Loneliness is not a new phenomenon. The increase in loneliness we see in the pandemic is an exacerbation of our previous failure to address the issue. How exactly have we failed each other? Before the pandemic:
The numbers don't lie. Too often we are convinced by society that loneliness is a personal issue, that if we are lonely there must be something wrong with us. In movies, we see the “popular” kids, surrounded by a huge group of friends, laughing and going out. On social media, we see stories of people tagging their friends in late night food runs, boba hangouts, picnic dates. Rarely do we see images of others coming home and laying in bed, idly staring at their phone, or spending a day just sitting in their room mindlessly browsing the internet. When we do see these situations depicted in movies or TV, they connotate distress, depression, or unmotivation, rather than a normal part of the lived experience.
Loneliness is in many ways comparative, and we internalize this lack of representation: “if everyone else is out and having fun all the time with their friends, and I’m not, I must be alone in feeling lonely.” And if loneliness is comparative, sociability is performative: when we do have opportunities to see our friends, we post our own versions of our picture perfect hangouts. We don’t realize that someone else is probably at home alone tapping away at our stories, feeling alone as we so often do. And so the cycle continues.
The reality, the truth revealed by the statistics, is that many of us feel lonely and unsatisfied by our relationships, regardless of how many friends we have. We’re all just convinced that no one else feels similarly, so we collectively sit in silence and wonder, “what’s wrong with me?”
How are we to fix an issue that no one openly acknowledges? One that everyone feels embarrassed to share? It’s the same stigma that convinces those suffering from mental illnesses that they must suffer in silence, until the burden becomes too much to bear.
The pandemic has only worsened our current predicament. With in person interactions limited, accidental or habitual interactions no longer occur with the frequency they once did, and all of us now must rely on our confidence in reaching out to others online to facilitate a conversation. This shift to online communication, combined with the stigma of loneliness, has many sitting at their computers struggling to feel connected. If we take this one step further, we can see how disparities in socioeconomic status can severely affect one’s ability to communicate with others during the pandemic. Having a good laptop, a stable internet connection, and a safe space to turn on one’s camera and mic are not a given in every household. Many of us have younger siblings screaming in the background, parents yelling at us constantly to do chores, or our video freezes every 5 minutes because, as it turns out, everyone in the house needs the crappy internet at the same time.
So what’s the answer then? Unfortunately, there’s no “EASY 3 steps-only one pan recipe” to an ingrained, pervasive issue like loneliness. The answer lies in destigmatizing the concept of loneliness on a widespread scale, and acknowledging the baseline truth that EVERYONE feels lonely sometimes. Maybe after this, we can work towards building more meaningful connections, establishing check- ins between friends as a norm, and recognizing signs of severe loneliness in our own circles.
But this problem is not necessarily a new one. In many ways, in the past few decades we've lost both our sense of community and our ability to build communities. Churchgoing has dropped, membership in fraternal orders has declined, and political action has become personal rather than communal. In this sense, while destigmatization certainly plays a role, it is most useful insofar as it helps people connect. Community-building is key.
Edited by Kevin Gibbs