How do we stop being so lonely?
On a cold, moonless night, the co-owner of Macy’s department store and his wife were aboard the sinking Titanic. Mrs. Straus distributed blankets to the women and children in Life Boat No. 8. But, when asked to enter the lifeboat herself, she refused to leave Mr. Straus’s side. “All these years we have traveled together, and shall we part now? No, our fate is one,” she explained. Two sailors tried to force her in, and she wrangled herself free, looking at her husband. “Where you go, I go,” she said. The couple was last seen arm in arm on the deck, the finale of their forty years together.
Today, a different sentiment dominates. It’s closer to, “Where you go, I might consider visiting.” The individual comes first.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about why millennials are lonely. In short, it’s because loneliness is contagious (literally), and the internet exacerbates it. Our “infectious isolation,” I concluded, is mounting.
This is problematic for lots of reasons: In animals, social isolation shortens lifespan, promotes obesity and diabetes, hinders psychosexual development, and increases cortisol levels. In humans, social isolation has, according to Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, “an impact on health comparable to the effect of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking.” Socially isolated people are more than twice as likely to die of heart disease. They’re also more stressed, less creative, have lower self-esteem, and feel less in control of their lives than non-lonely people.
So how do we stop being lonely?
I think the answer starts with priorities. Social connection has become less important to us. One large cross-sectional study found that subjective loneliness actually declined slightly between 1978 and 2009 in adolescents, while objective social isolation increased. High school students in 2009, the study’s authors write, “reported fewer friends with whom to interact, but less desire for more friends.” Meanwhile, empathy decreased, and insecure attachments increased.
This is consistent with my own experience. Since graduating college, I’ve put friendships on the back burner. I even emailed someone wanting to grab coffee a couple months ago that “I’m just incapable of making friends right now. There’s a little too much going on with work.” The fact that today many people’s best friends are from college may attest to the amount of effort we put into friendships after college.
When I was suffering from a bout of loneliness last year, my boyfriend told me to just go out and meet people. Well, I’m not that lonely, I thought. But recovering from our society-wide isolation will require effort.
Just meeting people, however, isn’t enough. We also need to sacrifice for them. In response to my last article, several readers pointed out that trust is missing from many modern friendships. I think trust is the feeling that someone has your back no matter what. And, today, the truth is very few people do.
In a 2012 op-ed for the New York Times, Sherry Turkle wrote that we’re “increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship.” Millennials may be lonely not just from insufficient social interaction, but also due to insufficient social obligation.
Generational researcher Jean Twenge has found that millennials are significantly more likely than adolescents in the 1970s to describe themselves using traits like “independent” and “assertive.” The resulting gains from this attitude are real, and shouldn’t be discounted — particularly for women. But it’s also, in a way, too bad.
My friends and I have talked about how you never know whether to stay in a city, because your friends could leave soon for some better job somewhere else. If you stayed, hoping they’d stick around, you’re SOL. (Even the prospect that you’d consider them before your career is embarrassing.) Our solution to get everyone to stay put, we joke, is to build a commune. But we know that will never happen. And we know, if we get a better opportunity elsewhere, we’ll leave.
Our commune dream is for something quasi-contractual to keep us together. This is also why, though millennials are marrying later, many of us quietly crave a ring. But marriage, indeed, is a perfect example of our stubborn determination to be a, or at least give, the bird: we’re marrying later — by an average of six years since 1960 — to extend our geographic and professional autonomy.
Amazingly, research has found that attachment to even just a place reduces loneliness. If everyone decided to remain in the same city or town for a lifetime, as they did for centuries before now, we’d receive the two best remedies for loneliness: a home and a community.
I know that’s unrealistic. But before genuine connection sinks altogether, it’s worth thinking about what such a loss would actually mean. Seventeenth-century English poet John Donne wrote that, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” We like to believe we’re floating free. But we need each other, and acting otherwise results more in isolation than true independence.