By Jillian Richardson
Don’t just wait for someone to invite you to an event. Instead, take the time and energy to bring a group together.Founder of The Joy List
The word “loner” generally conjures up images of a social pariah — a person who voluntarily removes themselves from a community and lacks the skills or desire to connect with anyone. Yet in reality, deep feelings of loneliness are not reserved for outcasts. The holidays in particular can be a painful time for a lot of people, especially people who feel disconnected from family. But the holidays are by no means the only time that people feel blue. In fact, research suggests most people in America crave more meaningful social interactions.
Let’s look at the numbers: The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review. One in four people have no confidantes at all. Zero. To make things worse, 75 percent of people say that they're unsatisfied with the friendships that they do have, according to a 2013 study. Meanwhile religious service attendance is on the decline. New ways to gather in community can be hard to find.
The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review. One in four people have no confidantes at all.
This level of disconnection is dangerous to our health. Loneliness has been alleged to have the same impact on our life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with a risk factor that rivals excessive drinking or obesity. In addition, a lack of social contact is can hasten cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, depression and suicide. This leads to a huge uptick in medical bills — the AARP recently reported that isolation among older adults accounts for $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually.
Yet of all age groups, Generation Z — anyone ranging in age from 18 to 22 — seems to be particularly impacted. According to a recent study conducted by Cigna, Gen Z is significantly more likely than any other age group to say that they experience feelings that are associated with loneliness; 68 percent said they feel like “no one really knows them well.” Cigna gave Gen Z a "loneliness" score of 48.3 out of 80. This is in contrast to the so-called Greatest Generation — people over 72 — which has the lowest loneliness score of 38.6 (also out of 80).
I'm a millennial — a generation including anyone born between 1981 and 1996 — which comes in around the middle, 45.3. We are not quite as lonely as Gen Z, but we are lonelier than Baby Boomers.
As the Beatles once asked, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Personally, I think they come from a lack of in-person opportunities for young people to connect with each other in meaningful ways.
Members of the scientific community agree. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, notes that it’s “critical that [young people] have spaces where they can connect face-to-face to form meaningful relationships." This claim is confirmed by results from the study: 88 percent of those who have daily in-person interactions say their overall health and mental health is good, very good or excellent. Only around half of those who never have in-person interactions say the same.
David T. Hsu, a social scientistand the author of "Untethered," agrees. He proposes in the study that solving Americans’ increasing sense of isolation requires “advocates for the most isolated among us; passionate community-builders from every sector; entrepreneurs obsessed with building new and refurbished solutions for this age-old problem; visionary funders to advance the agenda; artists and storytellers with a gift for continually revealing our condition.”
Following Hsu’s advice, I came up with a simple solution. I created The Joy List, a weekly newsletter of events that New Yorkers can go to by themselves, and leave with a new friend. Our mission is to make New York City less lonely.
This issue is a personal one for me. I wish I’d had The Joy List when I moved to New York. While I'm an outgoing person who's perfectly comfortable talking to strangers, I didn't have any deep connections after a few months in this huge, new metropolis. I had some casual friendships, but I didn't feel like anyone really understood who I was. They didn't know what I was struggling with, and weren't offering to support me in any way.
Like a lot of Americans, I was feeling lonely. And it wasn't because I wasn't meeting enough people — it was because I wasn't in spaces that prioritized deep connection. The newsletter has helped me change this. Now, instead of feeling ashamed that I couldn't find deeper connections, I have a whole group close friends I am proud to call my "chosen family."
But my newsletter is only one small example of a growing community of groups — online and off — that are working to achieve similar goals. One of the first communities I joined was “Personal Development Nerds,” a group dedicated to learning various ways to improve ourselves. We gather to discuss topics ranging from streamlining our workflow to making deeper friendships and finding workouts that we actually enjoy. PDN consists of an online community, a monthly event and social gatherings that range from group co-working to picnics and movie nights. “It’s like a lighthouse for driven, like-minded individuals,” Juvoni Beckford, the group’s leader, told me.
While I don’t align with some of the group's primary passions — like Crossfit, fasting and Gary Vaynerchuck — we all share the same desire to grow as people. That is more than enough to spark interesting conversations. At this point, I see my fellow Personal Development Nerds at least one a week. I even joined a co-working space with a group of them. There is just enough structure to keep the group clearly defined without forcing people to do things they don't want to do. We were brought together by the intention of one person, then empowered to take its growth into our own hands.
Don’t just wait for someone to invite you to an event. Instead, take the time and energy to bring a group together.
Other groups in New York have made a similar impact. For example, “Medi Club” is a monthly event for people who are interested in meditation and meeting like-minded people. Its members have also self-organized volunteering trips, a choir, a diversity committee and mentorship for community leaders. And there are so many others. The Get Down is a twice-monthly dance party with DJ Tasha Blank that aims to bring together people who want to boogie without inhibition — or safety concerns. The Get Down’s strong culture of consent, presence and self-expression brings regulars back more consistently than any other party that I’ve experienced.
If attending huge events feels overwhelming, you can also start small. “You can have a community of three or four people,” says Juvoni Beckford of PDN. “Just surround yourself with people who have varying perspectives. That will help you become more understanding and empathetic.” Beckford also recommends trying to be proactive. Don’t just wait for someone to invite you to an event. Instead, take the time and energy to bring a group together.
In her essay “Feel Me. See Me. Hear Me. Reach Me,” Roxane Gay eloquently articulates why in-person gatherings are crucial for reducing loneliness. “So many of us are reaching out,” she writes, “hoping someone out there will grab our hands and remind us that we are not as alone as we fear.”
We can’t actually hold more than two hands at once. But creating a space to connect? That’s about as close as you can get.
Jillian Richardson is the founder of The Joy List and NYC Community Builders, as well as the author of an upcoming book about secular ways to create spaces of belonging
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.