Living alone and feeling lonely are not the same thing.
When by themselves some people find the peace and promise of solitude, while others feel its desperate shadow, loneliness. Sharing space with others does not always lead to meaningful connection, and being alone does not always leave one longing for company.
Perhaps the skill of feeling content while alone, or even preferring time by ourselves, is a skill we learn as we age.
A report from the organization SocialPro has a wealth of data on loneliness. There is much to be learned in their report, but the statistics that jumped out immediately at me are the ones that reveal that older people feel less lonely than younger people.
Perhaps the feeling that we are OK by ourselves is one we become more comfortable with as we age.
In the US and the UK 52% of people sometimes or always feel lonely, but when you look at only Baby Boomers that number drops to 44%.
50% of Generation X and 65% of Millennials and Gen Z sometimes or always feel lonely.
Older adults also seem better able to forge and maintain strong friendships. Only 16% of baby boomers say they have no close friends.
In Gen Z that number is 19%, 27% in Millennials, and 33% of Generation X report they have no close friends.
We older adults shouldn’t be quick to condemn the lifestyles or choices of younger people. I hear people my age blame just about everything that we see as “wrong” with younger people on technology and social media. The study doesn’t support this.
While 73% of very heavy users feel lonely, when social media is used to enhance relationships it actually makes users feel less lonely.
Right now, due to shut downs related to the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are spending less time with others than we would like to. But even in this older people fare better. 20% feel more lonely due to the conditions of the pandemic. This number increases through younger generations until it peaks at 34% in millennials.
Could making and keeping friends be something we learn as we age? I look at my own experience and think yes.
Today I have a few friends I see often. These are people I confide in. People with whom I share big ideas and trusted confidences. I didn’t have that when I was younger. While I knew many people, pressures of and time spent building a career made forging close friendships difficult.
Developing close friendships takes time and attention. I didn’t have much of either then. I do now.
My relationship with solitude has changed as well. I’ve become more comfortable with myself as I’ve aged and crave time spent alone to meditate and to work.
As with so many other things in life, money helps, too. The study reveals that the more money people make the less likely they are to feel lonely and the more likely they are to have close friends. More money typically comes with age, so at least there’s correlation here.
I think feelings of comfort with who one is and perspective about what life offers weigh heavily on how one feels about time spent alone. These things, too, often develop as we age.
In the end, while many people do feel lonely there is promise in the numbers. Social institutions constantly change, and new opportunities to make connections present themselves always.
As we age we learn to navigate these better, and develop the ability to choose friends more wisely. We also often learn to be more satisfied with who we are and more comfortable with ourselves. There’s a sense of security in aging well, and a sense of security in friendship. Life reveals that these things are intimately related.
My book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is now available.