Are Today's Young Adults Becoming "Generation Lonely"?
Understanding loneliness in a culture that values product over process.
It’s clear that Wi-Fi has turned us the vast majority of human beings into internet junkies, no matter what age we are. For many people, the time they spend connecting to the “24/7” internet swallows up a lot of what was once considered “free time” or even “working hours,” for a whole lot of us. Time spent surfing the web is really all about time spent disengaging from your surroundings and the people around you and, instead, wandering through the “webosphere” where nothing seems impossible, while, actually, everything is merely virtual.
So, it might sound like we are all caught up in some big wide web of connection, right? But just like in the virtual world, things aren’t always what they seem. In fact, research shows that the most connected generation in history is also the loneliest generation of all time. It appears that the need to actually connect deeply and genuinely with others is more of a primal physical need than people realise.
Hazards of Loneliness
In a recent review of the literature on loneliness, it was noted that isolation and loneliness are as related to physical well-being about as much as they are to people’s emotional well-being. While we connect heartache and broken hearts to romantic break-ups, being alone is actually quite hard on the heart. People can run as much as a 29% increased risk for heart disease if they exist in isolation. Poor social relationships also increase risk for health problems—those might be due to the toll that stress can take on the body.
Loneliness is also related to a greater likelihood to death by accident or suicide. When we feel that we do not matter to others and our existence seems to be in a vacuum, we take less care about ourselves and put ourselves at more risk for harm. In severe cases, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness are exacerbated by our isolation and suicide risks increase.
Other findings have revealed that loneliness can dampen our bodies’ immune systems and we are more vulnerable to infection. It also can damage our sleep cycles and poor sleep leads to further compromised physical and emotional well-being. Down the road, lack of social connections with others can increase the risk for dementia.
The need to have a sense of belonging to a social network goes a lot deeper than some people might think. We see loads of people wired up to the max—while they’re eating alone at their desk, sitting on the subway, or camping out in cafes—and we might ponder whether it is our “online/out-of-reach” connections that are adding to the sense of isolation or if it is something else, altogether.
Does Technology cause the Loneliness Pandemic?
Before you blame technology, though, listen to this—it’s the culture of “busy-ness” that is keeping young people from enjoying “hang time” or “down time” with others. The workaholic parents and Baby Boomer achievers apparently transmitted a cultural message that “free time” was verboten and all activities had to be goal-oriented. College students report that they may be surrounded by peers, but they don’t have time to make the kind of one-on-one deep connections that are key to feeding our social hunger. The students describe their days as being filled with the expected schoolwork, but they are also engaged in meetings and organisations that all have a directed purpose, attending practice for activities such as sports, dance, drama, and so on, or volunteering for worthy causes or earning a paycheck.
Unfortunately, when everything we do is purpose-driven, we lose the chance to practice idle conversations, share thoughts and opinions, and build the kind of relationships that connect our hearts not just our worthwhile ambitions and pursuits.
The best ideas arise from a mind that is allowed to roam free and some of the best insights arise from non-directive conversations with our friends. Remind the young people you teach or work with that making time for fun and social connection is as important as making time for work. No matter how successful a person becomes, there’s little satisfaction if there’s no one there to share it with them.