Battling that achy feeling of isolation? You’re not alone. Despite living in a hyperconnected world, millennials are, in fact, the loneliest people of all, says Natalie Ticehurst...
Have a scroll through Instagram and you’d think us millennials are a happy bunch – posting all those #livingmybestlife brunch snaps and bucket-list trips. But log off and we’re all – me included – a bit lonely. Defined by psychologist Honey Langcaster-James as ‘a negative emotion that gives us an indication we’re somehow lacking in human connection’, we are, according to a recent study*, more isolated than generations before us. While a staggering third of millennials say they always or often feel lonely, just 20% of Gen X and 15% of Baby Boomers do.
But why have we, who can connect at the tap of a touchscreen, been struck with the loneliness bug? ‘It’s not easy to form meaningful relationships without meeting and sharing real issues,’ psychologist Jivan Dempsey tells me. ‘That can be difficult on social media, where we tend to share only the “best” of ourselves, so our relationships often seem superficial.’
Honey Langcaster-James agrees that digital communication just doesn’t cut it in making us feel connected. ‘When you’re chatting online, you’re missing out on the voice, facial expression, body language and physical touch that are vital to our social lives,’ she explains.
‘When you’re curating your communication with other people, you’re monitoring yourself to such an extent that it loses its immediacy and realness. What you’re getting back from others is also a monitored response.’ Indeed, self-editing is something I’ve experienced, thinking too much before sending an email or finding slights in text messages that wouldn’t have been there if I could have heard the person’s tone of voice.
‘Social media can exacerbate feelings of loneliness by making us think everyone else is
happy,’ psychologist Emma Kenny tells me. But while it’s easy to paint social media with the big-bad-wolf brush, there’s much more at play.
Social mobility and travel opportunities come with the side-effect of moving away from your nearest and dearest,’ says Honey Langcaster-James. ‘We also live in a society that’s taught us to walk away if something isn’t right for us. It has led us to expect perfection in our relationships. Our society is more disposable now, encouraging us to flit through relationships and only reach a superficial level in some.’ Yup, our ‘thank you, next’ culture is killing our connectedness.
So, with one study deeming loneliness as harmful as smoking**, what’s the answer? When the Sunday lonelies kick in and a flick through Instagram revs them up, I remind myself that social media is, by nature, a highlight reel. Our editorial assistant Annie’s solution? Finding comfort in her own company. ‘I don’t feel lonely very often, but it’s taken a few years to master. Being comfortable in your own company and thoughts combats loneliness. I’ve accepted that the bad thoughts I have don’t define me as a person and I’ve learnt to let them pass.’
Likewise, beauty PR Lekha Mohanlal has assembled a loneliness toolkit. ‘WhatsApp doesn’t feel personal, and sometimes it’s hard to find time to meet friends – but a phone call can really boost your mood,’ she says. ‘I’m very lucky to have a small group of friends and a supportive boyfriend who I can reach out to as often as I need. Having a small network, rather than a huge number of friends I don’t have much of a bond with, combats loneliness, too.’
The experts agree. ‘Substantial relationships, with people we spend real-life time with, are the only ones that can reduce loneliness,’ says Emma Kenny. Likewise, Honey Langcaster-James advises shifting the online/offline balance. ‘It’s not about quitting social media, it’s about spending more time with people face to face.’ She also suggests we need to stop thinking people are disposable. ‘Don’t give up so readily on relationships. They’re not perfect, so you need to work through your problems.’
And the biggest lie of all? The social media highlight loop. ‘We need to be conscious of the advertising messages telling us we’re not good enough, which can make us withdraw socially and dwell on feelings of loneliness,’ says Jivan Dempsey. ‘We need to shift our thinking to appreciate relationships that are deep and meaningful.’