Why Does Loneliness Peak Before Our 30s?

Health Line:  

Six years ago, Naresh Vissa was 20-something and lonely.

He’d just finished college and was living on his own for the first time in a one-bedroom apartment, rarely leaving it.

Like many other 20-somethings, Vissa was single. He ate, slept, and worked from home.

“I’d look out my window in Baltimore’s Harbor East and see other people in [their] 20s partying, going on dates, and having a good time,” Vissa says. “All I could do was shut the blinds, turn off my lights, and watch episodes of ‘The Wire.’”

He may have felt like the only lonely person in his generation, but Vissa is far from alone in his loneliness.

Loneliness grows after college
Contrary to the popular belief that you’re surrounded by friends, parties, and fun in your 20s and 30s, the time after college is actually the time when loneliness peaks.

A 2016 study published in Developmental Psychology found that, across genders, loneliness peaks just before your 30s.

In 2017, the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission (an English campaign aimed to profile the hidden crisis of loneliness) did a survey on loneliness with men in the UK and found that 35 is the age when they are loneliest, and 11 percent said they’re lonely on a daily basis.

But isn’t this the time that most of us, as kids, dream about thriving? After all, shows like “New Girl,” along with “Friends” and “Will & Grace” have never showed being in your 20s and 30s as lonely.

We may have money problems, career troubles, and romantic stumbles, but loneliness? That was supposed to dissipate as soon as we made it on our own.

Sociologists have long considered three conditions crucial to friend-making: proximity, repeated and unplanned interactions, and settings that encourage people to let their guard down. These conditions appear less frequently in life after your dorm room days are over.
“There are a lot of myths about what the 20-something years are all about,” says Tess Brigham, San Francisco-based licensed therapist who specializes in treating young adults and millennials.

“Many of my clients think they need to have a fabulous career, be married — or at least engaged — and have an incredible social life before they turn 30 or they’ve failed in some way,” Brigham adds.

That’s a lot to take on, especially all at the same time.

So, does loneliness stem from a fear of failure?
Or maybe the cultural landscape just makes it seems like you’re the only one failing, which in turn makes you feel left behind and lonely.

“If you add in social media, which is everyone else’s life highlight reel, it makes many young people feel alone and lost,” Brigham says.

“While the 20-something years are full of adventure and excitement, it’s also the time of your life when you determine who you are and what kind of life you want to live.”

If everyone else — and that would be everyone on social media, including influencers and celebrities — seems like they’re living that life better than you, it may lead you to believe you’ve already failed. You may feel the urge to retreat even more.

But adding to the issue is the fact that we aren’t changing how we make friends after college. During your school years, life could be compared to living on the set of “Friends.” You could pop in and out of your buddies’ dorm rooms without so much as a knock.

Now, with friends spread across the city and everyone trying to forge their own path, making friends has become more difficult and complicated.

“Many young adults have never had to work at making and building friendships,” Brigham says. “Actively building a community of people who support you and making friends who add something to their lives will help with the loneliness.”

Sociologists have long considered three conditions crucial to friend-making: proximity, repeated and unplanned interactions, and settings that encourage people to let their guard down. These conditions appear less frequently in life after your dorm room days are over.

“Netflix makes sure they don’t have to wait for the next episode next week; fast Internet on their phones gives them all the world’s information with a 5-second wait time; and when it comes to relationships, they’ve been presented with a swipe-to-dismiss model of relationship building.” – Mark Wildes
Alisha Powell, a 28-year-old social worker in Washington, DC, says she’s lonely. Since she isn’t in an office, it’s harder for her to meet people.

“I have this deep longing to mean something to someone,” Powell says. “I’ve found that while I can experience sadness and unfortunate events by myself because I expect it, the loneliest moments I have are when I’m happy. I want someone who cares about me to celebrate with me, but they are never present and never have been.”

Powell says because she’s not following the life of working nine-to-five, getting married, and having babies — which are all ways to actively build a community — she has a hard time finding people who understand her deeply and get her. She has yet to find those people.

Yet the truth is, most of us already know how to be less lonely
Studies have been bombarding us about disconnecting from social media; publications have been telling us to write in a gratitude journal; and the standard advice is overly simple: go outside to meet people in person rather than keeping it to a text or, as more common now, an Instagram DM.

We get it.

So why aren’t we doing it? Why, instead, are we simply getting depressed about how lonely we are?

Well, to start, we’re growing up on social media
From Facebook likes to Tinder swipes, we may already have invested too much in the American Dream, causing our brains to be hardwired for positive results only.

“The millennial age group grew up with their needs being fulfilled quicker and quicker,” says Mark Wildes, author of “Beyond the Instant,” a book about finding happiness in a fast-paced, social media world.

“Netflix makes sure they don’t have to wait for the next episode next week; fast Internet on their phones gives them all the world’s information with a 5-second wait time,” says Wildes, “and when it comes to relationships, they’ve been presented with a swipe-to-dismiss model of relationship building.”

Basically, we’re in a vicious cycle: we’re afraid of being stigmatized for feeling lonely, so we retreat into ourselves and feel even lonelier.

Carla Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist in California and author of the upcoming book “Joy Over Fear,” highlights how devastating this cycle can be if we let it continue.

The resulting loneliness makes you feel ashamed, and you fear reaching out or telling others that you feel lonely. “This self-perpetuating cycle continues — and often results in strong feelings of depression and isolation,” says Manly.

If we keep thinking about life in terms of getting what we want when we want it, it will only result in more disappointment.

The key to tackling loneliness goes back to keeping it simple — you know, that standard advice we keep hearing over and over again: go outside and do things.

You may not hear back or you might get rejected. It may even be scary. But you won’t know unless you ask.
“There is no quick fix when it comes to loneliness or any of our more complex feelings,” Brigham says. “To take the steps means you’re going to have to be uncomfortable for a period of time.”

You’re going to have to go out alone or walk up to someone new at work to ask them if they want to eat lunch with you. They could say no, but they might not. The idea is to see rejection as part of the process and not a roadblock.

“Many of my clients overthink and analyze and worry about what happens if they get a ‘no’ or they look foolish,” Brigham says. “In order to build confidence in yourself, you must take action and focus on taking the chance and putting yourself out (which is in your control) and not on the outcome (which is out of your control).”

How to break the cycle
Writer Kiki Schirr set a goal this year of 100 rejections — and went for everything she wanted. It turned out she couldn’t meet her goal because too many of those rejections turned into acceptances.

Likewise, whether it’s friendships or life goals, seeing rejections as a form success could be the answer to overcoming your fear of failure.

Or, if social media is your weakness, what if, instead of logging on with the FOMO (fear of missing out) mindset, we try to change the way we think about other people’s experiences? Maybe it’s time to take the JOMO (joy of missing out) approach instead.

We can feel happy for those enjoying their time instead of wishing we were there. If it’s a post by a friend, message them and ask if you could hang out with them next time.

You may not hear back or you might get rejected. It may even be scary. But you won’t know unless you ask.

Vissa finally broke from his cycle of loneliness by setting simple goals: read a book once a month; watch a movie every day; listen to podcasts; write down positive business plans, pick-up lines, book topics — anything cool; exercise; stop drinking; and stop hanging out with negative people (which included unfriending them on Facebook).

Vissa also began online dating, and, while he’s still single, he’s met interesting women.

Now, he has a different view out his window.

“Whenever I am down or depressed, I walk to my dining table, look out my window overlooking the downtown Baltimore skyline, and start playing and singing Anna Kendrick’s ‘Cups,’” Vissa says. “After I’m done, I look up, throw my hands in the air, and say, ‘Thank you.’”