The Loneliness Epidemic

By Savanah Mandeville

I’m gonna preface this by saying I’m probably the worst person ever to be giving advice about making friends.

Growing up, I was the type to set my friendship threshold at 1 or 2 people and anything beyond that was way too exhausting (and scary). Phrases like, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” have historically caused me to groan, “Oh great…” So when I learned that loneliness can increase risk of heart disease, dementia, and a bunch of other health problems, my “Oh greats” turned into “Oh fucks.” Avoiding people can actually kill me?

That being said, there’s a difference though between loneliness and introversion, isolation and solitude. Being alone does not equal being lonely, and we all have different needs for social interaction. The dictionary definition of loneliness is, “sadness because one has no friends or company.”  The key word there being “sadness” … having a natural proclivity for staying in with a good book on Saturday nights is not the same thing as loneliness.

There have been a few little things pop up here and there in my life recently that have made me ponder periods when I felt the loneliest, how loneliness affects men and women differently, and how loneliness is affecting society on a macro-level, and what can we do about it.

Women and Loneliness

Awhile back, I listened to “Girl Wash Your Face” by Rachel Hollis on Audible. Hollis has built an empire as a lifestyle blogger and motivational speaker, so it struck me in the book when she said the single most common problem her followers write to her about is loneliness.

“Really?” I thought. “More than anything else — more than must-have fall leggings and DIY pegboard organizers — her readers are craving friendship?”

Not long after that, a female friend of mine reached out. She’d recently broken free of a controlling relationship and felt isolated and felt she’d lost all her girlfriends. Oh man, do I know the feeling. It is one thing when a woman makes her new boyfriend her world, shedding her autonomy and leaving her friendships in the dust by choice, but it’s an entirely different beast when a woman finds herself having to decide if  “girl’s night out” is worth the four hour screaming match with her jealous, insecure partner that will inevitably follow. I became so isolated in my abusive relationship that my ex-boyfriend started using it against me, flinging vitriol like, “You’re such a loner” and “if you died, no one would come to your funeral.” It was as if the arsonist who burned my house down was hoarding the insurance money and judging me for being homeless. It’s a suffocating feeling.

So I know what it’s like to wake up one morning, single, and have no friends. I think a lot of women know what that feels like.

I couldn’t find much online to explain the top reasons why women experience loneliness, but I did find this article which cites women who are unpaid caregivers experience higher rates of loneliness as a result of decreased social and personal time, social media has replaced quality with quantity even though women are more fulfilled by deep one-on-one relationships, and fear of rejection keeps women isolated, among other things.

Men and Loneliness

I was also made aware recently of how loneliness distinctly affects men. I was watching a Youtube channel I like called “The Financial Diet” and they did a pair of videos called: “The True Cost of Being a Woman” and “The Trust Cost of Being a Man”. I thought the costs would be things like “women have to buy tampons” and “men have to get more haircuts” but they actually analyzed the costs on a larger, societal level. One of the costs to men was higher levels of loneliness.

Chelsea Fagan, of The Financial Diet, says:

Men are socialized, often from birth, to perceive the demonstration of emotion toward other men in a platonic way or the development of adult friends or the expression of platonic love as questioning their masculinity or even their sexuality. Men are taught from a young age to reserve all of this love and openness and vulnerability uniquely for their romantic partner and this results in decreased platonic relationships as men leave areas of basically forced socialization like high school or college.

Research shows that between 1999 and 2010 suicide among men age 50 and over rose by nearly 50 percent. A large part of this increasing social loneliness is the deterioration of the social fabric that used to hold Americans together, particularly outside of urban areas. Things like church groups, leagues, clubs, etc. 

This extreme loneliness puts an increased pressure on the spouses of these men as well as the marriages themselves to be everything for that man: their source of social support, validation, friendship, etc. It’s one of the reasons why it’s a pet peeve of mine when people refer to their spouses as ‘their best friend.’ Because best friends have a meaning.

Here’s the full video. Highly recommend.

Loneliness and All of Us

While some of the unique causes of loneliness for men and women are different, we’re lonelier than ever across the board. According to this survey, the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. “Zero” is the most common number of confidants, reported by almost a quarter of those surveyed. Millennials are the most lonely group.

So what’s going on?

According to Psychology Today, there are two major reasons for the spike in loneliness. And yup, you guessed it: it’s the internet’s fault. In short, social isolation has a bit of a domino effect, where loneliness is “contagious” and affects our abilities to perceive positive social cues forcing us to withdraw into the internet even further to fulfill our social needs, deepening the cycle. The barrage of loneliness memes is proof.


