I am living within a mile radius of thousands of people between the ages of 18 and 22. I am in classes with people who share my interests, I am in clubs with people who share my passions, I eat meals with friends, I go to parties on the weekends. I am consistently in spaces populated by people having a shared experience, and I can honestly say I have never felt so alone.
According to research I’m not alone in feeling lonely. A study published by Cigna just over six months ago found that Americans between the ages of 18 and 22 are the loneliest generation currently living. If just under 70% of the thousands of people in this age range surveyed expressed feeling a lack of connection to those around them, I think it’s fair to assume the loneliness epidemic has plagued Southern California as well.
So we’ve identified the problem, but how did this start? It would be easy to blame technology. Texting, Snapchat, Skype, Facebook, Instagram, all of these forms of communication taking place in the virtual realm are cheap knockoffs of human connection. Meaningful bonds are created through mutual understanding of each others vulnerabilities, however the screen of a laptop, tablet, or smartphone functions almost like a barrier. Not only are people’s virtual representation a funhouse-like reflection of reality, three out of the five senses can not be activated through virtual interactions. This combination of a false sense of reality as well as a bleak sensory experience makes fulfilling human relationships difficult to foster in an increasingly virtual world. However, I think it’s more than technology.
We live in a hypercompetitive world. We’re taught at a young age that our identity and worth are interwoven with our ability to produce. Gold medals, the honor roll, and job promotions are just a few of the ways we commend people for producing excellence. However, this commedation is not just a pat on the back, it also acts as a label, as an identifier. They allow us to shape our sense of self, as these stamps of approval provide a way for us to not only feel appreciated it allows us to feel seen. However, how do you give someone a gold star for having meaningful relationships? How do you reward them for being a supportive friend or partner? You don’t. And that’s part of the problem. In this hypercompetitive world we are raised to believe that our time and effort are a type of currency. You work hard at something, you achieve excellence you are rewarded with a label.
However, this transactional nature is not applicable to interpersonal relationships. Helping your friend through a breakup is not something you can add to your Linkedin page. Being a good listener does not raise your GPA, and making time to watch your friend’s a capella concert is not an extracurricular you can stamp on your resume. If we are taught that our identity is linked to our ability to create excellence, and one cannot be commended for a job well done in relationships, it’s understandable how human connection tends to take a back seat.
It’s the perfect storm. With a decreasing number of face to face connections, as well as a lack of value put on the importance of meaningful connections we have created a society where loneliness is not only possible but extremely probable. Some of you may be saying so what? You may be thinking college kids are coddled Netflix addicts who need to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. However, the ramifications of loneliness are much greater than many can imagine. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy states, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” Additionally, a Dutch publication called The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry “found that participants who reported feeling lonely — regardless of how many friends and family surrounded them — were more likely to develop dementia than those who lived on their own but were not lonely”. The research is there: loneliness negatively affects our health.
However, feelings of disconnection have ramifications beyond mental and physical well being. According to research done by professors at Penn and Cal State Sacramento loneliness in the workforce has a negative impact on employee performance. Data shows that those who don’t have meaningful relationships with their coworkers and higher-ups have a lower productivity rate and are more likely to quit. If workers are less efficient and lacking loyalty to their place of employment, you not only have a revolving door of hired staff, you have an inefficient use of resources. This latter part is especially important. Not only can we see how loneliness negatively affects society’s production possibilities and therefore overall economic growth, we can see a cycle starting to form.
People prioritize their work lives in an attempt to find a sense of self. However, the loneliness that results from this decision hinders their efficiency, meaning more time and energy must be spent in the office to achieve said excellence, leaving even less time to nurture meaningful relationships. And so things begin to snowball. We spend more time at work, we get more lonely, we become less efficient, and the cycle repeats itself.
I find this really worrisome. When I first started writing this article I assumed life after college would be better. I pictured after work happy hours with my coworkers, and Sunday brunch with my newly acquired best friends à la Sex and The City. However, if college students are entering the workforce without a strong emotional support system, and a means of communication as well as a value system that continues to make it nearly impossible to foster that support it’s understandable how loneliness is prevalent long after graduation.
So what’s the solution? We have a societal epidemic that is affecting human health as well as the health of our economy. Tune in next week to find out.