Millennials were dubbed the loneliness generation by a new YouGov study.
Can millennials still be happy if they’re alone?
Yale’s Dr. Laurie Santos, who studies happiness and wellbeing, dives into that and more.
Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Laurie Santos’ thoughts on:
- The importance of friendship to happiness (0:53)
- Why you should talk to more people every day (2:12)
- If social media is making us lonely (3:23)
- If you can be happy if you feel lonely (4:45)
- How to prioritize social connection in your daily life (5:42)
- Ways to start conversations with strangers (7:05)
- How to make new friends (8:57)
Want to hear more from Dr. Santos?
Coursera: From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m here talking to Laurie Santos of Yale University about a new study that came out that said 30% of millennials feel lonely, and 22% feel like they don’t have any friends at all.
Since Laurie is a professor of psychology and teaches a course about The Science of Well-Being, we’re here to talk to her about how important friendship is in regards to our happiness—and if you can be happy, even if you don’t have any friends.
So, let’s go ahead and dive in.
I’m sure the study that you saw about millennials having hardly any friends wasn’t a shock to you, but I’d love it if you could explain a bit about what you’ve found in terms of social connection, friendship, and happiness through your research and teachings.
Do you need friends to be happy?
[00:00:53] Dr. Laurie Santos: Yeah, so I mean, the research is super clear here. Like, if you want to look at the one thing that separates happy people from not so happy people, it’s the fact that happy people are just more social. Like, they spend more time with the people they care about. They spend more time just talking with random strangers.
It seems like this act of feeling socially connected is really part and parcel the kind of thing that makes us feel happy.
[00:01:15] And this is especially problematic in the modern generation when so many people are reporting feeling very lonely.
I mean, the YouGov data collection, I think, was really shocking. That upwards of 30% of millennials are saying they feel lonely a lot of the time. They don’t have anyone to talk to.
And what the research suggests is that there’s something really easy that you can do to feel better if you’re in that position, which is just to take time to talk to people.
The problem is that our mind forecasts that it’ll feel awkward, that it won’t feel really all that fun.
But in practice, just the simple act of talking to even a stranger at the coffee shop or a stranger on the train can really improve our well-being in more ways than we expect.
[00:01:52] Coursera: So, if someone’s feeling lonely, they feel like they really and truly don’t have any friends, family members who they can talk to, confide in and get that social connection, the best thing for them to do is just to go out and strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Even though it won’t solve the problem of friendship, it’ll kind of get them moving in the right way?
[00:02:12] Dr. Laurie Santos: Yeah. I think it’s like my colleague, Nick Epley, who does a lot of this work. He’s a professor at the University of Chicago.
He’s fond of saying that happiness is kind of like a leaky tire, right? You need to just do a simple conversation with someone every once in a while to sort of fill up your leaky happiness tire.
So, a quick conversation with someone on the train won’t solve the fact that you don’t have someone to confide in. But it’s 5, 10 minutes where you really feel like you’re emotionally connected to another human.
You can kind of break the ice a little bit in terms of reaching out to others, and I think it can really help more than we expect.
[00:02:42] One of the things I see in my college students is that they just don’t practice this act of simple conversations as much as other people. They have this temptation of just being on their phone.
So, it’s easy to just look at your phone when you’re stuck in the elevator or look at your phone when you’re stuck in a line.
And that means we can get out of the practice of just having these quick conversations that can start with, “Hey. How are you?” on the train that can then turn into something more.
[00:03:04] Coursera: And do you think that the technology, the smartphones that you alluded to are part of the reason that we’re seeing the millennial generation in particular—and I’m sure it’ll trickle down to Gen Z when they start doing those studies—that these feelings of loneliness and having no true real friends is emerging. Do you see those two connected?
[00:03:23] Dr. Laurie Santos: Yeah. There’s not much great data on it, sadly. I’m a nerdy scientist, right? So, I want to see the study that connects it, in part, because we’ve been getting lonelier as social media has been coming out. But we don’t really have a control population.
