I got up and went over and looked out the window. I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead. Boy, did I feel rotten. I felt so damn lonesome. I just didn’t want to hang around any more. It made me too sad and lonesome.
— J.D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye
Loneliness was a problem I experienced most poignantly in college. In the three years I spent at Carnegie Mellon, the crippling effects of loneliness slowly pecked away at my enthusiasm for learning and for life, until I was drowning in an endless depressive haze that never completely cleared until I left Pittsburgh.
It wasn’t for lack of trying either. At the warm behest of the orientation counselors, I joined just the right number of clubs, participated in most of the dorm activities, and tried to expand my social portfolio as much as possible.
None of it worked.
To the extent that I sought out CAPS (our student psych and counseling service) for help, the platitudes they offered as advice (“Just put yourself out there!”) only served to confirm my suspicion that loneliness isn’t a very visible problem. (After all, the cure for loneliness isn’t exactly something that could be prescribed. “Have you considered transferring?” they finally suggested, after exhausting their list of thought-terminating clichés. I graduated early instead.)
As prolonged loneliness took its toll, I became very unhappy—to put it lightly—and even in retrospect I have difficulty pinpointing a specific cause. It wasn’t that I didn’t know anyone or failed to make any friends, and it wasn’t that I was alonemore than I liked.
Sure, I could point my finger at the abysmally fickle weather patterns of Pittsburgh, or the pseudo-suburban bubble that envelops the campus. There might even be a correlation between my academic dissonance with computer science and my feelings of loneliness. I might also just be an extremely unlikable person.
For whatever the reason (or a confluence thereof) the reality remained that I struggled with loneliness throughout my time in college.
I recall a conversation with my friend Dev one particular evening on the patio of our dormitory. It was the beginning of my junior and last year at CMU, and I had just finished throwing an ice cream party for the residents I oversaw as an RA.
“Glad to be back?” he asked as he plopped down on a lawn chair beside me.
“No, not really.”
The sun was setting, and any good feelings about the upcoming semester with it. We made small talk about the school in general, as he had recently transferred, but eventually Dev asked me if I was happy there.
“No, not really.”
“Why do you think you’re so miserable here?”
“I don’t know. A lot of things, I guess. But mostly because I feel lonely. Like I don’t belong, like I can’t relate to or connect with anyone on an emotional level. I haven’t made any quality relationships here that I would look back on with any fond memories. Fuck… I don’t know what to do.”
College, at least for me, was a harrowing exercise in how helplessly debilitating, hopelessly soul-crushing, and at times life-threatening loneliness could be. It’s a problem nobody talks about, and it’s been a subject of much personal relevance and interest.
Loneliness as a Health Problem
A recent article published on Slate outlines the hidden dangers of social isolation. Chronic loneliness, as Jessica Olien discovered, poses serious health risks that not only impact mental health but physiological well-being as well.
The lack of quality social relationships in a person’s life has been linked to an increased mortality risk comparable to smoking and alcohol consumption and exceeds the influence of other risk factors like physical inactivity and obesity. It’s hard to brush off loneliness as a character flaw or an ephemeral feeling when you realize it kills more people than obesity.
Research also shows that loneliness diminishes sleep quality and impairs physiological function, in some cases reducing immune function and boosting inflammation, which increases risk for diabetes and heart disease.
Why hasn’t loneliness gotten much attention as a medical problem? Olien shares the following observation:
As a culture we obsess over strategies to prevent obesity. We provide resources to help people quit smoking. But I have never had a doctor ask me how much meaningful social interaction I am getting. Even if a doctor did ask, it is not as though there is a prescription for meaningful social interaction.
As a society we look down upon those who admit to being lonely, we cast and ostracize them with labels like “loners” insofar as they prefer to hide behind shame and doubt rather than speak up. This dynamic only makes it harder to devise solutions to what is clearly a larger societal issue, and it certainly brings to question the effects of culture on our perception of loneliness as a problem.
Loneliness as a Culture Problem
Stephen Fry, in a blog post titled Only the Lonely which explains his suicide attempt last year, describes in detail his struggle with depression. His account offers a rare and candid glimpse into the reality of loneliness with which those afflicted often hide from the public:
Lonely? I get invitation cards through the post almost every day. I shall be in the Royal Box at Wimbledon and I have serious and generous offers from friends asking me to join them in the South of France, Italy, Sicily, South Africa, British Columbia and America this summer. I have two months to start a book before I go off to Broadway for a run of Twelfth Night there.
I can read back that last sentence and see that, bipolar or not, if I’m under treatment and not actually depressed, what the fuck right do I have to be lonely, unhappy or forlorn? I don’t have the right. But there again I don’t have the right not to have those feelings. Feelings are not something to which one does or does not have rights.
In the end loneliness is the most terrible and contradictory of my problems.
