More millennial women say they feel lonely — despite having friends

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The growing problem of loneliness among young women
WATCH: The growing problem of loneliness among young women – Jun 18, 2019

Loneliness is often thought of as an issue for the elderly, but a new report says millennials — especially women — are also struggling.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, women under 35 tend to express greater feelings of loneliness than other age groups, despite having social lives.

The poll, which surveyed more than 2,000 Canadians, found that six in 10 young women sometimes or often wish they had someone to talk to, but don’t. This is a jump from men of the same age, as four in 10 report similar feelings.

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What’s important to note is the poll found that young women are also much more likely to feel alone — even when they’re with other people.

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This is something that 25-year-old Coryl, who asked Global News to keep her last name private, understands.

Coryl says she doesn’t feel lonely around her closest friends, but in social situations with friends or acquaintances, she doesn’t feel like herself.

“I feel lonely around them because of how I censor myself and my mental illnesses,” Coryl said, explaining she has post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder.

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“It’s quite isolating to keep everyone in the dark about it, but has also been incredibly isolating when it’s brought up.”

For 34-year-old Nikki Swerhun, moving to a new city put geographical distance between her and her best friends. She has felt the effects of not having her network nearby.

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“I moved to Toronto two years ago and all my close friends are still on the West Coast,” she told Global News.

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“It’s hard because I rarely get to see them, and with the time difference, it can be hard to text or chat, so I do get lonely quite often.”

Swerhun’s husband travels a lot for work, so he’s out of town “50 per cent of the time.”

“I find I can get depressed or sad after three days alone,” she said. “It doesn’t help that I now work from home so no longer have a social network at work.”

Why are young women more lonely?

In Joshua Peters’s opinion, social media is partly to blame. He works as a psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships.

“We’re more connected than we’ve ever been, but people are feeling more lonely than they ever have,” he told Global News.

“A lot of people are obsessing over social media and filtering their life in a way that’s not allowing them to actually have a lot of vulnerability in the connections they do have.”

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Peters says vulnerability is the “bedrock” necessary to create strong, intimate and comforting relationships.

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As the Angus Reid data highlights, one of the key elements of loneliness is a person’s desired social life compared to their actual circumstances.

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This means that even if you have several close friends, you may be craving a different type of connection, or a more fulfilling social life.

Dr. Jon Callegher, a professor at George Brown College who specializes in millennial sociology, says that an entire generation has largely grown up with the internet, which has changed the way humans interact.

A 2017 report found that Instagram is the worst app for mental health, as it can lead to anxiety, depression, loneliness, and issues with sleep, body image and bullying.

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Callegher says social media affects our well-being, and people who are connected online may feel lonely or isolated in real life.

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“[This] means you don’t rely on other people to help you, and other people don’t rely on you,” he explained. “And when other people don’t rely on you, you have a little less sense of meaning and less sense of purpose.”

For 30-year-old Elizabeth, finding friends to spend time with is difficult, she says. She calls herself an introvert, but says that she craves in-person interactions — off her phone.

“I feel like I’m lacking in the deep, meaningful, close connections that I really seek with people,” she said. “Friendships and social connections, they really impact your quality of life.”

Both Peters and Callegher say relationships that are fostered in-person are especially important. Without them, we suffer.

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Peters will often hear from his patients that they’ve shared mental health-related memes online, hoping that a follower reaches out to them and validates their experience.

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“In reality, it’s best to reach out to a friend and talk about the struggles that you’re having in a way that isn’t easy,” he said.

“You might fumble over your words and you may not look great as you do it, but the truth is that a lot of life doesn’t look great.”

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This drive for perfectionism online and in real life is a major barrier to having close friendships — something everyone needs to thrive.

A study by researchers at Harvard found that more than cholesterol levels or physical activity, having strong personal connections with other people is the strongest predictor of overall happiness and better health.

The largest of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has been providing data on the same group of 268 men for more than 80 years.

“It’s a lot different to connect with people in words and pictures versus actually giving them a hug… or really engaging in a dynamic conversation,” Callegher said.

The difference between loneliness and isolation

As the Angus Reid poll points out, feeling lonely and being isolated are often connected, but not the same.

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For both men and women between the ages of 18 and 34, more than four in 10 said they were lonely, but not isolated.

“The core experience of [loneliness] is feeling disconnected from others,” said Peters, adding that it happens even when surrounded by others.

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“I think we’ve all experienced… going on Instagram and there’s that post [of] a friend drinking champagne on the shores of Hawaii. It’s hard to connect in those moments. We feel lonely because we’re not good enough.”

Loneliness could also be a side effect of more millennial women moving into traditionally male-dominated spaces, like the corporate world.

“The idea of being emotional and connecting with vulnerability is sometimes shamed in those environments,” Peters said.

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“There’s a loss that happens… when you start showing vulnerability or emotion and you’re [seen as] falling into stereotypes of what it is to be a woman, when in truth, it’s a healthy manner of connecting.”

Peters posits that patriarchal spaces, such as corporate business, discourage both men and women from expressing emotion — a vulnerability required to create new friendships.

“Maybe, as traditionally male spheres absorb more women (thankfully), being emotional is shamed more frequently,” he said.

How to make ‘good’ friends

According to the Angus Reid data, 35 per cent of Canadians say they wish they had more “good” friends.

Sometimes, says Peters, all it takes is lowering your expectations of others. We may feel like our friends aren’t “good” enough because we hold them to unrealistic standards.

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When a friend isn’t able to be there for support, it’s important to remember that they’re only human.

“I think the first step to being able to create healthier relationships is compassion for our friends when they don’t show up for us,” said Peters.

“There’s a repercussion of putting that [pressure] on our friendships; if our friends can’t be there in all those times in which we need them, they’re somehow ‘failing.'”

Peters acknowledges that friendships aren’t easy. Creating and maintaining friendships take work, but perseverance is key.

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“If you want that connection, you have to work at it,” Peters said. “At times, it will be uncomfortable… but ultimately, the payoff will be good.”

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Peters also encourages young women to get off the phone and have face-to-face interactions.

While it can certainly be hard to meet people in real life, spending quality time doing an activity or having a meaningful conversation is a more intimate experience than even texting.

“It won’t allow you to totally filter everything that you’re going to say,” he said.

“We try to make [interactions] neat and tidy, but a state of vulnerability is induced when you’re faced with the fact that you’re going to make mistakes.”

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