I was intrigued this week when I discovered a study that says loneliness is genetic. Yes, there is a loneliness gene that means some of us are just biologically more susceptible to feelings of isolation than others, regardless of where we are or who we’re with. In other words; it just might run in the family. I was relieved that I didn’t have to feel guilty for the times I felt more content alone than I did with a big group – perhaps it’s inherent; simply the way I’m wired. Is this the reason I can eat or go to the cinema alone, yet some of my strong-willed friends refuse to leave the house without a plus one?
What also struck me about the comprehensive study however, was the group targeted. American researchers questioned over 10,000 participants who were aged 50 and over, and looked at loneliness as a lifelong state (as opposed to a temporary one). Yes, previously we tended to think that loneliness primarily affected older people but fast forward to our modern times and the millennial generation are dealing with this, probably more so than any other.
It makes no sense to omit groups (millennials and generation X) from myriad research who are, ironically, more susceptible to experiencing loneliness thanks to the realm of “social” media. Previous generations didn’t have multiple outlets for connecting, so they may call us the lucky ones, however, the need to be endlessly connected and sharing our happiest moments with the world can leave us feeling oddly disconnected. FOMO has reached fever pitch thanks to social media and loneliness can constantly be triggered as a result; we see daily fleeting snapshots of friends living in the moment and more often than not, it serves as a striking reminder of what we’re missing out on if we’re not having similarly joyous experiences surrounded by others. When #ILoveMyLife started to trend around the same time I was reading the study, I was annoyed. More pressure to be ‘on’, having fun all the time and loving your life – preferably with people.
However, now we know that loneliness isn’t purely environmental and that a person’s genetic make-up plays a significant role, it’s surely time to investigate the science of loneliness – at any age – and take it seriously because, for example, stress and anxiety (two more emotions that can invariably trigger lonely feelings) have reached peak levels in young people today.
And yet, being alone doesn’t necessarily equate to feeling lonely. They are both utterly different scenarios; it is perfectly acceptable to feel utterly content with nothing but yourself and your thoughts for company – solitude can be invigorating amidst the beautiful noise of life – just as it is highly possible to feel like the only person in the room at the centre of a party. But that understanding only comes with self-acceptance and truly knowing yourself and who you are, something that no study can account for.