Looking Back on Loneliness

I remember the heat of the hot asphalt on my feet as I circled on the edges of my elementary school’s blacktop. Watching the boys play soccer and the girls play “Snow White,” I wondered when I would stop being an outsider. It got better in middle school, and then worse again in high school. I didn’t seem to fit in any group I joined. While I experienced vocal rejection in my earlier years, I learned silent rejection as I grew older. First, they would stop inviting me. Then, they would stop recognizing me.

In my now three years at Amherst, several initiatives have sought to bolster community at Amherst and diminish loneliness. I have worked on the tech end for a few of these, and I greatly admire their work in addressing social life on campus. I also believe this work is not frivolous but rather the responsibility of a student body — to further disparate connections and create a community that embraces those who are alone. Chronic loneliness means more than lacking friends or the feeling of belonging. It impacts mental stability, eating habits and academic performance. In addition, making friends or addressing feelings of loneliness is not an easy process for everyone. Sometimes structured endeavors are the only means of facilitating this process.

However, it is always important to look critically at initiatives one supports, and I sought to better understand what “loneliness” meant at Amherst. I believe understanding causes of loneliness on campus is integral to creating better structures, and so I started by analyzing both the results of the “Loneliness Survey” (an accredited Loneliness Scale from UCLA which 69 percent of students on campus took this fall) and the reports of the Mental Health and Wellness Committee’s Focus Groups on Loneliness to see what patterns I could find. From reports of the discussions facilitated by the Mental Health and Wellness Committee, I gleaned that many lonely students, though in a group, were not in a group they considered a “good fit.” These sentiments supported the Loneliness Survey’s findings that 86.3 percent of students marked “sometimes” or “often” for “I feel part of a group of friends” yet 44.6 percent marked “sometimes” or “often” for “no one really knows me well.” One reason why people may be stick with superficial friend groups is because it is difficult to change friends and, as the focus groups put it, “socialize across group lines.”

Endeavors at Amherst such as Branches or Meetum and even the new structure of Val seek to address this last point — that students form cliques and rarely socialize outside of them. Therefore, they aim to facilitate friendships between diverse groups at Amherst. I fully support these goals because, firstly, they build community at Amherst, and secondly, psychological studies have shown that becoming friends with someone outside of your group decreases your stereotypes about their outgroup. However, we should also set goals to develop deeper, rather than superficial, relationships. As the Loneliness Survey has shown, nearly half the student body lacks companionship. As focus groups have elucidated, many suffer loneliness from this lack. I believe we can work on this problem with current structures. For example, I encourage students to use Meetum to not just post parties but also activities introverts would enjoy.

I agree with the argument that extracurricular clubs should also help to decrease loneliness. For example, the Computer Science Club is re-attempting to add a community component by facilitating group collaboration on fun, side-projects. Unfortunately, building community in clubs may have little impact on decreasing loneliness on campus. Many lonely people I knew at Amherst did not join clubs, either because they didn’t have time or no clubs interested them. Additionally, community events have been brought up as possible remedies for loneliness. Yet, these events, as mentioned by participants of the focus groups, do not break group barriers because people tend to stick around their friends.

While reading the focus group report, I also came across another cause of loneliness. Perhaps the reason that almost half of the student body claims that no one knows them is because they hide their insecurities from those around them. The focus group report suggests that many students believe they are academically inferior but wish to appear smart and successful on the outside. The report says that Amherst expects and validates intelligence and invulnerability from its students. Students reported feeling that they couldn’t share vulnerability with others, and therefore dealt with their problems alone.” As fellow students, we should be there for each other. We need to build a culture of trust so students can share vulnerabilities, and we need to focus on growth more than fixed intelligence. This correlates to admiring those students who work hard instead of simply those who have innate ability. Another tip I learned at an imposter syndrome workshop is to read the resume of a friend aloud to them. Then, encourage your friend to rephrase sentences in ways that better reflect the impressive actions they have taken. For example, your insecure friend might start a sentence with, “I helped implement…” However, a stronger and more accurate statement might replace “I helped” with “I initiated” or “I implemented.” Additionally, mentoring programs, support groups, or simply sharing tips and tools can combat perceived academic vulnerability.

From both dealing with my own loneliness and researching the issue further, I hope I have contributed positive information to the cause. I am continually inspired by the work and creative drive of promoters, critics, and builders who seek to decrease loneliness on campus. As students of Amherst College, I believe we should continue their work and strive to form a community that embraces and nurtures all students.