Why does our generation feel so lonely?

Anthony Gormley figure in Margate Sea

Loneliness is the sensation of being alone. Human beings are innately social, we historically needed other people to survive, to hunt, to procreate, to care for the young. Loneliness developed as a physical stimulus in response to when social bonds are at risk - feeling alone activates the same part of the brain that physical pain does. Loneliness is the mind’s way of telling us to reach out.

Statistics show loneliness has little to do with social skills and emotional aptitude but once someone feels alone, they become less able to pick up positive emotional behaviour and commitment signals. They see neutral social cues as more threatening, become hypersensitive and cut off. It is a rabbit hole which our generation is too familiar with.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar developed ‘Dunbar’s number’, the natural number of connections that humans should have, based on the social groups of great apes and hunter-gatherers: 5 closest people, with whom you spend around 40% of your time. The people you feel the most love for and who you trust. 25 friends (including your initial 5) - the 'sympathy group’, with whom you feel comfortable sharing your problems and asking for help, and tend to be people you see on a day to day basis. A further network of 50 friends, people you see fairly often. Beyond this, a total group of 150. In times when all humans were hunter-gatherers, these 150 would be the people you would live with your whole life.

Does 150 seem too small? Most people have Instagram accounts with more than 150 followers, have more than 150 friends on Facebook, but if we were to prescribe this idea to our own friends and family they would often fall short of 150 people.

Social media has connection benefits - we can chat to our best mate when they’re halfway across the world on their gap year in South East Asia - but face-to-face interactions are decreasing. Technologies and different social norms and acceptances mean not having to meet in person to interact with someone and converse with them, not needing to go to a bar to find a date but being able to download Tinder and swipe to find one, less interaction with official religious services and communities and getting married later.

We have less reason to meet people, and this is damaging. Our context has changed but our biology and psychology have not – we are still the same beings that we were 10,000 years ago.

Being lonely is proven to have serious mental and physical health risks. 1 year's loneliness affects premature mortality rate the same as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. There is a serious suicide problem with young people and specifically young men - the biggest killer of men below the age of 35. It has been shown that men are less likely to put themselves out there and look for help.

If you feel lonely, it is your body’s way of telling you to go out and connect with people, and whilst that might be hard for you, you can turn to a good friend, a family member, partner or anyone you feel comfortable with. You can get involved in different activities (e.g. a football team or a book club) which allow you to branch out and form friendships. Loneliness requires a collaborative effort to fix. So if you think a friend of yours is feeling lonely, take them aside, give them a hug, and let them know that you’re there for them. Little efforts like that can go a long way.

Words: Fergus Stainton

Photo: Tia Duff