What better time to write a post on loneliness than when everyone is self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic?
Personally, I’ve been struggling with loneliness for a long time. It was my biggest mental health affliction until I developed depression last year. I felt it briefly growing up when I switched between elementary schools, and I felt it on and off through those awkward pubescent years of high school, when you’re suddenly so self-conscious and never quite sure if you belong. I always felt like the odd one out, although that was probably mostly in my head.
But loneliness didn’t become a big problem for me until college. At Pepperdine University, I really was the odd one out. I did not grow up in the church and I did not believe in God. I was politically liberal and left-wing. My parents were not wealthy. I was not from sunny southern California. I listened to punk rock and grunge, not worship music. I didn’t have a fancy car. I wasn’t skinny, athletic, or tan. I didn’t care much about celebrities or reality TV, and I didn’t have an Instagram. My wardrobe held far more concert t-shirts than sundresses. And I thought Disneyland was a bit overrated.
Not to say all Pepperdine students were like this, they weren’t. But it certainly was the stereotype. Freshman year was the hardest. I didn’t fit in and I knew it, so I distanced myself from other people. I wasn’t trying to find my group. I wasn’t putting in the effort. This isn’t surprising, considering the way loneliness can change the way you think to make you regard other people as hostile or against you when they aren’t. The video below describes this phenomenon:
Things got better sophomore year when I studied abroad in London. Living in a room with five other girls will force you to become close. I always had people around I could talk to and explore with. It was harder to find alone time in London than it was to make friends. But then we all came back for junior year, and slowly my London friends seemed to drift back to the original friend groups they had made freshman year.
However, now that I knew it could be done, I made more of an effort. I joined the mock trial team junior year and the newspaper my senior year, and I’m still close to some of those friends today. Still, I lived alone my senior year, and it was crushing how many weekends would go by without me interacting with anyone, or how many meals I ate at the school cafeteria alone at my table. When I made friends from Scotland during my second study abroad trip, I latched on to them because they shared the same taste in music, political opinions, and other interests as me. It was the first genuine connection I felt I had made in college. But unfortunately, friends who live on the other side of the world from you aren’t the most viable solution for loneliness.
As rough as my loneliness problem was in college, nothing prepared me for post-grad life. At least in college I was going to classes and interacting with dozens of people each day. There were always events to attend and all my friends lived nearby.
These days, I’d say roughly 90% of my contact with friends happens over text message, with a little bit of Skype thrown in here or there. I rarely see people in person. My friends are in California or New York or London or Scotland. The few here in Seattle have limited time to spend with me. And as I mentioned in previous posts, I lost two of my closest friends in December. It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt.
Loneliness and depression are not the same thing, but they are deeply intertwined. Loneliness can cause or add to depression, and depression, in turn, can cause you to self-isolate, which can cause loneliness. Right now, with so many people working from home, it’s not surprising that some people who never felt lonely or depressed before are feeling it now, and that those of us who were already struggling with it are barely coping.
But loneliness was already an epidemic before the coronavirus held up a light to it. For some insight into how bad the loneliness epidemic is, and why it keeps getting worse, please watch the video below:
I think Johann Hari makes a lot of good points, and I have ordered a copy of his book to learn more. One of my biggest takeaways from this interview is that we aren’t just social animals, we are specifically evolved to socialize in tribes. So although I have some good friends here in Seattle or California or the U.K., they don’t necessarily know each other and they don’t form a cohesive group. I need more than just a good friend here or there, I need a group (or several) that I can belong to. The antidote to loneliness is not so much friendship, as it is community.
Another insight, which I was already pretty aware of, is that texting and the internet are no substitutes for real face-to-face interaction. I often feel like I haven’t talked to anyone in days, and I’ll tell myself, “No, no, you had that long conversation over text, remember?” But there’s a reason those intermittent text messages aren’t fulfilling my needs. Imagine you live in a world before phones, email, Skype, text messages, social media and the internet (some of you won’t have to imagine, you’ll remember). How much smaller would your friend group today be, if it was limited to only those people we see in person on a regular basis? Technology makes us think we have access to this giant community of people at our fingertips, but in reality, our brains do not reap the same psychological benefits from interacting with a screen as they do interacting with another human being. Tech can promote socialization but it can’t replace it.
For anyone else struggling with loneliness and depression like me, first of all, hi! Please reach out! Secondly, a really good tool for meeting people in person, and hopefully finding your tribe, is the Meetup app and website. I’ve been using it for a few months. You can find everything on there, from hikes, to concerts, to happy hours, to book clubs, to sports teams, to board game groups. If you can’t find what you’re interested in, create your own group or event! Some events are one-off, and some are regular occurrences. Some groups are private and you must request to join, while others are public and open to everyone.
It’s an incredible resource, although you may have to wait bit longer to use it since we’re all supposed to be practicing social-distancing right now. If you can’t meet with people in person right now, remember that Skype is better than a phone call, a phone call is better than texting, and texting is better than nothing. Reach out to your friends as much as you can. In the meantime, stay healthy, take care of yourself, and escape into a good book or movie. After all, studies have shown that fiction books can alleviate loneliness.