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Who's in the Video
Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia University. A recipient of the Rising Star Award from the Association for Psychological[…]
Robert Waldinger, MD is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a practicing psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and a Zen teacher and practitioner.For the last two decades, Waldinger has been the[…]
Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Future of the Middle Class Initiative and co-directs the Center on Children and Families. His[…]
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Three psychology and sociology experts, Robert Waldinger, Michael Slepian, and Richard Reeves come together in this compilation to discuss the psychology of loneliness and the way we can combat the “friendship recession.”

It’s 2024. It’s harder than ever to foster deep connections with others. Everyone feels like they’re missing out on friendships, and every day of isolation makes it even harder to escape the rut. 

From keeping secrets to workism, these experts are unpacking why we feel lonely and suggesting the ways we can combat it. They encourage us to reach out, be vulnerable, and prioritize our relationships, reminding us that we are not alone in our struggle and that meaningful connections are within reach. 

By following their advice, we can transform our social lives and experience the joy and fulfillment that come from true companionship. Understanding the root causes of our loneliness and actively working to build and maintain connections can help us break free from isolation and create a more connected, fulfilling life.

ROBERT WALDINGER: Loneliness is the sense that "I am less connected to other people than I want to be." 

RICHARD REEVES: We are wired to want to be social creatures and to be friends- but that it might be harder for us to do so in certain circumstances, where the opportunities to cultivate friendship are not there. 

MICHAEL SLEPIAN: When we hold back from other people, that can feel really isolating. But when you make yourself vulnerable or when you place your trust in another person, this is the stuff of intimate relationships, and revealing these kinds of things is how we become known. 

WALDINGER: It's not just our closest relationships that make us feel connected, it's all kinds of relationships. It's the person who delivers the mail. It's the cashier who checks us out at the grocery store. All of these ways of making it a little bit more personal, do a lot to make other people feel like they belong, and they make us feel more like we belong.

NARRATOR: Hey Big Thinkers, we’ll get back to the video in a moment but first, we want to talk to you about the sponsor of today’s video, BetterHelp. Loneliness is a complex emotion that can weigh heavily on our mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and a sense of disconnection from the world around us. In those moments, Seeking professional help can be incredibly valuable. A therapist can provide a non-judgmental space to process feelings and develop coping strategies.

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All right, now back to the video.

SLEPIAN: My name is Michael Slepian. I'm a professor at Columbia, and I study the psychology of secrecy. My book is called "The Secret Life of Secrets: How Our Inner World Shape Well-Being, Relationships, and Who We Are."

Secrets are all around us. You're probably keeping a secret right now. When we keep a secret, we're often trying to protect something. Maybe we're trying to protect ourselves and our reputation, or what other people think of us, or maybe we're trying to protect someone we care about. But when we hold back from other people, it's not always protecting the thing that we're hoping to protect, and it often brings harm to our personal health and wellbeing. That can feel really isolating, and it can feel like it's something you should be ashamed of. And feelings of shame are one of the most toxic emotions that we can have for our health.

When we feel ashamed, we feel like we're a bad person and that there's nothing we can do to change that. But also, that secret is gonna be on your mind quite frequently, and your mind is gonna return to that secret time and time again. We're living with those secrets alone in our thoughts, and when we choose to be alone with something, we often don't develop the healthiest way of thinking about that thing. Once you better understand how your secrets are hurting you, you can have a better sense of how you can cope with them.

Not all secrets are bad, sometimes secrets are good and sometimes we feel good about the secrets we're keeping: surprise parties, announcing a pregnancy, proposing marriage to someone, or maybe it's a sense of status that comes from having a workplace secret. What makes something a secret is when you intend to hold back this particular information from one or more people- and we can distinguish secrecy from privacy. Privacy is not a specific intent to hold information back, but it's just needing to be comfortable enough in the moment to reveal something sensitive. And our secrets can range from totally trivial to troubling.

