Why are so many adults lonely even though they were so social when they were younger?

Answer by Amin Ariana:

Summary:

If you want a friend, be a friend, because:

  1. Your making yourself too busy is the most likely reason why people don't approach you and get too busy for you, which in turn turns on a signal of being "left out" in your mind, reinforcing your getting busier to compensate for your loneliness, forming a vicious cycle.
  2. One of every four individuals is suffering from having no one to confide in (at least in the United States, according to research). That means if you reach out to any four random people for friendship and conversation, one of them desperately needs it and is almost crying inside wanting it. But they're extremely good at masking that need by looking successful and busy. Don't be fooled by how busy people are with being successful. It's your best signal for their need to compensate for loneliness. Approach them and ask if they care to have coffee sometime!

The long answer:

I've been specifically researching the answer to this question, because I'm interested in solving it. The closest I've come to an answer was by reading the book "The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century."

In that book, the authors, Drs. Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz "set out to understand the cultural imperatives, psychological dynamics, and physical mechanisms underlying social isolation."

I don't want to spoil the book for you, but from a very high level, they make a compelling argument about an extremely high co-relation between loneliness and social isolation (at least its American version) and "busy-ness". The subtle but extremely important point illustrated in their argument is that these two phenomena form a vicious cycle:

In the context of American culture, we're all cowboys on the final frontier in our minds. So when we're alone, instead of seeking comfort in getting in touch with our friends and family, we look for super-hero activities; e.g: working in our garages, getting busy with a project, writing a book, being productive, etc. We tell ourselves to get a hobby and appreciate alone-ness, which is a great thing to do, but in moderation. Since the American culture pushes us to do this sort of cowboy / super-hero activity in excess, we start giving signals to our family and friends that we're "busy" (even though we did it in the first place to not burden them with our neediness). They in turn feel like they shouldn't bother us, or are rejected by our "successful, productive, have-no-time-for-you" lives, so they end up getting hobbies of their own. So by the time we're too burnt out from our own hobbies and finally we seek them out, we observe that they're busy and have no time for us (because now they're compensating for their loneliness by getting busy). It's a vicious cycle and many opportunities are missed, leading to a critical level of falling out, or severe social isolation.

According to the researchers, 1 in 4 Americans today has no confidant for discussing serious matters. Also according to them, this figure has quadrupled in the last 2 decades.

In an entrepreneurship class, I was pitching for solving this problem using contemporary solutions, and the question kept popping up from various people: "but this situation must be improving because of how much easier it is today to communicate with people we know. We have Facebook, Twitter, etc." The answer to that, as also illustrated in that book, is that those methods of communication lack the rich communication cues present in voice or in-person communication, so they do not replace meeting in person or talking on the phone. However, they do act as tools that keep us busy. According to research, it's extremely difficult for humans to resist rewards that arrive at unpredictable time intervals. Such rewards can be addictive (and that's exactly what Facebook notifications and Slot machines have in common). So today's Social Networks are better at keeping us addicted to busy-ness and self-involvement than genuine outward communication with friends. Most Facebook posts and status updates look like conversations with self, so they make us look busier and make our friends more and more alienated, ironically.

There are many innovations (such as Google+ Hangouts, which is a group video chat) aimed at mitigating the lack of richness in our modern means of communication. But at the end of the day, the root of this problem is culturally seated.

You seemed to co-relate this phenomenon to age (adults vs. young people). I think that co-relation may be due to the time it takes to absorb cultural norms and values.

So in conclusion, the next time you're lonely, remember two facts:

  1. You probably look busy to other people. That's probably why you're lonely.
  2. If you reach out to four random individuals, chances are extremely good that one of them has no close friends and is suffering silently.

I'll again quote Judith's excellent comment below:

If you want a friend, be a friend.

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