The Growing Problem of Social Isolation and What to Do About It

A client sat across from me in my office sobbing. “I feel so lonely” she finally said after she collected herself. This particular woman has a lot of friends and a successful career- how could someone as bright and friendly as her feel lonely? This woman is not alone – the feelings of social isolation and loneliness are some of the most common themes I see in my psychotherapy practice. Even if these feelings are not present on a daily basis, we all go through times where we feel misunderstood and disconnected. What I’ve noticed is that regardless if someone is single or in a committed partnership (with or without) children, there is a common struggle to maintain fulfilling and meaningful connection in our adult friendships and this gets increasingly harder the older we get.

It’s not surprising that friendships and social support are important to so many of us as research is now showing that the one characteristic that distinguishes the happiest 10% of us from everyone else is the strength of their social relationships. Research also shows that the quality of all our relationships is a big factor in our physical health and loneliness may even shorten our lives.

If a big part of our happiness and well-being is dependent on the quality of our social support, why do many adults struggle to have deep and meaningful connections outside of a romantic partner or family? One reason we may feel disconnected are change and shifts in American culture over the years. While it might seem strange that we now have the means to be connected and plugged in to other people 24/7 through technology and social media, it seems it’s actually a double edged sword and may be contributing to our social isolation. In Margie Warrell’s article in Forbes, Text or Talk: Is Technology Making You Lonely, she reports that,

“Recent studies have found that despite being more connected than ever, more people feel more alone than ever. Surprisingly, those who report feeling most alone, are those you’d expect it from least: young people under 35 who are the most prolific social networkers of all. Another recent study found that 48% of respondents only had one confidant compared to a similar study 25 years ago when people said they had about three people they could confide in. So as we have built expansive social networks online, the depth of our networks offline has decreased.  So it seems that because technology makes it easier to stay in touch while keeping distance, more and more people find themselves feeling distant and never touching. Or at least not enough to avoid us feeling increasingly alone.”

Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, argues although there is no hard historic data to show loneliness – which is arguably subjective – is getting worse, there is some sociological evidence:

“We have data that suggests people’s social networks have got smaller and families are not providing the same level of social context they may have done 50 years ago.

“It’s not because they are bad or uncaring families, but it’s to do with geographical distance, marriage breakdown, multiple caring responsibilities and longer working hours,” he says.

Most people I’ve talked to on the subject of friendship (and relationships in general) report that they look for reciprocity, effort (dedication and commitment), trust (knowing that someone will be there for you when you need them) and the ability to feel accepted. I’ve also read a lot of research on physical proximity being a major factor in maintaining relationships. One study says that the key ingredient to friendship is repeated, spontaneous contact and that can be difficult in adulthood when people have many different obligations such as marriage, children and busy work schedules. We live in a more transient world with less leisure time which means that we don’t have the time or energy that is critical to fostering and sustaining close friendships and relationships.

It might sound like everything is working against us if we want to have close friendships, meaningful interactions and a supportive and loving community but there are things we can do to have high quality friendships, even we don’t have proximity on our side. Here are some tips to foster and sustain close relationships:

  1. Practice Vulnerability: The concept of emotional vulnerability has become more mainstream thanks to Brene Brown. Emotional vulnerability can be thought of as being open and authentic with others. This can be scary because that means we leave ourselves open to rejection or hurt. One friend I talked to mentioned that her inability to be vulnerable at times stems from deep fear: “Fear plays a big part in creating a barrier to deeper relationships. I know this is true for others too… fear that someone will think we are strange, weird, or less than.  We get in our own way by not sharing who we really are or our private struggles. We are scared we will be rejected and we keep it superficial. The need to feel normal is something we all share. And the idea that someone will not confirm this for us is really scary.”   If we can’t share our deepest concerns with our friends and vice versa can we truly feel known? And if we don’t feel safe to share our deepest concerns with others we can’t truly be known in the one way that establishes real intimacy that most people are looking for. In my group therapy sessions, I always tell the participants to “lead with their vulnerability.” For some people this may start in small baby steps and hopefully lead them to experiencing more vulnerable and connected moments with trusted people. When one person is vulnerable it opens up a space for others to be vulnerable as well and that is when real connection happens.
  1. Choose a small handful of people to truly connect with: The reality is, in adulthood most people are too busy to have a lot of close friends and most people report that they only have 2 close friends on average. We also don’t have to be vulnerable with everyone we meet. A good friend of mine says that she has something called “next level” friends. These are the people that we can truly be ourselves around and feel a sense of safety to let them in to the deepest and sometimes darkest parts of us. She said she’s okay with having 2 or 3 of those because she doesn’t expect to have more than that—next level friends are rare. She also has friends she loves and would be there for them if they needed her but doesn’t necessarily feel that they know everything about her and that’s okay. A good strategy for developing close connections is to focus on a few friendships where you can be 100% yourself. It’s important to make time for these people on a one on one level. If you don’t live in the same place, scheduling phone conversations here and there can be helpful to keep you connected and talking about things that aren’t surface topics.
  1.  Disconnect from social media and make direct contact: Social network sites can be good as long as we don’t use it as an excuse to assume we know what’s going on in someone’s life just because we see what’s happening with them on social media. One thing that’s happening with sites like Facebook is that people believe they are connecting with people because they are interacting with them and seeing pictures of their lives. However, connecting with someone on Facebook on a surface level is extremely different than connecting with someone in a face to face interaction. Jennifer Cline, LPC says, “Using Facebook is a bit like rummaging through a person’s medicine cabinet. You can look through either and learn a great deal about another person, some of which is quite private. However, it is fundamentally different to learn something about someone in this manner versus experiencing a purposeful revelation that requires vulnerability in the telling and empathy in the receiving.”True and meaningful connection requires in person contact and social media should not be a substitute for it.
  1. Get Involved:  Making an effort to meet new people can be daunting and it’s certainly not easy in adulthood. Trying to meet new people can feel exhausting and scary. We fear rejection, it’s hard to find people we click with and sometimes it’s hard to find others who are open to making new friends. Coming out of our comfort zone and making an effort to meet others is the best way to combat social isolation. There are different ways to get out there, get involved and connect to other people. Try volunteering somewhere in your community, attend a meet up group, take a class or join a club.
  1. Reciprocate and Put in Effort: Quality relationships rely on reciprocity and effort. If you don’t nurture a relationship or put time into it, it will atrophy and connection will be lost. If you want close relationships, quality time must be spent together so you can truly connect. Close friendships also need to be reciprocal. If you feel like you’re putting all the effort into a friendship and you’re feeling that it’s not reciprocated, it may be time to put your energies into friendships where you feel more appreciated. Kindness, generosity and empathy are also important traits that foster close, trustworthy connections that make us feel happy and fulfilled. Of course, these traits should be reciprocated just as our efforts should. Resentment can build if you don’t feel that your relationships are a nice balance of give and take. The good news is, you really only need a few of these very special people. As Dr. Mark Vernon, author of The Meaning of Friendshipsays, “even one very good friend can improve your life in profound ways.”