Updated: Aug 9, 2019
Some interesting articles found their way into my inbox in the same month that my book about making and maintaining friendships was released. Some of the statistics were a little conflicted, but they all said the same general thing. A lot of Americans are lonely.
The New York Post talked about how long it's been since a large portion of our population has made a new friend; an op-ed in the L.A. Times by a chaplain at USC said he hears regularly from students that they don't know how to make friends, and a staggering number are suffering from depression as a result; and Relevant Magazine recently reported a study by YouGov that said Millennials were the loneliest generation, 27% of them reporting that they have "no close friends."
Experts quoted in the article have lots of theories on why this social trend of loneliness is climbing, and many are studying the effects of social media on our social lives. I'd like to throw a theory out there.
Social media has done one subtle thing for us: It's made friendship about approval addiction. How many friends and followers do I have? And how often do these friends and followers like what I share about myself?
Being friends, in my experience, is not performing so that people will like what I say, do, experience, and believe.
Picture this: You're sitting across from a friend, and you share a feeling about your life, your work, your kids, your day. She gives you a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If you get a thumbs down, you share a different feeling to see if that gets a thumbs up. Then you tell a story. Thumbs up or thumbs down. If you get a thumbs up, you try to think of another story like it.
You get a little rush of dopamine every time you get a thumbs up, and a shot of cortisol or feeling of anxiety when you get a thumbs down.
Essentially, social media is a way to get a hit. And, now that I think about it, the above kind of sounds like speed dating. It's not a good format for friendship or any other intimate relationship because it's actually just approval seeking.
And this is the problem: loneliness is not solved by a shot of dopamine. (Check out this meme my friend David posted this week from "The Recovering Problem Child".) If it was, alcoholics would be the most contented, loved-feeling people out there, because alcohol both dulls your anxiety and ups your dopamine at the same time. Which is why it's so popular. But talk to someone who has become a slave to getting their dopamine in a glass and in honest moments they'll tell you how very lonely they actually are.
Loneliness isn't solved by getting little shots of good feelings every time you do something of which someone approves. There's no one word that is the opposite of loneliness: It's the deep and complex state of experiencing that we are loved. That experience is an intellectual knowing that someone sees our real self and sticks around; a spiritual sense of well being that we are somehow worthy of affection; and the neurological and hormonal experience we have from being in the presence of people and even touched by people.
Being un-lonely involves having fun with people, receiving comfort from people, exchanging ideas with people, resolving conflict with people, experiencing personal growth and evolving intimacy with people. It's not a simple matter of performance and approval. Thank God! Because my husband and I disapprove of each other's actions regularly, but we love each other and have companionship beyond the sum of the parts of all our habits and opinions.
So, what do I suggest if you are feeling lonely? Because it's obviously not hanging out on Instagram.
If you have a close friend, call her and tell her you're feeling lonely. Ask to get together in person. Have a good cry, or do something fun. Get the complex and more long-lasting hormonal cocktail your brain will give off when you talk, cry, connect, take a walk and get a hug. Then do it again next week. And then again the week after that. Make it a priority.
If you don't have a close friend, the instructions are also simple, but very difficult. Go be with people in person -- and not at a bar. I mean it. Don't only connect with alcohol, which makes you feel like you're being intimate, but really you're just getting that hit again. Risk being your real self, a little bit at a time, without saying and doing things that are just about getting a thumbs up. My book offers some very specific ways to do this -- both activities to try and ways to build confidence in people before you pull the whole glacier of your real self out of the water too soon.
And remember, if you're lonely, you're not alone. Waiting out there are other people who need a friend. Maybe you're the one they are waiting for.