Loneliness is a disease. At its worst, loneliness can cause Alzheimer’s disease, lower your cardiovascular health and immunity, and precipitate depression and thoughts of suicide. Loneliness is also a growing malady, a cause for concern so steep that the UK recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to help the more than 9 million UK residents who report often or always feeling lonely.
“I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly,” British PM Theresa May said in a January statement.
But while loneliness is often considered to be an affliction of the elderly, a shocking new survey has revealed that younger people are even more lonely than their older counterparts.
On Tuesday, health insurer Cigna and market research firm Ipsos released a survey of 20,000 Americans, about half of whom report feeling lonely almost all of the time.
To conduct the study, the insurer used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which employs a series of statements to calculate a loneliness score between 20 and 80.
The average score on the scale was a steep 44 for most Americans. One in four Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people or feel like there are people they can talk to. Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely compared to those who live alone, except for single parents/guardians, who are even more likely to be lonely, despite the presence of children. Only half of Americans reported having a meaningful conversation with someone on a daily basis.
The most surprising finding, however, was that the loneliest generation was found to be those between the ages of 18 and 22, otherwise known as Generation Z, or the iGeneration.
Members of Generation Z had an overall loneliness score of 48.3, compared to 45.3 for Millennials. Baby Boomers had an average of 42.4, and, in an unexpected twist, The Greatest Generation (people ages 72 and above) had the lowest score of all with 38.6.
While social media was not found to be a predictor of loneliness (those who reported using it often has a score of 43.5, which is not terribly different from the 41.7 reported by those who said they never use it), many people blame the Internet for why people feel so disconnected these days.
A recent study found that “phubbing”—the act of ignoring someone while flipping through your phone—can have devastating effects on your relationships with others, and other research has shown it to lead to decreased marital satisfaction and a greater likelihood of depression.
Given how much social media dominates the lives of Generation Z (recent statistics show 39 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 admit to being online “almost constantly”), it’s difficult not to see the correlation between the rise of tech addiction and the prevalence of loneliness in this age group.
The survey also found that this demographic was in poorer health than previous generations, which is less of a surprise, because loneliness has serious health consequences. Some studies have even found that loneliness can have the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“We view a person’s physical, mental and social health as being entirely connected,” David M. Cordani, president and chief executive officer of Cigna, said in the press release. “It’s for this reason that we regularly examine the physical, mental and social needs of our people and the communities they live in. In analyzing this closely, we’re seeing a lack of human connection, which ultimately leads to a lack of vitality—or a disconnect between mind and body. We must change this trend by reframing the conversation to be about ‘mental wellness’ and ‘vitality’ to speak to our mental-physical connection. When the mind and body are treated as one, we see powerful results.”
If you’re feeling lonely, there are a number of steps that you can take to self-help. Research has shown that adopting a pet can provide immense emotional support, reduce stress, and even help you live longer. Taking a digital detox and connecting with friends IRL has also been proven to abate loneliness. Recent research has found that even doing something as simple as holding hands with someone can ease both emotional and physical pain.
To combat loneliness, Cigna also recommends getting a good night of sleep, given that those who “say they sleep just the right amount have lower loneliness scores, falling four points behind those who sleep less than desired and 7.3 points behind those who sleep more than desired.”
Exercise is also a useful tool, as “people who say they get just the right amount of exercise are considerably less likely to be lonely” than those who don’t.
But the most important thing you can do is spend meaningful time with people in your life: your co-workers, your friends, your family members, even the man who sells you coffee in the morning. So take off those headphones, put down your smartphone, and let the human connection sink in.
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