At the end of Sally’s crossed legs were a pair of Golden Goose sneakers. It was our fi rst meeting, and like her shoes, Sally appeared casual and relaxed but chic and on trend. Four days a week, Sally worked in New York City as a fi nancial analyst on Wall Street. Th e other three days, she lived and worked from home in Virginia, not far from where her parents had retired on a farm. From where I sat, Sally came across as sharp and polite, and she seemed personable enough. She paid her own bills, did her own laundry, and generally knew how to “adult.” Her problem? She did not have a single close friend and had never once been on a date.

“Reddit says I have ‘insecure attachment,’” she said, using air quotes.

“What does Reddit say insecure attachment is?” I wanted to know.

“It’s not feeling confident that people like me, or will want to be with me, or you know, be there for me,” she explained vaguely. “It’s not being close to people.”

“It sounds like you’re pretty close to your parents,” I countered.

“But why aren’t I close to anybody else?” she asked.

“I’m not sure you’ve given anyone else much of a chance,” I said. In the course of a day, Sally had told me earlier, the only people she spoke with at length were her mom or her dad and now, once a week, me. She’d called my office not long after her 25th birthday, an occasion that embarrassed and saddened her.

Because she had no other plans, Sally went to her parents’ farm, where her mom and dad felt compelled to come up with something special to cheer her up. This was baffling and frustrating for them, which in turn only frustrated Sally: “My parents just don’t get it. They met each other in college. They’re really happy people, but why wouldn’t they be? They have each other. They’re set. They’ve been set. They want me to be happy, and not so lonely, but they don’t realise how hard that is.”

Young adults are the loneliest people in the United States. As of 2019, even before the pandemic, about 30 per cent of them said they often or always felt lonely, compared to about 20 per cent of middle-aged adults and about 15 per cent of older ones. Although about 50 per cent of young adults did report having close friends, about 50 per cent did not, and 25 per cent of them said they had no friends and no acquaintances. None. So, in a way, Sally wasn’t as alone as she thought she was. The data, and my clients, say that twentysomethings everywhere are struggling with profound feelings of isolation that neither parental love nor social media can cure.

These are the sorts of things I hear every day:

I don’t really feel like I have a group that I belong to.

I’d like to delete the Snapchats from my old friends who haven’t been great to me, but then there would be nothing on my phone.

I don’t know how to get close to people. There’s not a handbook for that.

One of my best friends ghosted me, and the other one found a boyfriend.

I don’t know how to take friendships to the next level.

I lost interest in my social life because I’m embarrassed I’m not going anywhere at work.

I enjoy meeting people, but I don’t know how to take it further. I don’t know a single person in my life.

Life in my twenties is hard in all sorts of ways. I feel like what I really need is a friend.

I just feel like I have no one to turn to when I need something or when I have a hard day.

In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed an experimental method to examine attachment in young children, called the strange situation. In the strange situation, researchers observe young children from behind one-way mirrors and rate how they respond to being left in an unfamiliar room with a stranger and some toys. As the theory goes, securely attached children meaning those with loved ones they know they can depend on feel free to roam the room and play. Insecurely attached children or those without loved ones they feel they can count on are more prone to scream, cry, or shut down. Since Ainsworth’s earliest strange situation experiments, countless studies have examined the ways in which children use parents as secure bases from which to explore the world.

Only more recently have researchers become interested in the strange situation that many young adults fi nd themselves in today. Many wake up most days to some sort of unfamiliar setting a new city, a new job, a new roommate, a new relationship, or a new breakup and developmentally speaking, they’re supposed to get out there and explore. It’s tough, though, not because twentysomethings like Sally are insecurely attached but because they don’t have secure bases to steady them in times of need. Like Sally, they probably don’t live with mom or dad anymore. Yet, as the average age of marriage climbs, about half of twentysomethings or roughly two-thirds of twentysomething men and one-third of twentysomething women don’t have a steady partner, either. Today’s twentysomethings will spend more time single than any other generation in history, and that’s where friends come in or should.

Hashim told me he was on an antipsychotic. When I asked him why, he said, “My doctor put me on it a few months back. I can be, I don’t know, moody. And sometimes I don’t handle things so well.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“A couple of weeks ago, I got mad and punched a wall,” he said.

“Well, that’s a good one,” I said. “What were you mad at?”

“It was stupid, I know, but I get so upset about not having a connection with anybody. My family came here from Egypt when I was younger, and I think my parents have always felt alone. I’m not sure I saw them make friends, so maybe that’s part of it. All I know is that I don’t have anybody to talk to when things go wrong.”

I kept listening.

“My friends have always been my girlfriends, which is fine. Or, maybe it’s not fine because, ever since my girlfriend and I broke up, I feel completely alone. I feel like everybody else has all these great friends, but then I look around and I see other guys I know doing the exact same thing leaning on their girlfriends for friendship. It’s not right, though,” he said with insight and openness that seemed to come easily. “I don’t want to put all that on one person.”

“I don’t think you should, either,” I said. “You seem quite easy to get to know. Do you ever talk to other guys like you’re talking to me right now?”

“No,” he said definitively. “I’m hanging out with a guy I kind of know this weekend, and I wish I could talk to him, not just about sports and music, but I don’t know.”

“Maybe you can,” I said.

“Don’t you think he’d think that’s weird?” he asked.

Fight or flight has long been considered our primary hardwired reaction to danger, and for our ancient ancestors, this meant either taking on the bear or running for our lives. In the modern era, however, neither of these two choices works so well. By punching a wall, Hashim was lashing out against his feelings of loneliness. And by hiding out, Sally was trying not to feel overwhelmed by hers. But, as different as they were, both Sally and Hashim wanted the same thing. They wanted to be able to tap into a different hardwired way of getting through life. They wanted to be able to tend and befriend.

According to the tend-and-befriend model and the research that backs it up when we feel uncertain or unsafe, it’s instinctual to form groups and take care of each other. Banding together is protective, of course, as there can be safety in numbers. While some researchers suggest that tending-and-befriending is more common in females, attaching ourselves to others is innate in both females and males. We cling to our moms, or run to our dads, or huddle up with our siblings because when we’re young this is our best chance for survival. Huddling up is our best chance for survival as we get older, too, but in the strange situation of young adulthood, it is friends whom we often want and need to run to most.

Both Sally and Hashim thought they’d be better off if they had friends, and of course they were right. Having friends we can count on means having secure bases from which to explore the world. On a practical level, friends are a crucial source of advice and encouragement, both of which foster healthy risk-taking and growth. And on an emotional level, whether it’s sharing a laugh, a hug, a conversation, or a soccer match, connecting with another person, like Hashim wanted to do, is incredibly soothing. Having friends is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and anger, as well as higher levels of confi dence, relationship satisfaction, and quality of life.

Excerpted with permission from The Twentysomething Treatment: A Revolutionary Remedy for an Uncertain Age, Meg Jay, Fourth Estate, HarperCollins.