The Beatles said it best: "Ah, look at all the lonely people." For real, though, part of being human includes being lonely sometimes, right? And while it certainly isn't pleasant, it's totally common and normal to feel this way sometimes. But when does loneliness really become a problem? And is there anything that can be done to prevent it? Well, according to a new study, there might actually be specific periods of time in your life when loneliness becomes more of an issue. I know that might seem a little like bad news, but the truth is, having this knowledge could help you a) understand your own feelings a little more clearly and why they may be surfacing at certain points in time, and b) prepare for these potentially difficult moments in your life.
As per CNN, researchers from the University of California, San Diego set out to explore how loneliness can affect a person over the course of their life. The study, which has been published in International Psychogeriatrics, the official journal of the International Psychogeriatric Association, included 340 adults between 27 and 101 years old, who completed several different measures, scales, and questionnaires related to loneliness and emotional well-being. Ultimately, according to CNN, the researchers found that there appear to be three key times in your life when loneliness may become more of an issue: your late 80s, your mid 50s, and your late 20s.
As CNN reports, the researchers believed their data would show that loneliness simply increases as a person gets older, given the "usual assumption that as people get older, they become more alone," Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior author of the study, told the news outlet. So Jeste and his team were kind of surprised when the data revealed these other two loneliness peaks, particularly the one that seems to happen in a person's late 20s.
Keep in mind, as CNN notes, the study's results "do not explain the reasons why people feel lonely," though Jeste offered some potential theories on the subject. He told the news outlet,
...the late 20s is often a period of major decision-making, which is often stressful because you often end up feeling that your peers made better decisions than you did, and there's a lot of guilt about why you did this or did that.
To be clear, as Jeste told CNN, loneliness doesn't necessarily mean you're not surrounded by friends and loved ones 24/7, or that you lack a good support system. It's more a state of mind than anything else. Jeste explained,
One thing to remember is that loneliness is subjective. Loneliness does not mean being alone; loneliness does not mean not having friends. Loneliness is defined as 'subjective distress.'
On the bright side, one thing the researchers considered to be really positive in their study was that, apparently, the more wisdom a person has, the less lonely they feel — and it's totally possible to develop your wisdom over time, BTW. According to counselor and relationship expert David Bennett (who was not involved in the loneliness study), there are ways to increase your wisdom and, as a result, strengthen your relationships with both yourself and others.
"The study defined wisdom as being a complex trait, including having self-compassion, and exhibiting social behavior," Bennett tells Elite Daily in an email. "Many of these traits can be cultivated through practices such as meditation, and living your life in a way that is emotionally and socially balanced."
If you're concerned about feeling lonely in your late 20s in particular, Bennett explains, that's definitely normal, since it's not totally uncommon for your friend groups to start breaking apart a bit more as people focus on other aspects of their lives, like family or career.
Additionally, Bennett points out that the late 20s often seem to be a period when many people aren't just focusing on things like their career; they're throwing themselves into work, proudly bragging they “don’t have time” for relationships or a social life. "While there is nothing wrong with this, making your social life your last priority is a solid way to ensure you’re lonely," he explains.
"I suggest focusing on finding and maintaining longer-term relationships throughout your late 20s and early 30s," says Bennett. "Purposely maintaining friendships during this period is crucial when it comes to feeling less lonely."
Bennett also recommends practicing gratitude on at least a semi-regular basis to help increase your wisdom and ward off feelings of loneliness. According to the therapist, gratitude can help you focus more on the day-to-day positives in life, instead of dwelling on what might be lacking. Even if you just jot these things down in your phone from time to time, it really could make a big difference in your overall mindset.
And, for what it's worth, perhaps we can also take a little bit of comfort in knowing that we aren't alone in being lonely, you know?