone I met. I came back to the office the following week with a stack of business cards. Some of these new contacts invested in our fund.

I didn’t know it then, but that short meeting in the hotel elevator generated something called relational energy. Relational energy, which is the energy created in our social interactions, is powerful because it sparks a chain of reactions. The first reaction is emotional — it makes us feel good. The second is cognitive, which means the encounter gives you clarity and increased focus. Together, the emotional and cognitive reactions make you more productive. Relational energy, which is the goal of connection, is the ultimate performance enhancer and contributor to mental health and wealth.

It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Absolutely! I don’t know that it’s a humorous mistake, at least it wasn’t at the time. But I think it’s a mistake that many people make, especially when they are young. The mistake I made was I was looking for fulfillment outside of myself. Not only did I collect material things like degrees and titles, I collected people. I had a big network all over the world, I was surrounded by people. Yet, I felt empty. I got married, thinking that my husband would make me complete (thank you, Disney!). When our first baby was born, I went into a depression, and I didn’t understand why I still felt so empty. I mean, I loved my family more than anything. I also felt shame for not being happier during that time.

The problem, as I would discover later, was that I didn’t love myself. I was always trying to prove my worth and find my place in the world through other people’s recognition. If you had asked me back then if I felt lonely, I’m not sure I would have resonated with that word, because of the traditional definition of loneliness only focuses on a longing for connection with others. What many people, including myself at the time, don’t know is that loneliness is a disconnection from yourself. When you are disconnected, you will never feel fulfilled in your relationships or with life in general.

Here’s what I’ve learned. Many don’t realize they suffer from loneliness. There are many symptoms of disconnection, including feelings of emptiness, sadness, depression, anxiety, and anger.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I have just created a new program where I’ve taken the best parts of previous teachings and shortened them so that the participants can reconnect with themselves and reach their goals much quicker. Plug Into Your Power combines self-study with live group coaching calls. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to feel more confident, fulfilled in their relationships, and successful in their life.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority on the topic of ‘The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People’?

My journey with loneliness started when I was a child, feeling as if I didn’t belong in my culture or my family. Then, on July 22, 2011, Norway experienced the most horrific attack since World War II, when Anders Behring Breivik single-handedly killed seventy-seven people, most of them teenagers. I needed to understand how this 32-year-old man could become a mass murderer and what we can do to stop the next lone wolf.

In the process, I studied hundreds of similar mass killers around the world. All of them were young men. As difficult as it was to study the mind of a killer, I also felt compassion for the young boy Breivik used to be. I could relate to some of his pain growing up, feeling like an outsider. My research led me to writing and publishing my book The Mystery of The Lone Wolf Killer in a hope to create awareness of the warning signs and to cultivate a culture of belonging. All anyone really wants is to feel seen, heard, and valued.

With the publication of the book, I was thrown into media interviews and public speaking. I continued my research into loneliness and connection, and eventually developed my own method, which I have used to help hundreds of people overcome loneliness, reconnect with themselves, and feel confident and fulfilled. As a keynote speaker, I also speak at schools to raise awareness about loneliness in youth and how we can help them connect with themselves and others in a more meaningful way.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in the New York Times, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US, but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

People are hardwired to connect with other people. In the thirteenth century, the German king Frederick II conducted an experiment intended to discover what language children would naturally grow up to speak if never spoken to. King Frederick took babies from their mothers at birth and placed them in the care of nurses who were forbidden to speak in their presence, and, in addition the nurses were not allowed to touch the infants. A horrific and cruel experiment! All the babies tragically died because of lack of touch, love, and attention.

So we know that isolation and loneliness affect our physical and mental health, and, in extreme cases, can be lethal. What’s interesting is that, today, most people who struggle with loneliness are surrounded by people. We feel lonely when our need for connection is not met, meaning the quality of our relationships are not satisfactory. There are three main reasons why loneliness is harmful to our health:

First, when we feel lonely, we go into fight or flight mode. The brain sends signals that we are in danger and the body starts producing chemicals and hormones that will help us either fight the enemy or run from it. However, when the feeling of loneliness endures, these chemicals put our body under enormous stress and begin to tear us down from the inside. Our immune system weakens, and we become prone to illnesses including heart disease. According to research, loneliness is as harmful to our body as heavy smoking and obesity.

Second, in addition to the physical ramifications, loneliness frequently leads to depression and mental illness. Also, because most people who struggle with loneliness are surrounded by people, the feeling of loneliness is exaggerated by shame and failure. “Everyone else looks like they have it all figured out, there must be something wrong with me,” is a frequent thought among those who struggle with loneliness.

