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Understanding Loneliness: What the Research Says – And What We Can Do About It (Part 1)

Understanding Loneliness: What the Research Says – And What We Can Do About It (Part 1)

What makes people happy over the course of their lives?

In 1938, a group of social scientists decided to ask this question by structuring what has since become the longest running social science research project in the world – the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

For their subjects, they chose 724 men of various socio-economic backgrounds (women weren't admitted into Harvard at the time). Rather than simply survey them at a single point in time, they opted to study them over the entire course of their lives. (A study that Richard Linklater would no doubt wish he could've led.) Remarkably, the study has continued to this very day – they still have sixteen subjects in their mid-nineties!

And what have they learned from the tens of pages of data that they've generated on those lives? What's the 'secret sauce' that makes people live healthy, flourishing lives?

Well, it's pretty damn simple:

Quality relationships.

“Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, and the loners often died earlier," Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study shared during a TED Talk.

These were individuals whose experience of social connection matched their expectations. It wasn't necessarily about the number of relationships – quality always trumped quantity. And quality often means being around people who see you – all of you, not just the performative you –and love you all the same.

At the other end of that insight?

Loneliness kills.

In the recent documentary on Anthony Bourdain (Roadrunner), there's a scene where he sits down with Iggy Pop. Iggy is his hero – the quintessential rock star who survived it all.

Bourdain asks him,

"What just thrills the shit out of you today?"

Without much hesitation, Iggy says,

"To be loved and to appreciate the people that are giving that to me."
Iggy Pop opens up about receiving love during Roadrunner

Bourdain nods his head, but his eyes are blank. By that time, Bourdain had reworked himself from a chef at an obscure restaurant to a beloved, world-famous cultural explorer. And yet, for reasons the documentary explores – his struggles with addiction, his insecurities with women – he is unable to fathom this level of intimacy that Pop refers to.

It's as though he were staring at this time-honored truth – that, in the end, it's just the relationships that matter. But he couldn't feel it, couldn't hear it. The pain of the loneliness was too overpowering.

And this is the tragedy of loneliness.

As Frieda Fromm-Reichmann observed,

"Lonely people can’t see that lots of people feel the same way they do."

This is one of the reasons I continue to return to this research – to remind myself that I'm not alone in my loneliness:

"it's the psychological equivalent of being a loser, a weak person."

And yet, in spite of this complexity, there's a growing recognition by entrepreneurial communities that this issue demands our attention – especially since rates of self-reported loneliness have more than doubled since the 1980s.

A number of start-ups have emerged to develop innovative solutions that help connect users to new people (that they otherwise wouldn't meet), while others support deepening existing connections. These start-ups range from being online to facilitating in-person connections (or some combination of the two).

In the next post, I'll break down what this landscape looks like today, highlighting some of the inspiring case studies I've come across, as well as identifying where the gaps might be.

If quality relationships are what make a life great – then shouldn't we do the best we can to imagine solutions that support us so that we don't forget that?