This year has been challenging for countless reasons, whether it's a constant news cycle filled with disheartening news, a global pandemic that has drastically reconstructed life, economic uncertainty, and mass social unrest. One of the main results of the past year is the limitation of individuals to their homes. While these sacrifices were essential and responsible to protect the health of others, the fallout can intensify loneliness amongst various age groups, especially young adults.
LONELINESS VS SOCIAL ISOLATION
Firstly, it’s important to define loneliness and how it differs from social isolation, which is comparable but not the same. Social isolation is the objective measure of one’s contacts and strictly refers to the quantity not the quality of relationships. Conversely, loneliness is a subjective feeling related to the gap of one’s desired levels of social contact to their actual levels of social contact. Loneliness refers more to the quality of relationships compared to quantity. Loneliness is often more difficult to resolve and may take much longer to fix, while social isolation can be addressed much quicker if one can get into contact with other individuals. The two concepts are related to each other and one may lead to another, but this article will mainly touch on loneliness and its impacts.
Social isolation is mainly associated with older individuals, such as the elderly, as they tend to live alone or have limited contact with family and non-family members. However, loneliness is a growing issue for younger adults. Worrying statistics document the lack of meaningful connections for young adults globally. This year, Cigna conducted a survey of over 10,000 US adults and found 70% of young adults felt lonely sometimes or always. This figure is much higher compared to other age groups. Additionally, the average American only has one friend according to a study published by the American Sociological Review.
In the UK, the Office of National Statistics found 5% of the 10,000 adults surveyed reported feeling sometimes or always lonely. The survey found 10% of young adults were lonely which was 3 times higher than people aged 65 or over. The UK organization, the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness to be a bigger concern for individuals aged 18-34 compared to ages 55 and over.
There are numerous reasons for increased loneliness among young adults. The most common hypotheses are changing social and family dynamics. Millennials and Gen Z have lower marriage rates and higher divorce rates compared to older generations. Additionally, younger adults have less attachment to traditional social organizations such as religious communities and labour unions. Communal social spaces are shutting down, in the UK an average of 14 pubs are closed per week. While the growing movement towards individual enjoyment and self-entertainment offers flexibility, consistent self-activities make the consequences of isolation real. For example, we have seen new restaurants pop up where you do not have to interact with anyone. In Japan and Hong Kong, self-serving ramen and sushi bars are incredibly common where patrons are able to order and enjoy their meal without any human contact. Ideally, we should feel free to enjoy our own company, but life is about balance, and connecting with others should is something that should not be abandoned.
Loneliness has become so serious, governments are responding with strong measures. In 2018, the UK government appointed its first Minister of Loneliness and funded the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Network based at University College London. Countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Germany have begun looking into the issue as young people across Europe are reporting higher rates of loneliness. The European Commission conducted a European Social Survey that found 7% of all European adults were lonely and younger adults were the loneliest.
Additionally, outside organizations are looking to help solve the issue. Norwegian startup, No Isolation, develops communication tools for those suffering from involuntary loneliness and social isolation. The company developed an avatar robot for children and young adults who suffer from long-term illnesses to be able to attend school in their place to help them stay connected with their peers and their curriculum.
Why should we be concerned with loneliness? Well, it's actually amazing how essential meaningful human interaction is for our health. Research shows loneliness and isolation has adverse impacts on our physical and mental health due to prolonged anxiety and stress, and lack of social support. Additionally, lonely individuals are more at risk of chronic illnesses, higher blood pressure, and inflammation. On the other hand, individuals who are more socially integrated have better health outcomes. Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education found strong social connection strengthens your immune system, lowers levels of anxiety, improves self-esteem, and strengthens empathy in individuals.
Humans are inherently social species. Social connection is found to be a core psychological need for healthy lives. Healthy social interaction triggers the same reward system in our brains as physical pleasure. Do you wonder why you smile around your friends and families? That's your brain's way of communicating its happiness.
Loneliness amongst young people will continue to be a major problem moving forward as the events of 2020 will cause significant societal upheaval. Governments and organizations must further research this emerging pandemic and develop solutions to protect younger generations' from dangerous mental and physical health consequences.
Possible interventions are the continued dialogue of loneliness and isolation that encourage young people to tackle the stigma of the issue. Establishing reporting and support agencies where young people can access professional training would create a platform to help and document those suffering. Finally, there needs to be a greater investment in social and communal spaces for individuals to get together and build new connections. Designing environments that promote and maximize human connection would be incredibly rewarding as everyone deserves to be in a good mood.
Written by Tariq Ahmed
University of College London | 2019
MSc Global Health & Development