What we do know is that using our phones makes us less social with the people that are around us in real life.
Professor Liz Dunn has some neat data that when you give people their cell phones in a waiting room, it stops them from talking to the people around them. And it even stops them from smiling at the other people around them.
So, there’s a sense that just the presence of our phones is kind of a distraction. It’s a distraction from the real people in our own life.
[00:03:57] I think it’s kind of also like the empty calories of social connection. We go on Instagram and scroll through and like a few posts thinking, “I’ve connected with somebody today,” but we haven’t really.
The research shows that it’s in real life, talking to people in real-time like that’s the stuff that boosts up our mood when we make these connections.
And so I think we can kind of feel like we’re using our technology to connect, but it’s a less good connection than we often think.
Can you be happy alone without any friends?
[00:04:23] Coursera: Yeah. And I think that’s true. You feel like you’re so connected to your friend group, but it’s not that in-person really talking about the things that matter, that we’re getting as much.
So, I’m curious if you see looking at kind of the equation of happiness as friends or that social connection aspect as an integral part? Or could you truly be happy if you feel lonely?
[00:04:45] Dr. Laurie Santos: I mean, loneliness really does impede happiness. I think all the studies of very happy people suggest that they tend to not feel lonely.
And loneliness is also correlated with stuff beyond happiness. I mean, health-wise, it’s the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It can affect everything from anxiety to how your immune system functions to even early death, right?
So, I think we think, “Oh, I just don’t have any friends, or I’m feeling a little lonely. It’s just a phase. It’s fine.”
But it’s a phase that can really deeply affect our well-being and even deeply affect our physical health as well.
[00:05:18] Coursera: So, what advice would you pass along to anyone who’s listening or struggling with this internally to get them out of that rut from looking at their phone when they’re sitting in the waiting room or in the elevator, or spending another Friday night, scrolling through Instagram or watching a movie, where they feel isolated and alone.
What can they do to bridge that gap and start making their way towards social connection and friendship in real life?
[00:05:42] Dr. Laurie Santos: I mean, the first thing is recognizing that our minds are lying to us when it comes to predicting how social connections are going to feel. And I think this is a huge one.
In that study where people were forced to talk to a random stranger on the train, people predicted that that would make them feel really miserable—that it’d be really awkward. That it would kind of suck.
But in practice, when you talk to a random stranger, it feels really good. And I think this is critical.
[00:06:04] The problem is that we’re mispredicting how taking some time for social connections is going to feel.
So, when you’re kind of feeling in a rut, and you’re like, it’s just not worth the effort. It’s not worth the effort to pick up the phone and call someone or to connect with somebody or text. Or, to just head out of the house and just like have a quick conversation at a coffee shop. We predict it’s not going to be as effective as it’s really going to be.
And so one of the tips is just try it. Just do it. Just ignore what your mind is telling you, and try it out. And my guess is that the benefits will be more powerful than you think. And the data suggests that’s even true for introverts.
The research suggests that introverts have a stronger prediction that social connection is going to be too much hassle or too much of a pain in the butt, or even kind of awkward or anxiety-provoking.
But in practice, it’s a lot better than even introverts expect.
[00:06:49] Coursera: Do you think that the quality of the conversation that you strike up with that random stranger matters? I know small talk gets a lot of hate on the internet. No one likes small talk and talking about the weather. But even talking about something mundane like that, does it reap these same benefits?
[00:07:05] Dr. Laurie Santos: Yeah. I mean, any kind of social connection helps, but the deeper you get in your conversation, the better you’ll feel. And this is another thing we mispredict.
With someone coming up to me and really deeply asking like, “How’s my day going really? And how’s my semester really been? Or when’s the last time I cried? Or what’s something you’re really grateful for?”
Like those deep questions kind of feel like, oh man, they’ll be really awkward. That’s our prediction.
[00:07:28] But in practice, we feel really good disclosing that information. It actually feels much better than we expect—to be vulnerable and to have other people be vulnerable with us.