When I first started this research, one of the most important questions to understand is what do people keep secret? We didn't even have a good understanding of that. And so I asked a couple thousand people, 'What's the secret you're currently keeping?' And we found 38 different categories, and we know that these 38 categories of secrets are really comprehensive because when I ask someone open-ended, 'What is the secret you're currently keeping?' 92% of the time, it fits one of the 38 categories from the list- and 97% of people say they have at least one of the secrets from the list right now. And the average person has 13 of those secrets at any given moment in time.

The top five most common secrets are about: lies we've told, romantic desire, our finances and money, sexual behavior, and what I call 'extra-relational thoughts,' where you're in a romantic relationship with someone and you're having some romantic thought about another person. Other common secrets are: family secrets, secret ambitions, secret beliefs, secret discontents, whether at work, social life, romantic life, or our physical appearance. I forgot what my last item was. Oh yeah, cheating.

A secret can harm you, unfortunately so many ways, in that even if you're not hiding the secret in a given moment, it still could be burdensome to you. It could still be harming your well-being and that's because people frequently feel ashamed of their secrets, isolated with their secrets, inauthentic for keeping those secrets. And when the secret deals with something that is an ongoing struggle or something we're trying to figure out, when we're alone with something, we tend to not figure it out. We're more likely to ruminate on that thing- and rumination is not just repetitive thinking, it's repetitive negative thinking. So it's all too easy to find the worst way to think about a secret when we're alone with it.

Psychologist John Cacioppo said something once to the effect of, "Loneliness is so harmful to your health that it's equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day." And it just goes to show you that social relationships are such a huge part of life and feeling satisfied with that life. And when we choose to keep a secret in a very small way or sometimes big way, we're choosing loneliness. We're choosing to be alone with something. But we don't have to be. It's all too easy to forget about the other side of secrecy which is that sharing a secret with another person is a profound act of intimacy. If it takes courage to reveal something to someone, they'll recognize that. When you make yourself vulnerable or when you place your trust in another person, this is the stuff of intimate relationships, and revealing these kinds of things is how we become known. Mutual disclosure with others is one of the strongest predictors of relationship strength.

It can feel really good to reveal a secret to someone. It can feel really good to have that weight lifted from your shoulders, but it turns out, that's not what is helpful about revealing a secret. It's not that moment of catharsis. It's what happens after that, because the average person responds in a helpful way. The prototypical experience people have with confiding a secret is a helpful one. And that might be in part because we've chosen our confidants carefully, but it's also because there's so much that other people can offer that are really hard to find on our own. Someone can validate your experience or express sympathy and say, "That must be so hard, or I'm here for you," or give guidance or advice or emotional support. These are things that are so hard to find on our own, but are really easy for someone to provide to us. And so often, that's what makes revealing a secret beneficial.

If you ask a young child to tell you what a secret is, they might tell you that it's something you would only share with your best friend. They understand secrets are meant to be shared. This is how we get close to people. This is how we become known. This is how we get help. And when you choose to keep a secret, you are forgoing all those benefits. You don't have to share it with the person you're keeping it from, but talking about it with someone else often is so profoundly helpful. It deepens that relationship, and gets you the help that you need.

WALDINGER: I'm Robert Waldinger. I'm a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. I direct the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Loneliness is absolutely an epidemic in our society, but it's been growing for decades. Loneliness is the sense that "I am less connected to other people than I want to be." It's a very subjective experience, and that makes it different too from isolation. So I can deliberately isolate myself and feel great about that, but only you can tell if you're lonely. And the fact is you can be lonely in a crowd. You can be lonely in a marriage. You can also be very content and not lonely alone on a mountaintop. Starting in the 1950s and going all the way through to today, we know that people have been less and less invested in other people. In some studies, as many as 60% of people will say that they feel lonely much of the time. And the lowest estimates are 30-40% of people say they feel lonely. Young adults aged 16 to 24 are the loneliest age group, and then again, among older adults, there is an increase in loneliness, particularly as people lose friends, lose partners. But loneliness is pervasive across the world, across all age groups, all income groups, all demographics.

