Article written by
Marta Ortega Vega
Research Lead at Maudsley Learning, and is involved in the delivery of a range of research and consultancy projects through applying Psychology and research methods knowledge and skills
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For mental health awareness week this year we are talking about loneliness, an often taboo topic. The first time I really thought about loneliness I was 18. I had started university in a foreign country which meant lots of exciting independent time to do what I wanted – but an equal amount of unexciting alone time to think about how much I missed my family and friends from home. This was a feeling that made me extremely uncomfortable, because, as we have all heard it before, ‘your 20s are the best years of your life!’. In conversations with others around me, I learned that I wasn’t alone in feeling lonely – and surprisingly, there was comfort in sharing this feeling. This blog starts to delve into what the research tells us about loneliness in young adulthood, and what are some things that can make you feel more connected.

Why are we lonelier in our 20s-30s?

Erikson (1959) theorised that social relationships in early adulthood lay the foundation for strong social relationships later in our lives. A study looking at whether social relationships in young adulthood predicted social connection and psychological outcomes in midlife concluded that quantity of social connections in your 20s and quality of connections in your 30s were the most important predictors of outcomes. This plays a purpose of meeting different developmental goals: Our 20s are a time for learning social skills that are important to navigate future social situations, whereas our 30s focus on creating deeper connections with others. This begins to highlight a developmental need for frequent socialising with others in young adulthood that, if not met, can lead to feelings of loneliness.

Research tells us that loneliness can be impacted by a range of factors; One study investigating loneliness in relation to age, gender and disability found higher levels of loneliness for those aged 16-29 than those 30-49, with higher levels of loneliness for males with severe disability at this age group. Additionally, being single or living in a different household from a partner also contributed to loneliness. Another study of Polish university students aged 19-25 similarly found that those who were single reported higher levels of romantic and family loneliness, and less perceived social support. The duration of being single also predicted loneliness outcomes, which were also found to be improved by high family support.

Additionally, the pandemic exacerbated or created new feelings of distance and disconnection with others. Students starting university missed out on crucial opportunities to meet their peers, those early in their careers were left at a strange in between stage of leaving behind their previous support networks and working remotely, and so on. One study of loneliness among people with severe mental illness during the pandemic found that 29-35% of participants reported being lonely, and loneliness was also linked to being younger, living alone, and deterioration of mental health. This tells us that there are a broad range of factors that can contribute to the experience of loneliness in young adulthood, but also reiterates that this is a common experience in this age group.

How can you reduce feelings of loneliness?

There is no single remedy to cure loneliness, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do to help you manage feelings of loneliness and feel more connected to others. The five tips below reflect research and suggestions from individuals with experiences of loneliness to help manage personal feelings of isolation and increase connection with others.

  • Explore the feeling: Like all our feelings, our mind plays an important role in how we respond to the experience of loneliness. It can be helpful to explore situations where you felt disconnected from others to understand, and challenge, the thoughts and behaviours connected to the feeling. Maybe a friend cutting a phone call short made you feel like they weren’t interested in speaking with you, but they may have been feeling tired or had to attend to responsibilities at home. By breaking down and reflecting on these experiences, you can build more self-understanding and move away from self-blame connected to feelings of loneliness.
  • Create a regular social schedule that works for you: As an introvert, I will be the first to internally scream at a packed social calendar, but I also know how important it is for my wellbeing to feel connected to others. Having a regular social schedule, and importantly one that works with your preferences and responsibilities, can help prevent long periods of alone time where you may feel more disconnected from others. It can be something as simple as scheduling a weekly call with a family member, going on a monthly hike with a friend, or more frequent like making plans to have lunch with a colleague daily. Nourishing your relationships can also make those around you feel less lonely, so it’s a win-win!
  • Volunteer: Volunteering can be a very self-enriching experience, and a great opportunity to meet new people! Working with others with similar values and passions can facilitate social connection. It can also be a structured way to create more opportunities for socialising in your life if you prefer meeting people more regularly and work towards a common goal.
  • Reach out: Sometimes the best thing to do is to reach out to a trusted person to get the feeling off your chest. Telling someone you are feeling lonely can be a vulnerable experience, but if you feel comfortable, naming the feeling can be a big step in opening the conversation and feeling more connected to the other person. Another benefit is that you may be helping another person by reaching out and creating a space where this topic can be openly discussed!

In summary, young adulthood is often a period of constant change which can make us feel disconnected from those around us. Loneliness is a feeling that we shouldn’t carry alone, and there are different ways you can connect with others and start conversations to destigmatise loneliness. Most importantly, if you feel like you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust, or your GP who may be able to suggest services or treatments to support you.

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