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Live Well

The loneliness curve

When Surgeon General Vivek Murthy went on a nationwide college tour last fall, he started to hear the same kind of question time and again: How are we supposed to connect with one another when nobody talks anymore?

In an age when participation in community organizations, clubs and religious groups has declined, and more social interaction is happening online instead of in person, some young people are reporting levels of loneliness that, in past dec­ades, were typically associated with older adults.

It’s one of the many reasons loneliness has become a problem at both the beginning and end of our life span.

In a study published recently in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that loneliness follows a U-shaped curve: Starting from young adulthood, self-reported loneliness tends to decline as people approach midlife, only to rise again after the age of 60, becoming especially pronounced by around age 80.

While anyone can experience loneliness, including adults in middle age, people in midlife may feel more socially connected than other age groups because of factors that often pertain particularly to that stage in life. They are interacting with co-workers, a spouse, children and others in their community — and these relationships may feel stable and satisfying, said Eileen K. Graham, an associate professor of medical social sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the lead author of the study.

As people get older, those opportunities can “start to fall away,” she said.

The study looked at data waves spanning several dec­ades. The data started as early as the 1980s and ended as late as 2018, and participants at either end of the age spectrum were more likely to agree with statements such as: “I miss having people around me” or “My social relationships are superficial.”

“We have social muscles just like we have physical muscles,” 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.

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

Relationship audit

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

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

But it’s not just the quantity that matters, it’s also the variety and the quality, she said.

“Different relationships can fulfill different kinds of needs,” said Holt-Lunstad. “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, she said.

Join a group

Research has shown that poor health, living alone and having fewer close family and friends account for the increase in loneliness after about age 75.

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

If your network is shrinking or if you feel unsatisfied 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, Hawkley said.

And if one type of volunteering is not satisfying, do not give up, she added. Instead, try another type.

Participating in organizations that interest you can offer a sense of belonging and is one way to accelerate the process of connecting in person with like-minded people.

Cut back on social media

Jean Twenge, a social psychologist and the author of “Generations,” found in her research that heavy social media use is linked to poor mental health — especially among girls — and that smartphone access and internet use “increased in lock step with teenage loneliness.”

Instead of defaulting to an online conversation or merely a reaction to someone’s post, you can suggest bonding over a meal — no phones allowed.

If a text or social media interaction is getting involved, seek real-time conversation by texting, “Can I give you a quick call?” Twenge said.

Finally, Holt-Lunstad suggested asking a friend or family member to go on a walk instead of corresponding online. Not only is taking a stroll free, it also affords a chance for some fresh air and exercise.

Take initiative

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

Some people might feel more comfortable contacting others with an offer to help, she added, because it helps you focus “outward instead of inward.”

Small acts of kindness will not only maintain but also solidify your relationships, the experts said.

For example, if you like to cook, offer to drop off food for a friend or family member, Twenge said.

“You’ll not only strengthen a social connection but get the mood boost that comes from helping,” she added.

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