Living among college students and young adults, I’ve noticed something: we’re a lonely group. I’ve seen it in myself and others. We spend less time with our friends, and despite the technology at our fingertips, we reach out less.
If you’re feeling this, it’s not just in your head. A former surgeon general has called it a “loneliness epidemic,” and the research corroborates that idea. In a recent study by Cigna, 18-22-year-olds reported feeling lonely significantly more than those 72 and older.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general who coined the term ‘loneliness epidemic,’ reported that loneliness is as a deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It causes a type of stress that increases the risk of heart diseases, arthritis, and diabetes.
Clearly, we were made for community. The Bible and science affirm this. So as the most connected generation ever, why are we the loneliest?
Maybe because our attempts to remedy loneliness miss the point. It’s not just about being near people; it’s about connecting with people. Or perhaps it is our individualistic values. The more individualized our society becomes, the more we neglect the community our souls crave in favor of putting ourselves first. We believe this to be the secret to happiness, but clearly, we’ve ended up more miserable. The problem is likely all of these things and more. Here are a few steps we can take to remedy the loneliness epidemic within ourselves and our communities.
Run to God First
The beginning of community is communion with God. He has called us friends, and His love is the standard by which we model all our relationships. Yet even so, He never meant for us to live life apart from other human beings. He created Adam and said “it is not good for man to be alone.” He promises in His word not only to provide us with His presence, but to lead us to companionship:
“God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.” Psalm 68:6
Seeking community before seeking God can be dangerous. When we idolize our relationships, they become codependent and toxic. Run to Him first and He will provide what you need.
Step Away from the Screen
I know, I know. I’m not here to lecture you on the dangers of social media and technology. I’m constantly using a smartphone or the internet, for work and for fun. In fact, I think social media can be a great tool to hear others’ stories and connect with friends from far away. But slowly, it is becoming our primary means of connection when we were made for flesh and blood friendships.
There is a way to use social media that decreases loneliness, but overall, we aren’t doing it. John Cacioppo, a psychologist from the University of Chicago, said in an Atlantic article that using digital connections as a “way station” led to lower levels of loneliness. Kids often connect on Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter and make plans to meet in person and hang out. This is good. However, young adults too often use it as a destination instead. In fact, it can be a vicious cycle. Already-lonely people tend to withdraw socially, spending their time in an online world as an idealized version of themselves. Those interactions make them feel accepted, but ultimately, no less alone.
So next time you check your texts, Messenger, or Instagram, maybe try inviting one of your contacts to hang out. Think is someone you haven’t seen in awhile, or someone who may be in the same lonely boat as you. Connecting in-person leads to the deep friendships we crave, while keeping it online leaves us lonelier than ever
There is an instinct among lonely people to be cautious and guarded with others. There’s science behind that impulse. Cacioppo reported that loneliness actually rewires our brains to perceive the human face as a threat. This leads to a state of unease with those who might become friends. We constantly search for red flags, asking, “can I trust you?”
This is not inherently wrong. Proverbs tells us that a man of many companions comes to ruin. We must use discernment with whom we let down our guard. The problem is that our perceptions are often flawed. The way we read facial expressions, words, and body language are imperfect. Behaviors we read in others as “closed off” might actually mean “nervous” or “cold.”
Recognizing this instinct is the first step to overcoming its negative effects. Prayerfully reason with yourself to be open to connection even when your instinct is to trust no one. Ask the Lord for discernment about when and with whom it is wise to be vulnerable. Note that the friends that God sends your way may have stark differences from you; that’s okay. Remind yourself that it’s okay to be open with them too, because different does not equal bad.
Seek Authentic Community
I said earlier that community isn’t about just being near others— it’s about connecting with them. Anyone walking through a season of loneliness knows this. Just because you’re surrounded by people doesn’t mean you have friends. Just because someone is physically near you doesn’t mean they will draw near to you emotionally. John Cacioppo said it best to the Atlantic:
“Think about patients in hospitals: they aren’t alone, they have all the support they could ask for, but they tend to feel very lonely. There’s a difference between being alone and feeling alone. People in marriages tend to feel less lonely than people not in marriages. However, people in marriages can feel extraordinarily alone when they feel alienated from their spouse and family.”
We don’t just beer closeness. We need connection. If you’re not already, get involved with your local church. Don’t just show up; find ways to plug in. Serve in an area that interests you. Lifelong bonds can be forged by serving together. Join a small group ministry. Find a group you can trust and be open about your sin, your struggles, and your pain. If you’re not part of a body of believers, you’re missing out on life-giving community. Church can be hard, because people are imperfect. But if it’s worth the blood of Christ, it’s worth your time and effort.
Give and Receive
The old adage goes, “in order to make a friend, you must be a friend.” That didn’t stop being true in kindergarten. Connection must be mutual.
Our human nature leads us to focus on our own needs. But as Christians, we know that life is found in selfless giving. What kind of friendships would we have if we always share our hearts, but never hear the heart of our friend? Should we expect friends to always be there for us, but never be there for them? That isn’t just selfish, it’s an empty way to live. Having no one to care about feels just as awful as having no one care about us.
So it you’re feeling lonely, find someone to befriend. Ask someone how they’re doing and then really listen. That may sound difficult while in the brutal clutches of loneliness; it’s hard to pour from an empty cup. But luckily, we know the One whose cup is always running over. It is not God’s will for us to do life alone, so pray for the strength to be the friend you need.
We’re living through a loneliness epidemic. That word instills a feeling or powerlessness in our hearts; we can’t singlehandedly wipe out diseases. But through the hope we have in Jesus Christ, we don’t have to feel alone. He has given us the gift of other believers, with whom the gospel knocks down every wall. Most importantly, though, He has given us himself: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b)
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