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The loneliest generation

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Three in 10 millennials report always feeling lonely, more than any other generation. Is technology to blame, or is it simply human nature?

Written By

By Cassandra Morrison

The loneliest generation

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Deck sub header

Three in 10 millennials report always feeling lonely, more than any other generation. Is technology to blame, or is it simply human nature?

Written By

By Cassandra Morrison

How often do you feel that you lack companionship? Always? How often do you feel close to people? Sometimes? How often do you feel that no one really knows you? Rarely? Do you always feel isolated from others? Do the people in your life really understand you? Do you ever feel like people are around you but not with you?

Are you … lonely?

It’s OK. I won’t tell anyone. It feels like a trap, I know, but it’s just between us. Maybe it’ll help to know that you’re not alone in this loneliness.

Loneliness has been lauded as a national health crisis. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy says that the harmful effects of loneliness are as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Study after study links it to poor mental health, including depression, hopelessness, substance use, and cognitive impairment, as well as worse physical health and higher mortality. You can die from loneliness.

Anonymous surveys asking questions such as those above report that three in 10 millennials always or often feel lonely, compared to baby boomers who report rarely feeling lonely. Is it simply a generational divide? Maybe, but other factors certainly are at play. For one, talking about feelings honestly has evolved through the years. Millennials value emotion and talk about how they feel openly. They see therapists, dive into deep-seeded issues, and are much more likely to tell you about it than any previous generation.

Just because millennials are more open doesn’t mean they lack shame in admitting loneliness. Transformative social change student at Saybrook University, Max Van Gelder, a self-proclaimed millennial, says, “People think: If I admit I’m lonely, it seems like I’m a loser. If I’m lonely, it’s seen as a personal failing. It obviously means nobody wants to talk to me. Even if it’s not true, that’s how a lot of people feel.”

Psychotherapist and post-doctoral teaching fellow at Saybrook, Naoko Brown, Ph.D., echoes the same sentiment. She researched the topic for her dissertation, “Lived experience of loneliness: A narrative inquiry.”

“People are not all that open about their loneliness—a lot of my patients didn’t even realize they were lonely—or they hadn’t known how to give a name to what they’re feeling. And often they’re worried about how other people could view them, worried that someone may think something’s wrong with them,” Dr. Brown says. “Even if they’re open to talking about it, they’re not talking about it with their friends. And people are rarely talking about feeling lonely when they have friends or a significant other.”

People think: If I admit I’m lonely, it seems like I’m a loser. If I’m lonely, it’s seen as a personal failing. It obviously means nobody wants to talk to me. Even if it’s not true, that’s how a lot of people feel.

Isolation or loneliness?

It’s important to make the distinction between isolation and loneliness. Although they are sometimes related, they are not reliant on one another. Age is an important factor in discussing both.

With an aging population, Berlin, known as “The Capital of Loneliness,” offers an interesting case study. Half of all households are made up of only one person. The city enacted chitchat hotlines for the elderly, organized cuddle parties to encourage human touch, and are currently championing the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness.

The United Kingdom already has such a role. In 2017, after a study reported that more than nine million people in Britain often or always feel lonely, former Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the country’s first Minister for Loneliness. Community programs bring together elderly and youth alike. For example, Shared Lives matches pensioners who are struggling with loneliness with young people who need somewhere to live. This program brings together those who are physically isolated due to their age with those who may not have someone to connect with in their own generation.

But what happens when more than just physical isolation creates loneliness? In The Journal of International Psychogeriatrics, Dilip V. Jeste, M.D., Director of UC San Diego's Center for Healthy Aging, delineates the subjective nature of loneliness. “It is the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have,” he says.

Are you lonely?

people who say they always feel lonely by generation


The humanistic approach

Humanistic psychology has long been interested in the distinction between social and intimacy loneliness. This discrepancy can often be attributed to our hunger for connection and our incapacity to do so in a fulfilling way.

“It’s not always a lack of desire to connect with someone, but sometimes an inability or inexperience with doing so. I found that a lot of people recognize that they’re not experiencing the ideal intimacy in their relationship, but it’s the closest they feel to anyone, so they feel like it’s the best they can get or have ever had,” Dr. Brown says.