Dealing With Loneliness  

Remember being a kid and you made a new friend just because you both had on a red shirt and were on the swings at the same time? Kids dgaf. Adults are a little more particular and closed off and are probably already stuck in the internet-loneliness-trap mentioned above. Here are some tips to increase the amount of positive social interaction in your life and stave off loneliness (and possibly save your life!).

  1. Reduce Expectations & Take the Pressure Off

Friendships in your mid- late-twenties and beyond are different than childhood-through-college friends. Once people start settling down and having kids, you’re naturally going to see less of your friends. That’s okay. You’re not really going to be having sleep overs, talking on the phone for hours, and hanging out suddenly becomes something you have to schedule. Not always… but more often than not. It’s important to realize that that it’s okay if you don’t see your friends as much as you think friends are supposed to see each other. In other words, don’t compare your friendships to Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Rachel, and Ross. Schedule friend dates that work for both of you… Saturday brunch, monthly girl/guy night out, a regular fitness class.

2. Become a Regular at a Place

Speaking of old sitcoms… sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. After I escaped from my relationship, I started going downtown a lot, and, oh boy, people just kind of find you in this town. I started frequenting Whiskey Dicks and Blackthorn and within, like, a month I had a 100 new Facebook friends who I saw on the weekends. Maybe becoming a regular in the bar scene is not great advice… unless you’re into that kind of thing, then be my guest. But you can become a regular anywhere. When I worked in retail, we had a lot of regulars at the store and I got to know a few of them really well and hung out with a couple outside of work. What are you into? Fashion, makeup, coffee, bikes, movies, sports, hell… smoking cigars? There’s a place in town that sells whatever it is you’re interested in. Become a loyal customer of that place and over time you’ll get to know the people who work there and others who frequent it. Even if you never hang out with any of these people outside of the business, it provides socialization, conversations, and cuts down on the loneliness factor.

3. Join a Thing or Start a Thing

I was active with the Southwest Missouri Democrats for a spell and even was the Secretary for the SWMO Young Democrats. In the time I was involved in those organizations (great organizations btw, I only stopped because of schedule conflicts), I made a handful of smart, interesting, like-minded friends. If you open your eyes and look around, you’ll find a ton of similar organizations, clubs, and groups in the community. Bookhouse Cinema has a book club. Start going to a fitness class. There are several running clubs in town. Find a trivia night to start going to. There’s all kinds of stuff like this. Can’t find something you like? Start your own! I consider the Julie staff my friends, and I don’t know that I would’ve gotten to know them if it weren’t for Julie.

4. Volunteer

If you’ve been dealing with loneliness, depression, and/or going through a hard time lately, volunteering is proven to be helpful. I know, I know… this sounds like a holier than thou lecture, but studies really do show volunteering for short periods at a time can increase your sense of purpose, accomplishment, and confidence. It’s also a chance to gain some perspective by helping people who are worse off than you are.

5. Host Stuff

Kind of along the lines of starting a club… if you’re not invited to a party, host your own. I did this for the recent New Year’s Eve. A friend and I had no NYE plans, but we knew we wanted to celebrate and go all out so we hosted our own party last minute. Even if it’s a small group, it can still be a giant blast and you can even have a theme, costumes, decorations, etc. In fact, a small group can be even more fun, so don’t be afraid to host a get together and make yourself that glue that brings others together. Chances are, the people you invite will be glad to have something to do and will love you all the more for doing it.

6. Say Yes

How often do you get invited to things that you blow off or ignore? Are you always turning down Happy Hour with your coworkers? Do you have a bunch of upcoming events on Facebook you haven’t bothered to look into? If you’re dealing with loneliness, consider some of the invitations that are already falling into your lap. You might be surprised what you find.

7. Listen to Podcasts 

Can’t bring yourself to be around humans? Don’t have any time to go out and join a club or volunteer? That’s okay. Podcasts are a good place to start. I know a woman who’s a stay-at-home-mom and podcasts have been a lifesaver for her. I actually found a cool article by Teen Vogue called “5 Awesome Podcasts to Listen to When You Feel Lonely.” And there are tons more similar podcasts like these out there!

8. Know You’re Not Alone & Do Not Be Ashamed

If you’re dealing with loneliness, please know it’s not a curse and it’s not forever. You’re not defective. Literally millions of people out there are dealing with loneliness for different reasons. Some have suffered bereavement, some are shy, some lack social skills, some have recently moved to a new city, the list goes on and on. Loneliness can feel oppressive, but when you learn to lift the shame and be kind to yourself, you may begin to see the positive aspects and how this chapter of your life may be teaching you something.

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