Connecting Over Loneliness

Both within the “Amherst bubble” and beyond, loneliness has become a taboo word. No one wants to talk about it, let alone admit that they themselves are — gasp! — lonely. But silence only breeds ignorance, and ignorance gives rise to misinformation, fear and exaggeration. Claims that we’re now suffering from “unprecedented alienation” and that as time passes, we have “less and less society” — from a viral 2012 story in The Atlantic that spawned both outraged criticism and enthusiastic consensus — abound. So do links between loneliness and premature death, arthritis and heart disease. And at Amherst College, loneliness statistics are through the roof. Though nationally, 56 percent of college students reported feeling “very lonely” within the past year, 76 percent of Amherst students did. Look around you. That’s eight out of 10 of us. We need to talk, Amherst.

We all know what loneliness feels like — there probably isn’t a human being alive who hasn’t felt that tightness in the stomach, panicked feelings of I’m not good enough and why doesn’t anyone want to talk to me, a deep pit of blackness gaping open somewhere in your chest cavity. When it strikes, we tend to march on, pretending nothing’s wrong in the presence of others, only to withdraw into ourselves later, sitting alone in our rooms watching Netflix and eating copious amounts of candy. Sometimes we can’t admit even to ourselves that we’re lonely — after all, everyone else seems to lead such social, loneliness-free lives. But the facts say otherwise. Seventy-six percent of us know this feeling personally, and although it’s natural, it’s something no one should have to experience.

Dealing with this behemoth of a topic requires answers to a few questions. First up: Why do we feel lonely? An answer would help us understand it better — after all, you must know your enemy — which will eventually lead to solutions. At the root of the issue lies the fact that we’re fundamentally social creatures. As infants, we are dependent on our parents for a longer period of time than any other species on the planet. As hunter-gatherers, we clumped together and cooperated for food and shelter. That’s true even in modern times — the globe is interconnected, and our webs of dependency are woven so tightly it is hard to see where anything begins or ends. Deprived of social connection, we become physically ill, depressed and eventually go insane, wither away. Also, people with certain personality traits may be more lonely than others — research shows that feelings of loneliness are associated with shyness, neuroticism, and low self-esteem. But the lonelier you are, the stronger these feelings become — and the stronger these feelings become, the more likely you are to withdraw into yourself, to view the world as a threatening, dangerous place and to avoid social interaction for fear of rejection. In other words, it’s a classic vicious cycle.

But what triggers loneliness? At its roots is the difference between feeling lonely and being alone, two completely different things that are unfortunately often confused. The truth is, not all lonely people are alone, and not all people who are alone are lonely. Loneliness stems from a feeling that your relationships — whether with family, friends or romantic partners — are not acceptable or satisfying. It doesn’t depend on the amount of social interaction you have at all. You could be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. Conversely, you could have one or two friends, spend the majority of your time by yourself and still be content. Whether you experience loneliness or not also depends on the quality of the time you spend in the company of others. Speaking from personal experience, one conversation about the things that really make us tick, the things that truly matter, in which we offer each other a piece of our raw and unrefined minds, can be much more satisfying than an entire day filled with people but devoid of such connection.

Slowly, the college is recognizing the problem of loneliness and has begun taking hesitant steps to fight it. And so we get social clubs, the latest it topic on campus, the newly founded Traditions Committee, and the Mental Health Education mini-grant, all initiatives designed to bridge social gaps and reduce loneliness. I’m glad that the school knows that this issue exists and — even better — is committed to finding a solution, but programs engineered by the college can only provide structures for change. They can’t start the change themselves — we have to do that for ourselves. The best solution would be to abandon our — admit it — overly idealistic vision of relationships and friendships. Adjusting our perception of social lives that are acceptable or satisfying would attack loneliness at its roots. So, some hard truths: not every one of our interactions with others has to be perfect. Awkwardness is unavoidable and normal. Same goes for dislike and misunderstanding. You don’t have to have x number of friends, or spend x number of hours a day with people. Too often, we worry that others will view us as lonely and so we work to cultivate an image of sociability, when, in reality, most people would never think so. When we see others by themselves, we reason that they have chosen to be alone because they are busy, or appreciate time by themselves — we don’t leap to conclusions and assume that they’re lonely or anti-social. Besides, being alone in itself is not a negative thing at all. Time spent alone can be a productive time for reflection, recharging and thinking through things — moreover, time by yourself is inevitable. We should also re-examine the ridiculous stigma on being alone and feeling lonely. Even the most convivial social butterfly will feel lonely sometimes, and some people nearly always prefer being alone to the company of others. It’s all perfectly normal. Maybe a big part of the solution lies in shedding some of this shame. That way, we could actually talk about it and understand it a little better. So talk. Connect. Vent to others if you can — chances are, the other person will say, me too.