The loneliest years of our lives

BBC Radio 4 has just announced the results of The Loneliness Experiment, a nationwide survey into loneliness. It’s the largest survey into loneliness and the results show that the age group 16 to 24 are the loneliest group. You may find this surprising. Let’s pick through the possible reasons for this.

Social media instantly springs to mind. Young people don’t seem to hang out with friends anymore, in each other’s bedrooms or in the local park. There is less face to face contact. They connect with friends via their phone screen instead, whether this is through Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook. My own kids don’t sit down to watch soap operas with the family like we did when we were growing up and they are often so busy with activities that family meals aren’t possible. They remove themselves from the family area downstair and hide away in their bedrooms. My book ‘Every Family Has One’ addressed loneliness issues among teens and among the parents dealing with their depressed teens.

Loneliness isn’t something we freely admit to. There’s a social stigma attached to it. And young people I can imagine are least likely to admit to feeling lonely because at that age it’s all about popularity, how many friends you have on Snapchat and how many people are following you on Instagram. Young people scrutinise the photos of their peers. ‘He’s having an amazing time in Australia,’ ‘She looks happy with her twenty friends on the beach.’ A picture though only tells what the person wants you to see. A different story lurks behind those happy faces. To be lonely is weird. It’s embarrassing. You’re labelled a social misfit and nobody wants to be that. And so the natural tendency is to hide these feelings. But we’re human and being human means that we cannot always feel on top of the world. We will go through lonely patches. It’s inevitable no matter how much we go out or how many friends we have and whether we are in a romantic relationship or not.

The loneliest time of my life were the university years. I studied 300 miles from home and missed by mum and the friends I’d made in my home town and the social life I had. I tried everything I possibly could to adapt to university life but the sad truth was I couldn’t wait to graduate. Returning to Lancaster University several years ago, on route to the Lake District brought it all back to me. Walking round the campus sent a chill through me. I could have been returning to a prison after freedom. The emotions that shot through me were the same.

The only way to beat loneliness is to get out there and mix as much as you can, engaging with others face to face but when that doesn’t work the only thing is to accept that so many of us are lonely – it really is a natural state of being a human.

‘Every Family Has One’ is available on Amazon:

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