Loneliness in Adulthood, Part 1: Why Is Connection Important?

Two adults in their forties, both with hair pulled back, sit at table in cafe, talking happilyI’m going to be vulnerable here: I’m over forty, and I’m having trouble finding lasting friendships.

When my husband and I moved from Florida to Colorado six years ago, we left behind many friends. I joined running clubs and Meetup groups, and I have new colleagues, but it has been very difficult to find deep, lasting friendships at this age. Sure, I socialize with the many new people I’ve met. But it seems no one is willing to get deep. When invitations aren’t reciprocal or become less frequent, I am left asking, “It is me?”

Other acquaintances and people I work with report similar challenges, validating that I am not alone in this struggle. Most of the people I work with are in their twenties and thirties. Many of them, also transplants from other states, feel the challenge of making friends in a new place.

When our efforts to make friends come to nothing, we may feel lonely, isolated and left out. And we can’t fail to mention the impact social media has on FOMO (the fear of missing out)! Through our acquaintances, we have “evidence” that others are doing activities we’d like to be doing—but they’re doing them with other people.

Why is it so hard for us to make similar connections?

Friend Factories

When we think back on childhood, we might realize that at an early age we were thrust into friend factories (also known as schools). It generally isn’t too difficult to make at least a few friends in a large group of people of similar ages and backgrounds. (Although I am not negating the social torment that many middle schoolers face, or bullying in general). Those of us who attend college are likely to find that similarity and connection abounds in even greater numbers of potential friends and mates. Developing lasting connections may seem easy in settings like those.

Some people stay in their hometowns or near the school they attended, which makes it easier to keep those desirable old friendships strong. But for those of us who have left our hometowns, states and even countries, it can be difficult to reestablish similar relationships as adults. We can’t stay in school forever, so we move forward to become adults in the real world. For many of us, this means full-time employment, possibly a partnership and children. But it also means every other person our age is also finding themselves trying to balance work and family life. In short, our friend factories have dispersed.

It’s also notable to mention that we lose half of our friendships every seven years (NWO, 2009). So, it’s unlikely that a friend you had in elementary school will remain a friend years later.

Having a community of people we connect with is an important aspect of our development.

Why is this? Life-changing circumstances such as marriage, career changes, moving, or the addition of children often impact our social groups. For example, let’s say your college roommate was your best friend for four years. You shared all the experiences that the late teens and early twenties bring. But after graduation, she was accepted to graduate school in another state. You got engaged and moved back to your hometown to start a family. The separation and different lifestyles resulted in your relationship fading away. The once-important alliance is now a pleasant memory.

Understanding the Desire for Connection

Seeking core values is a mindset I focus on in both my personal and professional life. Determining core values can help us find our path to satisfaction and self-worth. Core values can be ideals like love, health, peace, spirituality, and family. Friendship is also a core value that is important to most people.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places “belonging” as a mid-level need, after physiological needs and safety needs. Belonging includes friendship, intimacy, trust, acceptance, and giving and receiving love. In other words, having a community of people we connect with is generally an important aspect of development. According to Maslow, when we don’t get these needs met, it is difficult (though not impossible) to climb to higher levels of the self, like esteem and self-actualization.

The desire we have to fit in and feel a sense of belonging is an instinctual one. Our ancestors lived in tight-knit communities for a reason. They worked together to find food, raise children, and ward off enemies. While most of us don’t face the same life-threatening struggles today, part of our brain still desires that connectedness. But in today’s world of long commutes, single-family homes, and the time-consuming monstrosity that is the internet, those connections may be further away than ever. Life seems to be growing more individualistic than connected.

The Effects of Loneliness

More than 40% of Americans reported feeling lonely in 2010, according to a study conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). As a result of loneliness, more people than ever may feel as if they have no one to confide in. Loneliness can also contribute to the development of mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression, which can lead to even further isolation.

Research shows that people who are lonely may have trouble sleeping. Loneliness has also been linked to higher blood pressure and increased levels of cortisol, which can contribute to inflammation and lower a person’s immunity.

When we lack social connection, then, the effects may be both physical and emotional. To prevent these potentially harmful effects, we must find ways to develop deeper connections. You may find it helpful to seek support from a therapist or counselor if you:

  • Are finding it more difficult to make lasting friendships as you grow older
  • Sometimes have a hard time engaging with other people or are unsure how to engage with others
  • Struggle to find ways to combat loneliness

In therapy, it’s possible to address potential causes of loneliness and explore solutions or ideas that may help you develop stronger connections in your life.

References:

  1. Brody, J. E. (2017, December 11). The surprising effects of loneliness on health. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/11/well/mind/how-loneliness-affects-our-health.html
  2. Burbach, C. (2017, October 17). Making friends if you’re over 40. LiveAbout. Retrieved from https://www.liveabout.com/making-friends-if-youre-over-40-1385402
  3. Entis, L. (2016, June 22). Chronic loneliness is a modern-day epidemic. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2016/06/22/loneliness-is-a-modern-day-epidemic
  4. McLeod, S. A. (2017). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. SimplyPsychology. Retrieved from simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
  5. NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research). (2009, May 27). Half of your friends lost in seven years, social network study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090527111907.htm
  6. Streit, K. (2017, April 5). Why it’s so hard to make friends as an adult. simplemost. Retrieved from https://www.simplemost.com/heres-hard-make-friends-adult

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea M. Risi, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 2 comments
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  • Friendless

    Friendless

    April 27th, 2018 at 10:09 PM

    Forty and friendless sounds just like me l Tried online groups and going to events there aren’t clubs or rhings in my town. I work from home too so can’t really make friends at work like most people. Don’t want to be too desperate and talk to strangers at restaurant or bar but how else? This doesn’t seem like how it once was before, my parents had more friends at this age I think . for all the online stuff it isn’t real, I think makes it worse.

  • Andrea Risi

    Andrea Risi

    April 30th, 2018 at 12:53 PM

    Dear Friendless, I think we can all agree that this age of technology has affected our connectedness, both positively and negatively. Working from home can definitely make it more challenging to meet people. But if friendship is a value of ours, we will continue to move in that direction.

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