When you think of the archetypal conditions most likely to lead to loneliness, a senior citizen, possibly widowed, with adult children living far away may be what comes to mind first.
But a surprising new study is puncturing a hole in that commonly held idea. The study, sponsored by global health insurer Cigna, found that young people are actually more likely to be lonely than their grandparents are.
The study was based on a survey of more than 20,000 people over the age of 18 in America. The researchers used a scale determined by psychologists at UCLA, who created a Loneliness Scale, which Cigna adopted to use for its own Loneliness Index. Among other questions, the Index asks respondents how often they feel left out; how often they felt alone; if they feel their relationships are meaningful; if they feel they are isolated from others; if they feel understood; and if they feel they have people they can talk to.
The loneliness scale ranged from 20 to 80, with 80 being the loneliest score possible. And those in the 18-to-22-year-old age bracket had by far the highest scores—an average of 48—compared to only 39 for those 72 and older.
Although many may quickly jump to the conclusion that the constant connection to social media is what is making the so-called Generation Z so lonely, the study found that this is actually not the case. Young people who reported using social media all the time had no higher a score of loneliness than those who rarely used social media.
Nonetheless, experts warned that social media could make people believe that they have lots of friends and connections and therefore that they do not need to spend time with people face to face, which is false.
Why did a health provider conduct the survey? Because loneliness can be extremely detrimental to one’s health. Some experts have said that loneliness has the same effect on a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The former surgeon general Vivek Murthy is so concerned about what he calls “disconnected youth” (those who have no employment and are not in school) that he is setting up an institute to focus on the problem. He has said the stress of loneliness could create chronic inflammation, damaged tissue, and an increased risk of heart disease.
The best course of action to guard against loneliness? Proactively seek out people you feel a true connection with, and nurture relationships with them, not just over social media or text, but also through uninterrupted, focused one-on-one time.
And, of course, if you are lucky enough to still have them in your life, it can’t hurt to pay a visit to your grandparents.
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