In the United States, approximately 60 million people, or 20% of the population, feel lonely. According to the General Social Survey, between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average American discusses important mattersdecreased from three to two, and the number with no one to discuss important matters with tripled.
Modernization has been cited as a reason for the intensification of loneliness in every society around the world, attributed to greater migration, smaller household sizes, and a larger degree of media consumption.
In Japan, loneliness is an even more pervasive, layered problem mired in cultural parochialisms. Gideon Lewis-Kraus pens a beautiful narrative on Harper’s in which he describes his foray into the world of Japanese co-sleeping cafés:
“Why do you think he came here, to the sleeping café?”
“He wanted five-second hug maybe because he had no one to hug. Japan ishaji culture. Shame. Is shame culture. Or maybe also is shyness. I don’t know why. Tokyo people … very alone. And he does not have … ” She thought for a second, shrugged, reached for her phone. “Please hold moment.”
She held it close to her face, multitouched the screen not with thumb and forefinger but with tiny forefinger and middle finger. I could hear another customer whispering in Japanese in the silk-walled cubicle at our feet. His co-sleeper laughed loudly, then laughed softly. Yukiko tapped a button and shone the phone at my face. The screen said COURAGE.
It took an enormous effort for me to come to terms with my losing battle with loneliness and the ensuing depression at CMU, and an even greater leap of faith to reach out for help. (That it was to no avail is another story altogether.) But what is even more disconcerting to me is that the general stigma against loneliness and mental health issues, hinging on an unhealthy stress culture, makes it hard for afflicted students to seek assistance at all.
As Olien puts it, “In a society that judges you based on how expansive your social networks appear, loneliness is difficult to fess up to. It feels shameful.”
To truly combat loneliness from a cultural angle, we need to start by examining our own fears about being alone and to recognize that as humans, loneliness is often symptomatic of our unfulfilled social needs. Most importantly, we need to accept that it’s okay to feel lonely. Fry, signing off on his heartfelt post, offers this insight:
Loneliness is not much written about (my spell-check wanted me to say that loveliness is not much written about—how wrong that is) but humankind is a social species and maybe it’s something we should think about more than we do.
Loneliness as a Technology Problem
Technology, and by extension media consumption in the Internet age, adds the most perplexing (and perhaps the most interesting) dimension to the loneliness problem. As it turns out, technology isn’t necessarily helping us feel more connected; in some cases, it makes loneliness worse.
The amount of time you spend on Facebook, as a recent study found, is inversely related to how happy you feel throughout the day.
Take a moment to watch this video.
It’s a powerful, sombering reminder that our growing dependence on technology to communicate has serious social repercussions, to which Cohen presents his central thesis:
We are lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy, while the social networks offer us three gratifying fantasies: 1) That we can put our attention wherever we want it to be. 2) That we will always be heard. 3) That we will never have to be alone.
And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. It’s shaping a new way of being. The best way to describe it is:
I share, therefore I am.
Public discourse on the cultural ramifications of technology is certainly not a recent development, and the general sentiment that our perverse obsession with sharing will be humanity’s downfall continues to echo in various forms around the web: articles proclaiming that Instagram is ruining people’s lives, the existence of a section on Reddit called cringepics where people congregate to ridicule things others post on the Internet, the increasing number of self-proclaimed “social media gurus” on Twitter, to name a few.
The signs seem to suggest we have reached a tipping point for “social” media that’s not very social on a personal level, but whether it means a catastrophic implosion or a gradual return to more authentic forms of interpersonal communications remains to be seen.
While technology has been a source of social isolation for many, it has the capacity to alleviate loneliness as well. A study funded by the online dating site eHarmony shows that couples who met online are less likely to divorce and achieve more marital satisfaction than those who met in real life.
The same model could potentially be applied to friendships, and it’s frustrating to see that there aren’t more startups leveraging this opportunity when the problem is so immediate and in need of solutions. It’s a matter of exposure and education on the truths of loneliness, and unfortunately we’re just not there yet.
The perils of loneliness shouldn’t be overlooked in an increasingly hyperconnected world that often tells another story through rose-tinted lenses. Rather, the gravity of loneliness should be addressed and brought to light as a multifaceted problem, one often muted and stigmatized in our society. I learned firsthand how painfully real of a problem loneliness could be, and more should be done to spread its awareness and to help those affected.
“What do you think I should do?” I looked at Dev as the last traces of sunlight teetered over the top of Morewood Gardens. It was a rhetorical question—things weren’t about to get better.
“Find better people,” he replied.
I offered him a weak smile in return, but little did I know then how prescient those words were.
In the year that followed, I started a fraternity with some of the best kids I’d come to know (Dev included), graduated college and moved to San Francisco, made some of the best friends I’ve ever had, and never looked back, if only to remember, and remember well, that it’s never easy being lonely.