I’m not lonely, you are
In a small survey I conducted amongst university students here in Amsterdam, over 90% answered that they have felt lonely before. Answers to the question of whether they felt like it was okay to talk about their loneliness with friends, family, therapists or others were mixed. Generally, saying yes came with some caveat, as many people said they have little to no people to talk to about this subject. A large proportion of people thought that loneliness needs to be talked about more. Strikingly, almost 80% attributed this not to a lack of friends or people to talk to, but to a lack of connection to these social relations. This shows that loneliness can and does truly happen to anyone, no matter their current social situation in life. This feeling isn’t necessarily a consequence of ‚not having any friends‘. When I talked to people around me about the subject, I was surprised how even the so-called ‚social butterflies‘ among them felt lonely from time to time, even though they are constantly surrounded by others and never skip on a social gathering.
Loneliness is a peculiar feeling. Most people experience at least one period of loneliness in their lifetime, but it often is an emotion that comes and goes depending on living circumstances and experiences. Despite the fact the sensation of feeling lonely is widely shared amongst millions of people every day, it nevertheless always feels like an individual fate. An interesting observation here is how loneliness is different from solitude. We can feel lonely despite literally being surrounded by people in a crowded university room, club, or a subway – basically in any place. Loneliness doesn’t mean being physically alone, that is called solitude or isolation. Instead, it is something entirely subjective; when you feel lonely, you are lonely.
The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated the ‚loneliness pandemic‘, as many day-to-day encounters that we have taken for granted up until now simply disappeared, leaving us to wonder how something so mundane can have such a big impact on our lives. As the entire world stayed behind closed doors for long periods of time, loneliness has kind of become part of mainstream discussions. During pre-pandemic times, all I associate loneliness with is a heavy stigma and an underlying connection with shame. Most people would have been very reluctant to admit they are feeling lonely, to the point that studies about the topic have even avoided the term loneliness in questionnaires. To reverse this, it is important to recognise that even outside of the ‚legitimised’ context of forced isolation, loneliness is not a shameful experience and shouldn’t be treated as such by avoiding conversations on the topic. The problem here, as with any stigma, is of course that if affected people are discouraged to open up by society, their perceived isolation sooner or later starts becoming actual.
So why exactly is loneliness such a sensitive subject? Essentially, we tend to think that people are lonely because of a reason. A “guilt” aspect is usually implied. Whether this refers to people having no social skills, not being ‚fun‘ enough, or them simply not being a nice person; the experience of loneliness is usually blamed onto that individual themselves.
‚I think feeling lonely as a student is reflected onto their personality‘, said one student in the survey.
We as a society implicitly portray lonely people as ‚outcasts‘ without any friends or social relations, which is seen as something very abnormal and undesirable. In fear of being judged and looked down upon by others, we avoid the subject and rather keep these feelings a secret instead of tackling them head-on. Some surveyed students explained how these fears turned out to be unjustified when they decided to open up to a close one:
‚I was afraid of talking about feeling lonely because I am so used to this topic being a taboo, but the people around me were actually very open and accepting, which really helped me in feeling comfortable and suddenly less lonely.‘
Evolutionary analysis has shown that loneliness is just a signal of our bodies, comparable to hunger or tiredness. Instead of telling us to look for food or go to sleep, feeling lonely is meant to drive us towards tending to our social needs. From an evolutionary perspective, this urge was vital, because people usually didn’t have great chances of survival on their own. Just like hunger and other basic needs, if loneliness persists and becomes chronic or self-sustaining, there can be serious consequences. Lonely people are more likely to see hostility wherever they go and interpret neutral encounters with other people as unenjoyable and awkward. This can end up in a vicious cycle, where being too much in your head about negative interactions with others can lead to social withdrawal and the desire to avoid social gatherings. All of a sudden, you find yourself declining invitations and prefer to stay home instead, or ignoring phone calls from people you care about.
Way more than the majority of surveyed students have confirmed that they experienced social withdrawal following increased feelings of loneliness in their lives. Oftentimes, the situation solves itself or we are dragged out of this temporary hole by friends or family. For some people though, the consequence can be depression or mental health complications. It is sometimes claimed that loneliness is even more lethal than heavy smoking and can have equivalent negative health effects by increasing the probability of inflammation, heart disease, dementia and such. It is important to recognise though that this isn’t an inevitable outcome of the situation, especially not if a lonely person reaches out to others and acknowledges their feelings early on.
Amsterdam especially has a problem with loneliness, to the point that the municipality recognized this and invests millions of euros every year into projects designed to combat loneliness in the city. The GGD published a study in 2017, claiming that almost half of the population in Amsterdam feels lonely at times, ranging from moderate to severe intensity. In response, 5 million euros were made available in stages in order to tackle this problem. A lot of this funding went into initiatives and community support, which is primarily targeted at the elderly though, and therefore rather unhelpful for younger people who evidently also struggle with it. An example of the municipal efforts to take on the problem is the organisation The Dance Palace, which arranges ‚The Music Salon‘, connecting older Amsterdammers through regular dance parties where they can listen and move to music they associate with old memories. The city announced that they would make use of a trial-and-error approach to find the method that best works to fight loneliness, with a focus on first identifying people that are affected. The next step is to attempt breaking the taboo around the subject. Why are people in Amsterdam lonelier than in other big cities?
Part of the reason has to do with the high proportion of migrants, foreign students and singles in Amsterdam. It isn’t hard to imagine that leaving your own country and well-known environment to make a living in another city can be difficult, especially if a language barrier is attached. Most times, this loneliness is only temporary, when social relations are in the process of being built and are still not as secure or deep as we might be used to from home. Many people find themselves in a limbo between digital interactions with their former social circles and new acquaintances, to whom we can’t properly open up to yet because the relationship is still too fragile.
What we need to realize is that, more often than not, loneliness become less and less over time. The same factors that make more people lonely in Amsterdam, like being an international, can actually be a common factor with other people. Often, it just takes time to establish deeper social connections and to feel secure in your relationships to the people around you. Other times, a temporary episode of loneliness just passes when you pro-actively go out and socialize, even if that is the last thing you want to be doing. In the end, the biggest problem remains the stigma around it- and that is something we can work on by normalizing conversations around loneliness with friends and family. Many students in the survey have told me how surprised they were by the positive and understanding conversations they had with friends and family when they finally did talk about their feelings. It seems like the simple reminder that we can count on our close ones, and genuinely talking about our feelings, often releases some of the tension and anxiety around the topic, which can already help.
After all, Covid might have given us a push into the right direction already by taking the first steps towards de-stigmatizing loneliness.