Third, loneliness can make us dangerous. Not only toward ourselves because of the increased risk of suicide, but also toward others. Loneliness was one the common characteristics in all the mass killers I studied for my book The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killers.

Based on your experience or research, are children impacted differently than adults by the loneliness epidemic? How?

The natural process of teen identity formation can create feelings of teenage alienation and isolation. What that means is that some amount of loneliness in teenagers is normal. Having said that, children and young adults are impacted differently by loneliness because the part of the brain that regulates emotions is still maturing. Therefore, teens tend to feel the negative emotional impact of loneliness more intensely. In addition, teens haven’t had enough time yet to learn coping skills for dealing with loneliness, so they may find themselves wondering “why do I feel lonely?” and “what’s wrong with me?”

The feeling of loneliness is enhanced if you are surrounded by people. We, as human beings, are meaning making machines, so we try to make sense of our experiences. As a child, if you don’t understand why you experience rejection, for example, you make up a story that the rejection is your fault because there is something inherently wrong with you. So, on top of feeling lonely, you are now also doubting your worth.

According to the Cigna US Loneliness Survey, young people suffer from loneliness far more than any other age group. In addition, a British project called the BBC Loneliness Experiment found the highest levels of loneliness in teenagers and adolescents. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, 40 percent reported that they often or very often felt lonely.

This explosion in youth loneliness coincides with the explosion in social media use. While there isn’t enough research to prove that social media in itself makes you feel lonely, if you are already struggling with social isolation and you watch other people’s seemingly perfect lives on Instagram, their posts can give you FOMO (fear of missing out). Also, if you are sitting alone at home scrolling on your phone and discover a post of your friends are having a party without you, the feeling is exclusion can be excruciating.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness among our youth harming our communities and society?

We, as human beings, live for connection. What happens when you experience loneliness and separation from others is your life is threatened. When you are under the gun of the fight-or flight nervous system, being run by its cocktail of intoxicating chemicals, you are programmed to be concerned only about your body and the things or people in your near environment. This is because survival mode narrows your focus and gives you tunnel vision. So, basically, loneliness makes you self-centered and less caring of the broader society.

As a culture, we are disconnected. In most of the Western world, we’ve lost a sense of community. The focus is on individual freedom and success, which are good things. We want both! However, in the process we lost what a tribe can provide: people looking out for each other, a common goal, and a sense of belonging. Our society has never been more divided and trust in leadership is at a historic low point. That affects our youth and children, who grow up with few or no role models and with negative expectations about their future.

The most extreme result of loneliness and disconnection is suicide and mass murder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the United States. Nearly 20 percent of high school students reported serious thoughts of suicide and 9 percent had attempted to take their lives.

Loneliness also has a financial cost. In the United States, loneliness is costing the US economy $406 billion per year in lost productivity.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why our young people are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

First, technology plays a part in why many young people are struggling with loneliness. Modern progress and technology have brought unprecedented advances for us technically to connect, but often these advances also create challenges that make us feel more alone and disconnected. For example, thanks to advances in transportation, it’s easier to visit friends and family, but this increased mobility also means many of us live far away from our loved ones. We move more often and we’re spread out all over the world. Thanks to technology and social media, we can enjoy all the conveniences of a community without directly interacting with people or getting our need for connection met. Although virtual communities are better than nothing, there is something missing when we are not physically in the same room.

My teenage son developed social anxiety during the pandemic. He seemed fine when at home and in the comfort of his own room, communicating safely from behind his screen. But when he had to go back to school again, he started getting physically ill before leaving the house. The stress of going back to the classroom and having to deal with his peers in person was too much. Discomfort with and “forgetting” how to be social is a consequence of social isolation. The brain processes an enormous amount of information every day and filters out what’s unimportant. Things you don’t use often will be deemed less important by the brain. In other words, much like your high school German, if you don’t use it, you lost it.

The second reason is perhaps less obvious, but the most important. We as a culture, are disconnected from our selves. We are conditioned to be like the other children on the playground and to focus on fitting in as we grow up. We spend a big portion of our lives playing roles and suppressing our emotions to be accepted and recognized. The result is disconnection from the self. Although much of this programming is unconscious, we teach our kids by example. Most people are unaware of their disconnection, but loneliness is one of the symptoms. When we are disconnected, our sense of self-worth is affected. We believe we’re not enough. Loneliness and unworthiness go hand in hand because loneliness is the belief that you are unworthy of love and connection. In my view, unworthiness is the new pandemic on our planet.

