CLEVELAND — Americans are lonely. A 2018 Cigna study of 20,000 adults woke us up to that fact. So, why are we growing increasingly lonely? Doctor Amy Sullivan, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says the key to fighting loneliness is authentic relationships.
"It's a perception of feeling lonelier and a lack of connection, than just social isolation," said Dr. Sullivan.
Humans are social beings. We need in-person connections. Studies show, when we have regular, and meaningful, in-person interactions, we're less lonely.
Doctor Sullivan says loneliness messes with our body's stress hormones, which can wreak havoc on our physical and mental health.
"When it starts to become problematic is when an individual starts to feel depressed, or anxious or they're having a really difficult time relating to other people," she said.
She says more patients are telling her they're unable to relate to others, or feeling apathetic about school, work or life. She says increasingly, loneliness is the culprit, and people are surprised to learn it's the underlying problem.
She says it's important to differentiate between feeling lonely every once in a while, which she says is normal, versus a more chronic feeling.
"Individuals have a difficult time seeking connection because there's a fear of rejection," she said.
"I used to tell my mom, 'I don't know how to make friends,'" said Josh Ruminski. "And she was like, 'What do you mean?'"
The 19-year-old is talking about when he was younger, and how he believes a lot of his peers feel, too.
"We don't know how to interact in person sometimes because we want to be friends with them, but we don't want to come across clingy or needy or desperate, if that makes sense," he said. "I think it's a mentality that we've grown up with in society that you need to make sure other people like you."
The loneliest generation
Generation Z, people born in 1996 and beyond, are said to be the loneliest generation.
"These young people are growing up in an incredibly unique time in history," said Corey Seemiller in a recent TedxDayton talk.
"Most have used tablets and smartphones their entire lives."
Seemiller is a Gen Z researcher and professor.
She says many Gen-Zers are feeling disconnected for a few reasons: more screen time, a lack of social self-confidence, and a self-awareness of lower inter-personal skills.
"This is more than they're just playing too many video games and we need to get them outdoors," she said. "There's more to it than that. There's a deep-seeded sense of loneliness in the sense that, 'I don't believe that people know who the real me is.'"
A recent study uncovered a significant rise in depression, psychological distress, and suicidal thoughts and actions among this age group.
She says social media is not solely to blame.
"As a matter of fact, social media is just a place they're going when they're feeling disconnected," said Seemiller. "But at the end of the day, these young people are spending less in-person time with people and we know that's a factor in contributing to loneliness."
Josh knows loneliness, and the pain of anxiety and depression. He is a suicide survivor. He has gotten help to feel better and established meaningful friendships in his fraternity.
"It is a sense of community and hope," he said about his fraternity brothers.
Josh now helps others find that hope too. He has an online support network and makes candles that promote mindfulness and encouragement.
"It's important to know that talk saves lives," he said.
He encourages parents to engage kids in conversation about how they're feeling every day, before and after school.
"Asking them one thing that they like about themselves, and one they look forward to today," he recommended.
Then, later in the day, ask them what would've made their day even better.
"So they have something to look forward to tomorrow," said Josh.
Doctor Sullivan says she's seeing a rise in loneliness among all ages.
Finding a way to cope with loneliness
"The ultimate goal is to really just help people feel connected to their community members," said Steve Pelton.
He helped launch the new Friendly Caller program in Lake County. It pairs a lonely senior citizen with a phone buddy. They chat at least once a week.
"You can definitely hear how good they feel after having that conversation," said Pelton, president of hChoices.
One in four older adults say they feel isolated, according to a new national poll. One in three say they lack regular companionship. Those feelings of loneliness showed up most in people age 50 to 80 who also reported health issues.
Pelton says they recognize often these people cannot easily leave their homes. So, a phone call is an easy way to help them feel connected.
He also hopes it inspires you to take action.
"If we could just all remember to call our family members we haven't talked to in a while," he said. "To call our friend we haven't spoken to in a couple months, and just say 'hi!'"
A wake-up call for all ages that we need each other.
"Go for a walk with your friends," said Dr. Sullivan. "Accept that invite to coffee from a coworker. Develop that one-one-one time so loneliness doesn't creep in."
"Telling someone your story and listening to theirs shows how we can have mutuality, and shows that kinship and compassion for other people," said Josh. "When we do that, we really put the human back in humanity."
Experts say it's about balance. Our time in front of a screen, time with family, time being active, and time spent working and sleeping all impact how lonely we may feel.
Doctor Sullivan also says it's critical parents lead the way and impart the value—and skill—of in-person interactions.