All The Lonely People: How Do We Solve The Loneliness Epidemic?
How is it possible that so many of us feel we have nobody to talk to, when we are such a hyper-connected society? How can we all improve the quality of our connections, to solve the loneliness epidemic?
So Connected and Yet So Lonely
Despite all our opportunities to connect, few of us feel fulfilled by our interactions. While Facebook and Snapchat give us people to talk to, they don’t make a dent in the loneliness problem: seven out of 10 Americans use social media, and yet over seven out of 10 experience “moderate to high levels of loneliness.” In fact, heavy users of social media may feel the most lonely of all. So loneliness isn’t a question of the mere number of connections one has.
The phenomenon of loneliness while surrounded by others extends through all generations, regardless of gender, though the lonely feelings seem to be more severe for certain age groups.
Specifically, the youngest generations bear the greatest burden of loneliness, with over half of Millennial respondents to Cigna’s Loneliness Survey responding “yes” to 10 out of 11 loneliness criteria.
If the problem isn’t simply being alone, something about how we interact must be spinning off the tracks. Says the leader of a recent UCSD loneliness study: “Loneliness is…caused by a lack of satisfactory relationships, not being alone.” That distinction hints at the root of our loneliness problem.
How Can We Feel More Satisfied and Less Alone?
You’d think that since we all want to connect, it’d be easy to make friends and banish our loneliness for good. But we’re collectively having trouble with this societal issue, because the instinctive answer is too deceptively simple.
To stop being lonely, just to find some people to be around. Right?
Meet some people. Meet just one other person. There, you’re all set. Problem not solved? Something more must be wrong with you.
We’re not just lonely when we’re isolated. People already in relationships feel isolated and lonely, even with their partners, and feeling lonely around friends is an increasingly common hallmark of depression.
But the issue of loneliness goes far deeper than simple human interaction, because we have forgotten how to effectively — satisfyingly — interact.
Barriers To Quality Relationships
Modern loneliness goes hand in hand with the opioid, depression, and anxiety epidemics sweeping the US and infiltrating our global society.
These, being so pervasive across demographic and socioeconomic lines, may all stem from a foundational root cause — more than just needing to talk or interact more.
Because of the last century’s changes in lifestyle, parenting, and childhood norms, we’ve seen a marked change in how subsequent generations learn to interact with both others and themselves.
For years, socialization was geographically and culturally constrained. You stayed in just about the same place, and so did the other people around you. Your shared surroundings, experiences, and culture all provided conversational fodder.
There was little ability to wear a social ‘mask,’ because you had little control over when and in what circumstances you would see your friends, family, neighbors, community members, colleagues, and acquaintances.
In our society’s changing emotional landscape, there have never been enough resources for everyone to address their burdens. And due to stigma, we feel even less motivated to seek help.
Many have had no choice but to turn their struggles inward.
Open Communication: Vulnerability Is The Key To Authentic Connection
We now know that inward direction of intense emotion, known as ‘internalizing,’ lies at the root of many mental health diagnoses, and that internalizing behavior in parents has concrete effects on children.
That point gets to the heart of our loneliness epidemic:
Without places for people to express the turmoil they experience, it gets turned inward, warping how we interact with each other and ourselves.
Without resources for adults to heal their wounds, their wounds get passed on to their children.
This intergenerational trauma has become amplified from generation to generation in an atmosphere of stigma and judgement. And now we’re finally seeing the mass consequences of people ignoring their own emotional needs.
Because of our social norms, adults are accidentally passing on ineffective emotional coping mechanisms and unhealthy attachment. And these unhealthy social experiences, going back to childhood, impact us with both physical and mental consequences. This has likely contributed to younger generations’ progressively worse feelings of isolation — and to the loneliness epidemic at large.
So to come back to our main question: how can lonely people feel more connected? They’ll have to challenge the emotional norms they may have grown up with.
To feel less lonely, people have to practice noticing and expressing their real thoughts and feelings, which form the basis of genuine connections. They’ll have to allow themselves to be vulnerable around others — in safe spaces, where vulnerability is met with engagement and acceptance, rather than attacks.
Now the question is, how and where can we feel safe enough to be vulnerable around others? And how does being authentic in this way help us feel less lonely?
How Can Lonely People Work On Making Real Connections?
Because loneliness seems to be a lack of quality in relationships, rather than a lack of anybody around, the root of loneliness may be in shallow strings of connection.
To develop more genuine, higher quality relationships, individuals have to engage with the world as their authentic selves. But even though authenticity is key to feeling seen and heard, too many have been taught (overtly or subconsciously) that authenticity is dangerous. That vulnerability is dangerous.
Maybe this is why we’re staying lonely — because we don’t have opportunities to feel safe being our authentic selves in the real world. Social media usage has driven this, asking us to project the most flawless and idealized versions of who we are.
Since our current social norms work against loneliness-busting vulnerability, we need safe spaces to practice it. Authentic communication involves vulnerability, openness, and a willingness to share. And it’s hard to jump into openness when you’re afraid you’ll be judged or attacked. So where can we feel safe enough to open up authentically?
The answer may lie in anonymous spaces. Anonymity is a key facilitator of authenticity in today’s world, because it may provide enough ‘safety’ to engage in vulnerable conversations. We can really only create these spaces online, but they do exist — like at Supportiv.
In online safe spaces like Supportiv, people can express their most honest thoughts and feelings, without anyone knowing who they are. And the key feeling of safety is reinforced through a troll-free atmosphere, and warm, understanding moderators trained to listen rather than judge.
When people feel safe to be themselves, they’re able to build evidence that their real selves are acceptable. And that makes it easier to connect in real life — combating loneliness at its root.
Can Our Entire Society Learn To Beat Loneliness?
If we could help everyone practice being vulnerable, in anonymous places, we’d set off a cascade of positive effects:
- It’s only possible to be vulnerable in a place where one feels safe, seen, and understood. Safety from judgement and attack allows individuals to open up and feel accepted for their real selves.
- Feeling accepted for who you really are leads to self-acceptance.
- Self-acceptance leads to easier interpersonal authenticity.
- And authentic conversations create feelings of satisfying connection.
Satisfying connection is the opposite of loneliness.
So if helping people be vulnerable will help fight the loneliness epidemic, let’s set this domino effect off with a bang!
Supportiv’s full Let’s Talk About Loneliness article collection explores individual barriers contributing to our loneliness epidemic, and provides short and long term solutions to the pervasive struggle of feeling disconnected and alone.
Find more real-talk about the loneliness epidemic, here.