This is the surprising age when people are most lonely

Ironically, feeling alone is a universal experience. We’ve all felt lonely at one time or another, especially during this tumultuous year. Generally speaking, though, loneliness is usually associated with older adults and the elderly more often than younger people just getting started in life. 

Surprisingly, a new study from the University of California, San Diego concludes the opposite; Americans are most lonely in their 20s and least lonely in their 60s.

On the surface, modern life should be anything but lonely. Putting COVID-19 aside for a moment, the past few decades have seen humans gifted with a plethora of new ways to stay connected.

Smartphones, texting, and social media would seem like absolute magic to our ancestors who had to write letters & wait weeks on end for a response. Throw the average adult from 1850 into a time machine, and they would be puzzled as to how anyone could feel lonely living in modern times.

Despite all that, over recent years rates of loneliness in the United States have increased dramatically. Herein lies the paradox. As a species, it’s never been easier for us to maintain connections with friends and find new people to chat with. Somehow, though, current technology seems to be having the opposite effect. We’re all more connected than ever before, and yet an increasing number of people are feeling isolated.

In an attempt to answer this riddle, researchers set out to better understand the psychological and environmental factors that evoke feelings of loneliness across different age groups. Their research produced several compelling findings. Most notably, researchers found that loneliness rates peak among people in their 20s, and reach their lowest point among those in their 60s. Many people also experience a spike in lonely feelings around their mid-40s.

These findings are as confounding as they are surprising, at least initially. A stereotypical young adult in their 20s should have considerably more friends and social interactions than an older adult in their 60s. Prevailing popular culture tells us that 20-year-olds go out to parties and people in their 60s stay home and reminisce over the good old days. 

So, what’s going on here? An individual’s 20s have always been about finding personal and career footing. That being said, the youth of today face a uniquely challenging landscape in the form of high real estate prices, low-paying jobs, and an ongoing student loan debt crisis.

Subsequently, modern people in their 20s are struggling to deal with all the stress and pressure that come along with trying to establish a career, find a life partner, and grow into adulthood in 2020. 

Due to all that, it’s common for many young adults right now to feel helpless or unable to change their situation. There’s no feeling more lonely than that, especially during a life period when childhood friends tend to drift apart.

The rise of social media hasn’t helped either. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram may keep people more connected, but they also promote constant comparison and self-assessment.

“A lot of people in this decade are also constantly comparing themselves on social media and are concerned about how many likes and followers they have,” says Tanya Nguyen, Ph.D., first study author and assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine, in a release. “The lower level of self-efficacy may lead to greater loneliness.”

Older adults in their 60s, on the other hand, could be feeling less lonely these days due to a greater sense of control over their lives. Most at this age have retired, don’t have to work, and many use modern technology and social media in a healthier way than younger adults. While a 24-year-old may be tempted to spend hours on social media comparing themselves to their peers and celebrities, a 63-year-old is more likely to use social media solely to reconnect with friends and acquaintances from decades past.

On a broader note, the study’s authors say each stage in a person’s life offers a new set of challenges and loneliness risk factors.

“What we found was a range of predictors of loneliness across the lifespan,” adds corresponding senior author Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

However, various elements were identified that predict loneliness across all age groups. These factors include a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion, a small social circle, not having a significant other, and sleep disturbances. Low social self-efficacy, or confidence in one’s ability to interact with people and build relationships, was also linked to higher loneliness rates across most age groups.

Confirming another recent study focusing on loneliness, people who showed high signs of wisdom also did a good job of avoiding loneliness.

What about that aforementioned spike in mid-life loneliness around the age of 45? Researchers have a potential explanation for that as well. 

“Individuals may start to lose loved ones close to them and their children are growing up and are becoming more independent. This greatly impacts self-purpose and may cause a shift in self-identify, resulting in increased loneliness,” Nguyen theorizes.

A total of 2,843 Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 were surveyed for this research.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.