And so the advice would be, first, just get out there and do it. Make the connection. I think that will help first.
But then the second thing is try to go at least one or two steps deeper than you would normally go. You’ll predict that the other person will find it awkward, and it will feel weird. But the research suggests that’s just not the case. It’ll feel better than you expect.
[00:07:54] Coursera: So, you’re a big advocate for asking a kind of out-of-the-box question to generate conversation?
[00:07:59] Dr. Laurie Santos: Yeah. I think it works really well. And if you need some help, you can Google, “Get to know you questions.” That’s a thing that helps people.
One of the problems is really just the startup cost of it. It’s just so much easier to mess around on social media on my phone or scroll Reddit or check my email than it is to start up the conversation.
But if you put in like that little bit of a cost to get over the hurdle, that little emotional hurdle of like, “Oh, it takes a little bit more work.” The benefits are much more profound.
[00:08:25] Coursera: Do you have a go-to question that you ask someone or that really struck you when someone asked you?
[00:08:31] Dr. Laurie Santos: I travel a lot—giving talks and things on happiness, and oftentimes, my social connection with strangers happens when I’m traveling. And so, just an easy one is, “Is this home for you?”
I’m traveling right now in Idaho, and the guy I was on the plane with here—I was like, “Oh, is this home for you?” And he talked about, “Yeah, Sun Valley’s home, but I used to move from here,” and then you can kind of say like, “Oh, why did you move?”
[00:08:51] And so it’s a little bit more getting to know you than just the weather stuff. And people really resonate with that.
People love to share more than you expect.
I don’t have any friends. What should I do?
[00:08:57] Coursera: I’m curious if you have any thoughts on how to bridge the gap between striking up those random conversations and just making those small social connections throughout your daily day to actually making friends.
Is it asking one of those people that you hit it off with to go grab a coffee? Do you recommend getting on some of those friend-making apps? Have you found anything that is especially helpful or useful to overcome this loneliness?
[00:09:24] Dr. Laurie Santos: Those kinds of things work to start up new friends, but often we forget that there are people in our life that we have connections with now that we’re just not putting the work into.
For me, being out of college for a while now, ti’s like my close friends in college who I adore, but just like never get the chance to see me cause we’re all too busy, or family members who I haven’t talked to you in a while, like my brother lives in Iowa, and I’m in Connecticut, and we don’t talk as much.
[00:09:48] But just the act of picking up the phone can be really powerful. And so I think, part of it is recognizing the people that you already have there that you haven’t really put the work into making a close connection.
And often, when you do, you realize they were thinking the same thing. They wanted to reach out to you but didn’t have time, and so you can be the one that takes the hard work at first. But it can really lead to a stronger connection later on.
[00:10:11] Coursera: Making new friends seems so daunting and overwhelming that people that are like, “Oh, I don’t have time for that. It’s not worth the effort.” All of those things.
But it can really be as simple as just striking up a conversation with someone you see during your daily day or picking up the phone and actually calling someone you miss and wish you talked to more.
[00:10:30] Dr. Laurie Santos: And I think what you find is that again, they’re thinking the same thing. Cause we all get too busy.
And I think this is key. What the happy people show us is that happiness takes work. It takes time.
Like you have to put time into your relationships. You have to put time into investing in those things—just as you invest in other things, as you invest in your job or your studies or something like that.
Your social connections matter too, and we forget that.
[00:10:52] We think friendships are supposed to be easy, but in this day and age of being so busy, they take work. They take some time to set up, but the benefits can be enormous.
If you want to learn more about what happy people are doing right and the power of social connection, I’ll invite people to check out my class on Coursera, The Science of Well-Being, and also my new podcast, The Happiness Lab, wherever you get your podcasts.
[00:11:13] Coursera: To keep learning from Laurie Santos, go to Coursera.org to enroll in her class, The Science of Well-Being, for free today.
Thanks for listening and happy learning.