There are so many factors that are responsible for this loneliness epidemic. They did not just begin with the digital revolution. Loneliness was on the rise, as we know, at least from the 1950s in part because of We've become a much more mobile society where the networks of family and friends get disrupted as people move for jobs and other kinds of opportunities like education. All of that is good on the one hand, but then it tears us away from the fabric of belonging that many of us are born into and spend much of our lives creating. So when television came into the American home, there was a decline in investing in our communities. People went out less, they joined clubs less often. They went to houses of worship less often. They invited people over less often. All of that seems to contribute to our increasing disconnection and our increasing levels of loneliness. That was made worse as the digital revolution gave us more and more screens to look at and software that was designed specifically to grab our attention, hold our attention, and therefore, keep it away from the people we care about.

There's good work by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who is a researcher who studies loneliness, and what she finds is that loneliness is as dangerous to our health as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. We think that stress is one of the main causes of physical health breakdown that comes from loneliness, but there are probably other causes as well. And in addition, the research shows that people who are lonely in late life have more rapid

brain decline. So we know that this same process of increased stress or decreased stress affects how our brains age. And many other studies show that the single choice we can make that's most likely to keep us on a good path of well-being is to invest in our relationships with other people.

It's not just our closest relationships that make us feel connected, it's all kinds of relationships. It's the person who delivers the mail. It's the cashier who checks us out at the grocery store. It's all these casual encounters. All of these ways of making it a little bit more personal, do a lot to make other people feel like they belong, and they make us feel more like we belong. Many people who are lonely feel that others don't wanna be with them, and what we know is that lonely people can sometimes give off the message that they don't wanna be approached because they're afraid of others; they're afraid of the world. And so it may be that lonely people can learn more about making gestures and giving off signals that say, "I would like to connect," even when they're a little bit afraid to do so. And so they've actually developed forms of cognitive behavior therapy where people are taught these social skills and taught how to revise their assumptions about not being wanted by other people.

My recommendation if you're feeling lonely and a little bit afraid is find a setting, find an activity around other people where you are comfortable and see what develops. You belong. You matter. You're connected.

REEVES: I'm Richard Reeves, and my latest book is "Of Boys and Men: Why Modern Male Is Struggling, Why That Matters, and What to Do about It.”

There are some studies that suggest, for example, that being without a close friend, being lonely, is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's quite hard to measure friendships. What's the quality of that friendship? What's the quantity? When people say they have a certain number of friends, what does that mean? Does it mean how many friends they have on Facebook? It is difficult to get at this quantitatively, and also people I think are a bit reluctant to admit sometimes to not having friends. Loneliness is in some ways quite a stigmatized condition, and so actually getting people to admit to loneliness is something that social scientists really struggle with.

I think a big question now is whether we are facing a 'friendship recession.' That's the term that Daniel Cox, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has used to describe this rise in a number of people who lack a certain number of close friends, who have fewer people to turn to in times of crisis. You need a shoulder to cry on, or at least someone to have a conversation with. That's less and less likely to be a friend now. And as society changes in all kinds of ways, technologically, economically, then I think it's important that we pay attention to what is very often an underappreciated human relationship- which is the friendship.

Friendships come in all shapes and sizes, and are also formed in very different ways and in very different places. One way we form friends is just by being at the same school as somebody, by growing up in the same place. Another way is through the situations you find yourself in, through work. They're also friends that you form through activities that are chosen, so through a volunteer activity or a sport, athletics. The fourth is online friendships. Those are friendships that are formed through a screen or over the internet in one kind or another, without necessarily ever physically meeting that person.

Across human history, there's always been a tribal size, I think to friendship groups, which is somewhere in the teens, say between 12 and 15 perhaps is a reasonable number to think about. And then there are close friends. Some people of course have no close friends, but most people have at least a close friend. And most people would say that the ideal number of close friends to have is somewhere around the three or four number.