Third, we live in a culture that over-emphasizes negative news and glorifies victimhood. People are easily offended, intolerant to differences in opinions, and blame others instead of taking responsibility for our lives. We see this behavior in all levels of society from the top to bottom. It’s like we’re in constant survival mode. We, as a society, have never been more divided. By example, we are teaching our kids to fear the “other” and distrust themselves. As a result, our youth feels disempowered. The news is filled with tragedy and doomsday predictions, which nourishes disconnection and hopelessness further.

Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the attacks in Norway on July 22, 2011, in which 77 people were killed, is an example of what can happen when we are completely disconnected. While there were multiple factors leading to his demise, loneliness, a deep distrust in the country’s leadership, and hopelessness were the drivers toward extremism and violence.

What signs would you tell parents, friends, or loved ones to look for in young people they think may need help? Can you please explain?

Younger children who experience loneliness tend to be clingy and/or needy. Because loneliness is a belief of not being worthy of love and connection, these children can grow up with low self-confidence and trust. They often withdraw and reject themselves from the social scene. Loneliness over time leads to depression and social anxiety.

Ok. It is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the “5 Things Each Of Us Can Do To Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic Among Young People?” Please give a story or an example for each.

Thank you for allowing me to share what I’ve learned through my years research and personal experience. You can also watch this short video. None of the following things are hard to do. However, mastering connection and reconnecting with oneself takes intention and a daily practice:

  1. DISCOVER YOUR SELF-WORTH

Because loneliness is the belief of not being worthy of love and connection, it’s crucial to focus on self-love and self-confidence. Have a morning practice where you take ten minutes to meditate and journal. One of my favorite tips is to write at the top of a blank page: How can I love myself more today? Then I write whatever comes, and I try to give myself what I need. This would be a good practice to have in schools.

Also, we as parents must work on our own self-worth and have healthy boundaries in place. Boundaries define the perimeters of what you will accept in your life. People with low confidence tend to have fewer limits as to what they will accept. If you, as a parent, always put other people first at the expense of your own needs, you teach your children that it’s a virtue to sacrifice themselves. Discovering and increasing self-worth is about choosing yourself and reconnecting with yourself as a daily practice. At the end of the day, the best way to help our youth is by example.

2. INCREASE TRUST

Trust and self-love go hand in hand. When you don’t love yourself or trust yourself, it’s difficult to trust others. Again, we can help our youth by example. The following three ways are not new, but they are ever so important in our current culture of victimhood and blame:

  1. Be consistent. Do what you say and only say things you intend to do.
  2. When you are wrong or have made a mistake, admit it and apologize. In addition to building trust, you also show that it’s okay to not be perfect.
  3. Take responsibility. Even if what happened wasn’t your fault, there is always a way to take (at least partly) responsibility and to own your reaction to what happened.

3. H.O.P.E. (HELP ONE PERSON EVERYDAY)

Few things make us feel better than giving of ourselves. Contribution is one of our basic human needs because it makes us feel like we matter. Your contribution doesn’t have to be big or take a lot of time. Give someone a compliment or sit down next to someone who is alone. The acronym HOPE is something I live by. It stands for Help One Person Everyday.

4. BECOME AN IDEA MACHINE

Start writing down at least three ideas every day about anything big or small, including ideas you have for other people. Contact these people with your ideas for them, even if you don’t know them, without expecting anything in return. Some might respond and want to connect, some might not. The point of the exercise is you step out of the pity-party in your own head and into a more positive and creative state of mind.

5. TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY

According to the Cigna US Loneliness Survey, sleeping eight hours per night led to lower loneliness scores. People who reported sleeping long enough, were significantly more likely to have close friends and connections. The same is true for exercise. People who reported getting the right amount of physical activity were more likely to feel that they were part of a group of friends and had a lot in common with others. That’s because emotions are linked to movement in our bodies. Getting your heart rate up shifts your energy and is a natural mood enhancer. So, while you’re listening to your favorite song, dance around. Go for a walk outside — sun light does wonders for your mental state.

In addition to getting enough sleep and movement, what you eat affects your mental state. You wouldn’t put the wrong fuel into your car, and the same goes for your body. What you feed your body also feeds your mind, so be sure to eat healthy, avoid sugar and processed food, and drink plenty of water.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to see a movement of mentorship, where every person is responsible for someone else. The idea is a feeling of community where people have each other’s backs. I would like self-worth classes in all schools — learning how to love oneself should be part of the curriculum. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, there is something we all can do: HOPE — Help One Person Everyday.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

If I had to pick one person, it would be Sir Richard Branson. He has achieved so much, and he has such a positive outlook on life.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I love making new connections and can be reached through my website www.unniturrettini.com.

I’m also active on:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/unni.turrettini/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/UnniHumanConnection

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/unniturrettini/

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!

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Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.