The pattern has become easy to identify in my caseload; single, young professionals finding themselves unable to navigate increasing depressive symptoms despite their best efforts. These are educated and capable individuals, who prioritize their mental and physical well-being, with decent jobs, hobbies and interests…yet find themselves unable to maintain deep friendships or a sense of community. In a digital age where younger generations have increasingly relocated more than any other previous generation, we are finding ourselves feeling increasingly more alone.
Currently, 58% of Americans report feeling lonely consistently, with data skewing slightly higher in the younger generations of Gen. Z and Millennials. In younger, more transient cities like Denver, I find most young professionals are temporarily established, and less invested in finding long-term friendships or community connections. The convenience of remote positions creates flexibility in scheduling and location, but minimizes the face-to-face interactions, despite how seemingly tedious at times, are critical for our health.
Those who experience persistent loneliness are three times as likely to catch the common cold compared to those who had lots of connections to others. Further research has shown the profound implications of loneliness on physical health including one that displayed that rats with breast cancer that were kept in isolation had eighty four times the number of breast cancer tumors compared to the rats that were raised in community.
Does depression lead to loneliness? No, in fact it is the opposite; loneliness has been found to proceed depression and creates a cascading effect on someone’s mental health. Loneliness becomes a perpetuating cycle, as lonely people grow to become more anxious, have lower self-esteem, more pessimistic, and are afraid other people will dislike them. These people become more hypervigilant in social situations, take offense where none is intended, and view neutral faces as more threatening.
We are now fully aware that despite advances in technology, we are connecting less effectively with increases in depressive and anxious symptoms positively correlated with time spent on social media. However, the issue of loneliness in our country has been an increasing issue for decades. In a society that values self-sufficiency over collectivist collaboration, we have whittled away ‘Third Spaces’, or places for community to join and gather. First Spaces consist of our home, and Second Spaces refer to our place of work, while Third Spaces are places of worship, community centers, libraries, social club, etc. You can see the shift in this behavior in neighborhoods predating the 1950’s through one major feature- front porches. There was a time when we created structure around visibility and socializing even in our homes, before we secluded ourselves the fenced privacy away from our neighbors.
While the cards seem stacked against us in the monster of our own creation, the solution is rather simple, starting with awareness of these habits and trends that are deeply engrained. Finding meaningful connection is a practice, so be patient with the process. Attending one yoga class might not form a connection, but attending the same yoga studio for several weeks builds familiarity and consistency. For individuals who may already be engrained in family or community, be mindful of those in your circle who may not have the same sense of connection or belonging – a new neighbor, the coworker who recently relocated to the area, the friend of a friend with lower self-esteem.
Meaningful connections are contingent upon two factors:
You must feel you are sharing something with the other person or group that is meaningful to you all.
Each participant feels similar mutual aid and protection from one another
The Importance of Third Spaces
Changing our setting can remind us that we are attached to something much larger than ourselves. This is one reason why spending time in nature or a natural setting can be soothing.
Meet Up, common interest groups, hobbies, local common interest group through Facebook
Address Distress Tolerance
We are innately wired for connection. Remind yourself that despite the initial discomfort of doing something new or out of the ordinary, you certainly feel more connected and in better spirits after the event.
Attend groups or meetups that are for new members, a documentary or performance where socializing talk is minimal, or bring a wingman
Set Realistic Expectations
We each have many different interests and levels of social comfort and engagement- as do those in our circles. We might have friends who enjoy a quiet evening with meaningful conversation, friends who love to blow off steam on a Friday night, or friends with children who enjoy family activities- it’s fine to spread yourself around and recognize one friend cannot fill all of your different interests.
Identify ‘fast friends’ – those socially exuberant friends who pull you in quickly, but fade away after several months. This helps reduce feelings of rejection or loss, as you recognize their revolving door of friends was nothing against you personally. They are fun, but superficial in the sense it won’t likely develop into a friendship that is consistent or reliable.
Reduce comparison to others- social media, ex. “everyone” on vacation or having fun
Much like in the dating app era, many of us are searching for connection, but wane in our own levels of engagement and commitment, while playing the game of fate to align with someone else willing to invest the same time and energy.
Repetition is key, attend the same gym, class, or group to build familiarity
Anticipate times you may feel lonelier; holidays, anniversaries, weekends and work proactively to reduce feelings of loneliness ahead of time
Initiate phone calls and FaceTime with friends and family
Engage in meaningful work; care for pets and plants, volunteer
Recognize the difference between enjoying time to yourself versus feeling alone