Young People Are the Loneliest Americans

CC BY 2.0. Mitchell Haindfield

But they're not alone: a new report finds that most Americans are considered lonely.

Loneliness is a mental state commonly associated with the elderly, but a new report by Cigna says that it's actually much younger Americans, between ages 18 and 22, that are the loneliest in the nation. The report found that loneliness decreases with age, with adults above age 72 being the least lonely group in the United States.

The report, published on Tuesday, used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a frequently referenced and acknowledged academic measure for gauging loneliness. It surveyed 20,000 Americans above 18 years of age and generated a score based on their responses to 20 questions. Any score above 43 is considered a sign of loneliness, and the average score in this report was 44, meaning that "most Americans are considered lonely." Among Cigna's findings:

- Nearly half (46%) of Americans report feeling alone sometimes or always, or left out (47%).
- One in four (27%) feel there's no one who understands them fully.
- Forty-three percent feels relationships are sometimes or always not meaningful, and that they're isolated from others.
- Only half (53%) feel they have meaningful in-person social relationships.

It's surprising that young people feel so lonely. There is a tendency to assume that members of Gen Z, as it's called, born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, are at the top of their game, starting post-secondary education or new careers, but this report paints a dismal picture. Interestingly, it did not find a correlation between social media use and loneliness, although this has been documented in previous research. Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who studies loneliness and its health effects at Brigham Young University, told NPR that the way in which social media is used determines its influence:

"If you're passively using it, if you're just scrolling feeds, that's associated with more negative effects. But if you're using it to reach out and connect to people to facilitate other kinds of [in-person] interactions, it's associated with more positive effects."

One can't help but wonder, though, what differentiates the lifestyles of the young from their older and much happier grandparents, and social media is the first and most obvious thing that comes to mind. It has transformed the ways in which we interact with each other, and arguably not for the better.

The report's overall findings are concerning, since loneliness has real health implications. Says David Cordani, president and CEO of Cigna, "There's a blurred line between mental and physical health. Oftentimes, medical symptoms present themselves and they're correlated with mental, lifestyle, behavioral issues like loneliness." Indeed, some research has found that a sense of loneliness increases the odds of early death by 26 percent.

We need to focus on building a greater sense of community in our towns, cities, neighborhoods, and streets. We need to connect with people who don't necessarily share our world views, but can challenge, inform, and expand them. We need to spend time in the physical presence of others, or at least talking to them, rather than texting. There's nothing like human interaction to boost one's spirits and to make one feel contented and valued. Finally, as older adults, we clearly need to make a concerted effort to reach out to younger people, to engage them and show them that the future depends on their wellbeing.