In “The Growing Problem of Loneliness” published earlier this year in The Lancet, two neurologists from the University of Chicago highlight a counter-intuitive feature of loneliness:
“Loneliness has been associated with objective social isolation, depression, introversion, or poor social skills. However, studies have shown these characterizations are incorrect, and that loneliness is a unique condition in which an individual perceives himself or herself to be socially isolated even when among other people. Furthermore, human longitudinal studies and animal models indicate that the deleterious effects of loneliness are not attributable to some peculiarity of individuals who are lonely, instead they are due to the effects of loneliness on ordinary people.”
In other words, loneliness is not necessarily about being physically alone; the effects can be felt even when we are surrounded by other people. Many young people who have experienced chronic loneliness know this to be true, yet deny the possibility of their loneliness because they come in contact other human beings regularly.
According to the researchers, the effects of loneliness include feeling “irritable, depressed, and self-centered,” and are associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. A third of people in industrialized countries are affected, with one in 12 affected severely. Interestingly enough, common-sense solutions such as social skills training and increased social contact are not effective at combating high levels of loneliness. If more interactions with people is not the cure, what could it be?
Like many people, I easily fall into self-isolating habits. There’s no reason to leave my apartment if I have enough food and entertainment to last all week, right? Nonetheless, the research hit home for me because it reveals how loneliness is a mental affliction as much as (or even more than) a physical state. There is a direct correlation between depression and loneliness, yet loneliness never occurred to me as something I was experiencing. I was not cooped up in a nursing home or otherwise barred from seeing other people, and as a result, I didn’t register myself as lonely. College was supposed to be the opposite of loneliness, where you are constantly meeting new people and being exposed to interesting social events. Nonetheless, I tended to feel detached from others for long periods of time. Entering and engaging with a supportive community thus became a crucial aspect of maintaining my mental health.
This seems obvious, and I know it to be true on a purely intellectual level. However, at some point in undergrad, I became an expert at rationalizing my isolating tendencies using artistic production as an excuse. I believed the false myth that good writers lived at the fringes, deriving their genius from their isolation. As someone who finds herself too easily swayed by the opinions and energies of others, this seemed validated by my experience — writing was best done in isolation, and my truest, most high-quality writing resulted from long periods of loneliness and introspection. Yet I was operating under the same logic as Wade Wilson’s torturers in the 2016 Deadpool movie — “My superpower will only materialize if I suffer enough pain.” My relentless social anxiety didn’t help at all; it constantly told me that I am at risk of being shunned from communities, and it is always safer to stay at the margins.
Of course, this turned out to be a completely counterproductive way of thinking. There is an inherent risk to exposing oneself to a community — one has the chance of being called out, criticized, or engaging in conflict with people close to them. I had to learn that if this is a supportive community, they will do these things out of love. That’s the difference between making yourself vulnerable to a trusted network and the internet abyss. Additionally, the rewards are great — invaluable feedback, the opportunity to attend and facilitate events, and outside support if you embark on your own project. The cure for perceived loneliness, at least for me, involved making a continuous mental commitment to the people in my communities, and trusting them to help carry me through the ups and downs of life. I now view community engagement like a muscle that must be worked regularly in order to maintain my mental health, rather than an entry on a resume.
I still struggle to find the right balance within myself between solitude and connectedness, but I can now tell when I’ve swung too hard one way or the other. An extreme sense of obligation to others can become a burdensome weight, as heavy as loneliness. Maybe contentedness happens when I’m feeling neither detached from people, nor energetically drained from giving too much. Those balanced moments are rare, but I’m feeling one now and I’m grateful for it.
Here is Victoria McGeer’s beautifully crafted sentiment from her essay “The Art of Good Hope,” which reminds me of the importance of healthy communities:
“In effective peer scaffolding, individuals are naturally drawn into a kind of community of mutually responsive hope, in which each person’s hopes become partly invested in the hopeful agency of others and vice versa.
Existing in such a community may not make individuals any more likely to realize certain specific hopes, but at least it will make them less likely to slide from disappointment into the passivity of outgoing despair.” (pg. 118)