People have lots of friends. People are lonely. How can this be?

You know how you hear one story that makes a lot of sense and then you hear another that also makes a lot of sense but you’re bothered because taken together they don’t make any sense at all? Me, too.

I examine more research studies than most people, and because they have different objectives and use different samples and methods, I find contradictions everywhere. The fun is in conducting investigations into those inconsistencies because they lead me to the even bigger fun of solving the puzzle within the puzzle. Like a detective, I collect evidence, interview suspects and witnesses, follow leads, check alibis, put the clues together, and solve the case.

The work is gritty, not glamorous, more Colombo than Hawaii Five-0. Here’s the overview of a report I delivered after spending a few days reading hundreds of one-off articles:

It is common for young moderns to claim they have thousands of friends. My interweb searches tell me the record is 8,942 or possibly 5,000 or maybe 16,000. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that such extreme values are probably hogwash.

Social media sources tell us the average person has 338 friends. Seem like a lot? Actually, it is too many, because most scientists agree humans can’t manage one-on-one relationships with more than 100 or 200 people. Our brains are incapable of making meaningful connections beyond that, so when we take on new friends, out go old ones. Think of all the people who were once friends of yours but have faded away. Sociologists and psychologists say most of us have only a dozen or two actual friends, numbers which seem more real, don’t they?

I set aside the numbers mishmash for the time being and began looking into the stretchable nature of how people go about defining “friends.”

Are friends people we like? Or are they people we trust? How about neighbors we nod to when they walk the dog? Maybe friends are those we are attached to by feelings of affection. Whatever our definition, let’s agree one condition of real friends should be they are those we interact with one person at a time.

In her book Alone Together, MIT’s Sherry Turkle says young moderns’ friends are more fiction than fact because they have delegated important human relationships to robots. Imagining machines to be your friends indicates you are using a very loose definition of friendship. Look at studies of people who say they’re not lonely because Alexa and Siri are their best friends, and you’ll find some folks with oddly-formed ideas about friendship.

The shallower the definitions we use, the greater our number of friends. If when we say friends we mean what most others call acquaintances, it is easy to have hundreds. If we mean good friends, studies show most of us have only two or three.

Loneliness studies come up with all kinds of numbers, too. Somewhere between 50% and 75% of Americans say they are lonely. Psychology Today calls these numbers staggering. Cigna labels loneliness as an “epidemic.” Again, the numbers seem really high, so maybe loneliness is also a concept with highly elastic definitions. There is a very good chance much of what is called loneliness is merely boredom. Honest to goodness loneliness is the desolation humans feel when they have no friends they can count on. If we have more friends, we should feel less lonely.

A good friend sent over a study that showed Gen Zers are lonelier than Millennials, who are lonelier than Xers, who are lonelier than Boomers. The survey quantified loneliness by using a scale of dubious value and forcing respondents to choose among into ill-fitting categories. This always conjures for me an image of ugly stepsisters trying to jam their too-big feet into that tiny glass slipper. After assigning a loneliness score ranging from a low of 19 to a high of 76 (a really wacky scale), statisticians converted that score into an index made up of four lopsided categories. This is far too much survey jenga and voodoo statistics to suit me, because you can find anything you want when you mutilate the numbers to prove your point.

One think tank analysis found loneliness has nothing to do with age, but is instead a result of not being married, not being religious, and not living in one place long enough. My examination of the same data concluded loneliness is commonest among poorly-educated, low-income city dwellers, but where’s the headline in that?

Read a lot and you’ll find what so many reputable studies have demonstrated over and over again – loneliness peaks when we are in our teen and young adult years. I call people in this age range young moderns, my generic term that fits all eras.

Young moderns are demonstrably more absorbed in their devices, spending ever more time doing ever more head-down things, which decreases their human interactions, which increases loneliness. So the current youngest generation claims to have the most friends of any age group while being the loneliest of all.

My summation:

  • Be certain we are all using the same definitions.
  • If you’re truly lonely, you don’t have as many actual friends as you think you do.
  • Insist statistics-touters explain how they got their numbers.

Click here to hear the song Elvis Presley called the loneliest he ever heard.