Friendship was something that the ancient philosophers used to take very seriously. If you go back to Aristotle, for example, in some ways seen as the ideal relationship, and one of the reasons why friendship is, I think so important and so idealized is 'cause it's a relationship of genuine and radical equality, and one in which you're not in the friendship in order to get something out of it for yourself. There's no sense of dependency. There's no sense of exchange. It's not a transactional relationship in any way. And in most other occasions, relationships do contain some kind of transaction, some kind of "what's in this for me?" But the definition of a friendship is a relationship where there is nothing in it for you other than the relationship.

We've seen a decline in lots of traditional institutions including the family, people marrying later if they do marry, obviously, in areas like religion, in some cases the the labor market. And so, what that means is there's more of a need for people to have social relationships, connections outside of those institutions. That's where friends are hugely important. But during the same period, we've seen a real decline in the number of people who say that they have a number of close friends. There are a number of factors that could be getting in the way of forming friendships, particularly in 21st-century U.S. Number one is geographical mobility. People moving away from their homes, moving to big cities or career opportunities which necessarily stretches their friendship network. Parents are spending quite a bit more time on parenting, on looking after their kids, which squeezes out the time that they might have had for friendships before. There's also a lot of emphasis on work and careers, what some scholars call 'workism,' which is a sense that your identity is so what wrapped up in your work that you don't have as much energy and time left over for friends. And then lastly, I'd point to the breakdown of relationships as marriages break up or couples separate that can be really fracturing of friendship groups that have been formed as a couple. Once they break up the friendship groups very often get shattered as well.

There are a few downsides to being without friends. One is lack of access to opportunities. It turns out that many people get a lot of jobs and opportunities and chances to go and do things through their friends- so friends do act as a communications information channel. But there are some quite profound effects on health, too: Mental health, and even physical health. It's not exactly clear what the causal relationships are, what's going on, but it is clear that having friends is protective of your health in various ways. And so it's not just that being without friends can make you isolated in a sort of economic or a social sense, but it can also make you sad. And being sad it turns out is also bad in terms of your physical as well as emotional health.

Today, 15% of young men say that they don't have a close friend. That was just 3% back in the 1990s. And so, we're seeing a fivefold increase in the number of men have no close friends. Back in 1990, almost half of young men, 45% said that if they had to turn to someone in a time of trouble, it would be to a close friend. But now that's dropped to about 22%. And in fact, there are more men, about 36% who say that they would go to their parents. And so that's a quite a radical transformation in the social networks that we've seen, particularly of young men. The pandemic has been a sort of stress test for our friendship networks. Interestingly there, we see that it's women who've been most affected: with more than half of women saying they've lost touch with at least some of their friends. I think that's because female friendships are more based on physical relationships on face-to-face time, whereas male friendships tend to be more mediated perhaps through activities or technology. We don't know for sure, but that gender gap is suggestive of the fact that women's friendships are more in need of more regular physical contact than male friendships are, which is maybe why women's friendships are born the brunt of the impact of COVID on those friendship networks.

There's obviously a dystopian version of how these trends could continue, which is a world of essentially atomized individuals without friends, isolated, sad, lonely, perhaps in ill health. I think that's why we have to pay real attention to these trends, and to recognize that friendship is incredibly important for human flourishing, and that people want to make friends. We are wired to want to be social creatures and to be friends- but that it might be harder for us to do so in certain circumstances. Circumstances where we're under too much pressure, where we're too segregated, where the opportunities to cultivate friendship are not there. A key lesson that we learn is that friendships don't form themselves. Friendship is not a flower that just blooms all on its own. It's more like a woodworking project that you have to carve out and continue to work on. One of the necessary steps to making a friend is to admitting that you want to make a friend, to being open to that. That requires a certain vulnerability. It requires you, in some ways, to reveal a need, a desire. And I think as we get older, there's sometimes a sense of shame that comes along with not having enough friends and actually saying, "I need a friend," is maybe one of the hardest sentences that any human being can utter.