I’m currently conversing in 10 different WhatsApp groups, a couple of email chains and a few (very few) one to one text conversations. My friends and I are in constant communication. It’s a LOL a minute and yet, when we try to find a date for dinner, the earliest everyone can seem to do is September. How is everyone so inexplicably busy? Are we all lying to avoid a dinner out when we could be on the sofa watching Patrick Melrose?
It’s easy to think no one could ever be lonely in this era of hyperconnectivity, particularly if you’re a 20 something with a burgeoning career and an exhaustive social life that leaves you cancelling plans rather than making them.
In fact four in ten 17 to 25-year-olds have admitted to feeling lonely according to the Jo Cox commission and Tracey Crouch, The Minister for Civil Society has even been commissioned by Theresa May to tackle the problem head on. Mental health, specifically problems with anxiety and depression, are more likely to afflict millennials than any generation before them, And this ‘hyper connectivity’ is exacerbating the problem. Instead of going out and forging personal relationships, a WhatsApp or an Instagram can artificially satisfy that human desire to interact.
Worryingly, Forbes recently reported that simply having a phone nearby caused pairs of strangers to rate their conversation as less meaningful, their conversation partners as less empathetic and their new relationship as less close than strangers with a notebook nearby instead.
Olivia Laing summed up the feeling in the Sunday Times: ‘Loneliness, I discovered, is caused by a lack of intimacy. It isn’t the same thing as solitude, though they do intersect. You can be lonely and have plenty of friends.’ One reason for this rise in loneliness might be due to the problem of too many friends, too many light connections, too many work worries, which leaves no mental space for deeper interaction. When was the last time you made a true friend? I can class one work pal as a true friend, and most of the friends I’ve acquired post 25 are simply people I enjoy a drink with. There’s a lack of depth. It’s no surprise our closest friends come from our university days when only a few hours of lectures a week was the norm.
Even more pertinent is social stigma, which leaves single women more susceptible to feelings of loneliness. Jenny Stallard wrote candidly about this specific problem: “Gone is the derogatory meaning of spinster, but I am not single by choice. Stating that feels very anti-sisterhood, very uncool.” It’s easy to be relatively young, successful but inexplicably lonely.
How to combat it
Say no to another night of Netflix and chill: A couple of stupid memes on the internet and suddenly it’s ‘cool’ to cancel on your friends at the last moment. You might be a bit tired, you might have wanted to go to the gym, but creating excuses to avoid human interaction can leave you feeling isolated. Friendships, like relationships take work.
Celebrate solitude: This is different to being lonely, and can be really restorative. Yuval Harari, writer of Sapiens goes on a silent retreat for 60 days every year. That’s two months without speaking to anyone. Whilst at the extreme end of the spectrum, mindfulness, and ‘conscious alone time’ can be restorative and boost your creativity.
Don’t ‘compare and despair’. Put down the smartphone: Ironically, the constant access we have to other people’s lives via social media gives millennials the perpetual feeling that nearly everyone else in their social circle is having an infinitely better time than they are (they’re not).
Turn off your notifications and give your brain a break from other people’s supposedly successful, glorious lives told through the somewhat troublesome lens of Instagram.
Talk to someone: Loneliness and depression are not discriminate, you only have to look at the recent death of Kate Spade to realise that. Loneliness isn’t necessarily symptomatic of a wider issue such as anxiety or depression but the two are inevitably linked. Talk to someone if feelings of loneliness give way to something deeper.
Books exploring the loneliness question
Eleanor Oliphant is completely Fine
Gail Honeyman’s 2018 hit novel was inspired by an article the author read about a young person who would go home from work on a Friday, and not see anyone until Monday. Honeyman wanted to break the common misconception that life in your twenties is just ‘one long party’. Be prepared to fall in love with the clipped prose of the heroine, whose desperate loneliness is abated by a few chance encounters.
Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World
Michael Harris’ book might change how you feel about being alone. He explores how social media is eroding our ability to be alone, and explores in detail why solitude can breed creativity. He asks the question, “Has social media made us socially obese – gorged on constant connection but never properly nourished?”
Olivia Laing’s book is a mixture of genres, covering her own personal experiences with loneliness and looking at various artists’ biographies and works as well. Time Out recently voted London the loneliest city in the world, and Laing’s New York is similarly alienating: “One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation.” She explores not just why we experience loneliness but how to dispel it.
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