Have you ever felt lonely despite being surrounded by other people? Sometimes people say that they have plenty of friends, family, and other social connections, but still feel the pangs of loneliness and disconnection.
Despite the rise of social media and the ease with which we can connect to each other, loneliness has never been higher. One study done in 2018 suggests that nearly 50% of Americans report feeling lonely “sometimes or always.” In fact, in 2017, former Surgeon General of the United States Vivek Murthy wrote that the rate of loneliness has doubled since the 80’s.
To go along with this, only about 50% of Americans today report having “meaningful in-person relationships.” That means that roughly half of us are not finding fulfillment in our relationships. And we are not engaging in in-person relationships as much as we used to.
An ongoing question amongst psychologists is how social media is impacting our relationships and the sense we have of ourselves. In an earlier article, I wrote about how regular social media usage can actually decrease one’s self-esteem and confidence.
And it now appears that social media might contribute to feelings of loneliness as well. In a study done last year by the University of British Colombia, researchers found that, on average, individuals who used social media more often reported higher rates of loneliness compared to individuals who don’t use social media as often. (Researchers didn’t define what a “good” amount of social media usage is.)
The problem with this research is the “chicken-or-the-egg” question. Does using social media causeloneliness? Or do people use social media more because they are feeling lonely and are looking to remedy that feeling?
The important issue is that humans strive to feel close with others. We are social beings, as they say. But despite the fact that a plethora of connections, followers, online groups and friends are at our finger tips, many people today are lacking that feeling of closeness.
So what’s missing?
I think the missing ingredient in our modern society is intimacy. Now, when I use that word, many of you will probably think of romantic intimacy. But that isn’t the only form of intimacy. What I’m talking about is intimacy that is shared between family and friends. It’s a platonic form of intimacy.
Intimacy of this type is defined as an ability to share personal thoughts and feelings – things about yourself that feel special and close to your heart. And when people are intimate in this way, there is a reciprocal nature to it: you share things about yourself, but you likewise welcome and respond to those same things from others.
Think about it: how do relationships grow and deepen? Through being intimate with each other. When you think fondly about a friend, what is it that comes to mind? Usually, it’s the fact that they know things about you that others don’t know. (And still accept you!) Or that they have shared things with you about themselves that they don’t tell everyone.
The problem today is that we have moved away from being intimate with one another. We can be friends with hundreds of people online, but how many of these people know us on a personal level? How many know about your doubts, insecurities, and challenges? Or our dreams and passions?
When people state that they can be surrounded by friends (online or in person), and still feel lonely, what I think they are saying is that they do not feel like they have people with whom they can be intimate.
And the magic of intimacy is that it can prevent you from feeling lonely even when you are alone. Because intimacy reminds us that we are cared about, we can carry that thought in our minds to lift us up when we are alone, troubled, or unsure of ourselves.
But let’s be honest here: being intimate is difficult! One of the reasons social media has blossomed and our relationships have become shallower is because connecting with people on an intimate level is hard and scary. It’s hard because there is work involved in forming and maintaining intimate relationships. And it’s scary because being intimate with others takes trust that the openness you share will be welcomed and cherished.
Being intimate means being vulnerable.
There is a sense of security involved in keeping some distance in our relationships. Someone you are not intimate and vulnerable with can’t really hurt or disappoint you. And compared to the work involved in intimacy, it’s much easier to just follow people on Instagram, or to check up on friends based on their Facebook profile. But these types of relationships fail to provide for us is a sense of closeness, acceptance, fondness, and meaningfulness that everyone yearns for.
So I encourage you to consider how intimate you feel with those around you. And in doing so, consider the things you wish you shared with others. Consider the feelings you want to be recognized and understood. The thoughts you want heard and listened to.
If you find yourself feeling lonelier than you would like, consider changes you could make with how intimate you are with people around you. This is no easy task, and it takes bravery to put yourself out there.
But the payoff of having more fulfilling relationships is worth it.