When you don’t know how to be vulnerable, all you know is that what you’re experiencing doesn’t feel like you want it to, causing a sense of loneliness to rise. Dr. Brown goes on to explain, “People will try to connect in the ‘right’ way and talk to others, but still feel like they’re not being understood.”

Humanistic and Clinical Psychology Department Chair Drake Spaeth, Psy.D., explains that by nature we can’t ever truly be understood. “Being aware of our own death and the fact that we are embodied in these human bodies, isolation is a given that we have little control over,” he says. “We experience these moments of awareness of our separateness in blips, aware that one day we are going to die and no one can go through this for us. No one will ever truly understand what it’s like to be us in the way we uniquely experience it.”


Loneliness: a social media contagion

The difficulty of communicating our wants and needs and finding true connection within relationships is not a new problem. The ways we communicate and opportunities to connect have changed over centuries, decades, years, and sometimes even within days—with new apps or social media platforms all offering another way to communicate. As social media has gained popularity, it has offered solutions for connection, along with its own set of problems—often shouldering the blame for why millennials are so depressed, anxious, and lonely.

Dr. Spaeth believes that social media harkens back to letter writing, which is a benefit to society, but simultaneously lends itself to inauthentic communication.

“Social media has been a wonderful outlet for creative self-expression in many ways, but it also keeps us in our own encapsulated space. We try to find ways to mimic personal contact and intimate relationships through technology, for instance with video conferencing,” Dr. Spaeth says. “But no true eye contact can ever be made through a website, and to me, there’s no substitute for genuine eye contact and the soul-to-soul encounter that happens.

“It’s a combination of very superficial communication sometimes disguised as deeper communication. It’s this disconnect that leads us to really crave authentic human connection. Even if we don’t know quite what it is, we know we’re not quite getting it. It’s like an itch that almost gets scratched but not quite.”

But for some, technology and social media offer a necessary way in. An easier way to forge relationships and connections that they normally would not be able to form.

“For people who don’t prefer going out or don’t feel comfortable around others, it can be a tool rather than a crutch. Just because they don’t feel comfortable saying hi to a stranger or making a coffee date with someone new doesn’t mean they don’t want friends. It’s just their pre-existing, or learned, toolkit for entering social situations,” Van Gelder says. “A lot of people who are shy are hungry for social interaction but don’t know how to go get it. For them, technology can facilitate a much needed community.”

It’s a combination of very superficial communication sometimes disguised as deeper communication. It’s this disconnect that leads us to really crave authentic human connection. Even if we don’t know quite what it is, we know we’re not quite getting it. It’s like an itch that almost gets scratched but not quite.


Shaking up the narrative

Headline after headline ties social media and technology to loneliness and depression; stock photo after stock photo shows millennials with downtrodden gazes, glued to their phones. But are the rampant reports of loneliness that easy to explain or are other factors at play?

The Journal of International Psychogeriatrics reported people feel loneliness most during their late 20s, mid-50s, and late 80s. Perhaps it makes sense that in periods of life with drastic changes—from birth, rebirth, to death—a feeling of hopelessness and despair emerges as loneliness.

“There’s this fulcrum where things in life are in crisis or unstable. I can’t speak to a certain generation’s experience, but the liminal nature of these time periods emerge clearly. In our 20s, we’re really emerging from adolescence into young adulthood as an initiation. Middle age is an initiation into later adulthood, and ultimately into late old age contemplating the possibility of death. Liminal speaks to the ways these time periods are thresholds between these places and things,” Dr. Spaeth says.

The natural progression of life combined with our interconnectivity through social media has complicated the narrative about loneliness and given it a generational slant. But, as Van Gelder points out, it’s not as clear cut.

“It’s a sign of the times, not a generational indicator,” he says. “If the iPhone came out in the 1960s, would they have ignored it? Used technology better? It is solely coincidental that we got the innovation when we did. If it had happened in any other decade, it would have progressed similarly. We didn’t have a handbook for how to use technology or how to use social media best. We’re learning.”

Learning may be the answer to solving the crisis. One study found that the quality with the highest inverse correlation to loneliness is wisdom. They defined wisdom to include the ability to regulate emotions, self-reflect, be compassionate, tolerate opposing viewpoints, and be decisive. Very literally: The wiser you are, the less lonely you are. By developing our wisdom, perhaps we’ll find our way out of loneliness.


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