The ages when you feel most alone and how to reconnect

When Surgeon General Vivek Murthy went on a nationwide college tour last fall, he started hearing the same kinds of questions over and over again: How can we connect with each other when no one is talking anymore?

In an era when participation in community organizations, clubs and religious groups has declined and more social interaction occurs online rather than in person, some young people report levels of loneliness that, in decades past, were typically associated with older adults.

It's one of the many reasons why loneliness has become a problem at both the beginning and end of our lives. In a study published Tuesday in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that loneliness follows a U-shaped curve: Starting in young adulthood, self-reported loneliness tends to decline as people approach middle age. age, and then increases again after the age of 60, becoming particularly pronounced around the age of 80.

Although anyone can experience loneliness, including middle-aged adults, middle-aged people may feel more socially connected than other age groups because they often interact with co-workers, spouses, children and others in their community – and these relationships may seem stable. and satisfactory, said Eileen K. Graham, associate professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

As people age, these opportunities can “start to fade,” he said. In the study, which examined waves of data spanning several decades, starting in the 1980s and ending through 2018, participants at both ends of the age spectrum were more likely to agree with statements such as: “I miss have people around me” or “My social relationships are superficial”.

“We have social muscles just like we have physical muscles,” Dr. Murthy said. “And those social muscles weaken when we don't use them.”

When loneliness goes unchecked, it can be dangerous to our physical and mental health and has been linked to problems such as heart disease, dementia and suicidal ideation.

Dr. Graham and other social connection experts have said there are small steps we could take at any age to cultivate a sense of belonging and social connection.

“Don't wait until old age to discover that you lack a good-quality social network,” says Louise Hawkley, a researcher who studies loneliness at NORC, a social research organization at the University of Chicago.. “The longer you wait, the harder it becomes to form new connections.”

Studies suggest that most people benefit from having a minimum of four or six close relationships, said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Social Connection and Health Lab at Brigham Young University.

But it's not just quantity that matters, he added, but also variety and quality.

“Different relationships can satisfy different types of needs,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said. “Just like you need a variety of foods to get a variety of nutrients, you need a variety of types of people in your life.”

Ask yourself: Are you able to rely on and support the people in your life? And are your relationships mostly positive rather than negative?

If so, it's a sign that those relationships are beneficial to your mental and physical well-being, he said.

Research has shown that poor health, living alone and having fewer family and close friends are responsible for increased loneliness after around age 75.

But isolation isn't the only thing that contributes to loneliness: In people young and old, loneliness stems from a disconnect between what you want or expect from your relationships and what those relationships provide.

If your network is shrinking — or if you feel dissatisfied with your relationships — seek new connections by joining a community group, participating in a social sports league or volunteering, which can provide a sense of meaning and purpose, Dr. Hawkley.

And if one type of volunteering isn't satisfying, don't give up, he added. Try another type instead.

Getting involved in organizations that interest you can offer a sense of belonging and is a way to speed up the process of connecting in person with like-minded people.

Jean Twenge, social psychologist and author of “Generations”, found in her research that heavy use of social media is linked to poor mental health – especially among girls – and that access to smartphones and the use of The Internet “has increased hand in hand with adolescent loneliness. “

Instead of just having an online conversation or simply reacting to someone's post, you can suggest bonding over a meal, without using your phone.

And if a text or social media interaction gets long or complicated, switch to the real-time conversation by writing, “Can I call you quickly?” Dr. Twenge said.

Finally, Dr. Holt-Lunstad suggested asking a friend or family member out for a walk instead of corresponding online. Not only is taking a walk free, but it also has the added benefit of providing fresh air and exercise.

“Often, when people feel alone, they may be waiting for someone else to reach them,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said. “It can feel really difficult to ask for help or even just initiate a social interaction. You feel very vulnerable. What if they say no?”

Some people may feel more comfortable reaching out to others with an offer of help, he added, because it helps focus “outward rather than inward.”

Small acts of kindness will not only maintain but also strengthen your relationships, experts say.

For example, if you enjoy cooking, offer to bring food to a friend or family member, Dr. Twenge said.

“Not only will you strengthen a social connection, but you will also get the mood boost that comes from helping,” he added.

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