I’m Living my Best Life (and still really lonely) by Sophia Castano
There is an expectation on how I should feel right now. I am a young adult who recently moved to a cool city abroad, in pursuit of a Master’s degree in journalism, living with my boyfriend and my adorable dog. How could I possibly be lonely? I should be living my best life! I always pictured lonely people as older, introverted men living in the middle of nowhere who probably couldn’t communicate well with others, but the literature says otherwise. A government study illustrated that young adults “aged 16 to 24 years reported feeling lonely more often than those in older age groups.” Furthermore, those that felt they belonged less strongly to their neighbourhood felt lonelier than those that felt more comfortable in their surroundings. Women felt lonelier than men. BBC journalist, Claudia Hammond, concluded;
“people who feel lonely have social skills that are no better or worse than average,” in fact, they have “higher levels of empathy than everyone else!”
It seems it is completely predictable I would find myself looking at my computer to see who is online and wondering if there was even one person I could reach out to. However, even if there was, it never felt like it because I was so ashamed. I was so ashamed that I did not admit to anyone, including myself, of my pervasive feeling of loneliness. Instead, I had thoughts like “I’m just lazy.” Laziness is an acceptable reason. It is choosing to be alone. It is being “too cool” to socialize as opposed to not having anywhere to go or anyone to invite you which is deemed unacceptable in our society and definitely not “cool.” I thought back to when I was a kid and felt lonely or bored. I would ride my bike around and around desperately wanting to race it off the street to somewhere else to just see people or new things - just to explore.
However, I was young and denied that independence. If I could have imagined the amount of freedom I now have I would not wallow. I would be so excited to do whatever I wanted. I would go to a cute bakery and eat a croissant all to myself. I would marvel at the plants at the plant store. I would take a yoga class or ride my rollerblades at the skate park. I would go to London, literally at any point, and explore one of the most epic cities in the world! Other than Brighton of course. It was easier then because, back in those days, I had many friends.
Friendships erupted from being forced to interact with other people. I had a friend in my maths class who I shared notes with, and my friends in track who I ran everyday with. I had my best friend who went with me to school everyday and made me laugh so much I was crying before we both ran into class - usually late. I felt surrounded by friendships and fun times to look forward to everyday. Then I grew up, and I went off to “find myself” and so did everyone else. I no longer talk to my best friend who walked with me to school because time went by and we changed and fell out of touch. That happened to most of my friendships. I still see them on Facebook occasionally, but I no longer consider them my friends. I find the hardest pill to swallow as an adult is: happiness requires effort in every aspect of your life. When I wanted a home-cooked meal I had to start cooking for myself regularly. My cooking wasn’t nearly as good as my mum’s and took so much more work than I could have predicted. I hate mincing or pressing garlic, but now it is a necessary evil required to enjoy my Mexican mum’s way of cooking eggs. Unfortunately, just like my mum’s cooking, I didn’t always appreciate how easily I made friends as a child, because I never had to make them before.
WHAT IT’S REALLY LIKE
The funny thing is I’ve definitely put the effort in with dating as I felt more confident and informed, but man-oh-man there is no handbook for friendship dating! Asking people to hang out feels stressful and awkward. I found myself fumbling over which words to use in order to not sound too eager, formal, or just plain weird. It was way more comforting to say “want to go to yoga class,” than the truth “I want some company.” No matter the reason, it was hard to ask people to hang out because I felt super self-conscious. A study “examining the visual processing patterns of lonely adults” showed how “lonely young adults” are more aware of “information that is socially threatening than non-lonely peers.” In other words, if someone says something that’s perceived as negative, such as saying they cannot arrange plans because they are too busy, lonely people will feel more negatively about that information than people who do not feel lonely. This is called rejection sensitivity. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, rejection sensitivity, “has significant negative impacts on individuals,” like a “ tendency to withdraw from social contact so as to avoid possible rejection.” Yet, it does not stop there. Different research on “Loneliness in the Daily Lives of Young Adults” notes that lonely people are also “more positively affected by positive perceptions of company.” For instance, if someone asks to make plans, a lonely person will feel more excited by this idea than those that do not feel lonely. Generally speaking lonely people are hyper-aware of their surroundings for good or for worse and being this sensitive can make it difficult to know how to act in social situations. When I was lonely, sometimes it felt like I was wearing my loneliness like a stinky perfume and everyone could smell it but they would never tell me that I stink, so I just sat in my paranoia. My insecurities ruled me and made me feel like I was “not enough” and somehow at the same time far “too much.” I found that assuming people were going to think the worst in me made me act poorly. When I made an effort to put my most confident self forward, people responded to it and as a consequence it made me feel better about myself, even when it took more gumption.
DOES SOCIAL MEDIA HELP?
Since millennials are often criticized for their excessive social media usage, I wondered if my phone was the culprit, or maybe the key, to my loneliness. A study titled “Social Media and Loneliness” highlights that “loneliness remains pervasive in societies where social media usage is highest.” This conclusion is supported by Lola Ray of “Make (Good) Trouble,” an organization dedicated to helping mental health in millennials. She argues the social media safety-net “often has the opposite effect to the one intended – not just enabling, but normalizing antisocial behaviour.” Furthermore, messages are hard to decipher and its easier to fool your friends into thinking you are alright with a smiley emoji than when you are face to face. Not to mention, social media can be misleading because we can trick ourselves into thinking we are consistently in company without any actual interactions. One study hilariously titled “No More FOMO” found “that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day” showed “reductions in loneliness and depression,” and could therefore “lead to significant improvement in well-being.” Some people assume that due to my spontaneous personality I’m more likely to put myself out there than others that are more introverted, but it’s this impulsive side of me that also leads me to depend on more immediate social media comforts. One study on the “Relationship between Impulsivity, Social Media Usage and Loneliness” shows that “individuals with impulsive symptoms tend to use social media excessively” which makes limiting it difficult. Nonetheless, one thing is certain: loneliness increases as social media usage increases. Much like the chicken and the egg, research cannot discern which comes first, but they definitely correlate.
Another, more hopeful, study titled “Is the social use of media for seeking connectedness or for avoiding social isolation?,” identifies that media-use can “reduce the amount of time spent on face-to- face communication... limiting subjective well-being,” but it can also “provide opportunities such as connectedness to others.” Despite being in opposition it seems both are true. I find when passively scrolling through Facebook I often feel FOMO (fear of missing out) because I view my own experiences negatively when comparing them to others. However, I would have never met some of my friends in Brighton if it had not been for the Facebook group Brighton Girl. It seems the answer lies in social media self-control.
LEARNING TO LOVE IT
Finally, I have found in all my research that perception is everything. When I am feeling lonely I remind myself of how I felt as a kid, wishing and wishing for freedom. Then I remember that kid is still in me and I owe it to her to try and rekindle my relationship with myself. I will always have myself in the best and worst of days, so why not learn how to enjoy that quality time with the most important relationship I will ever have? When the pessimistic thoughts get even more persistent, I let my inner kid win. I go to the bakery, the plant store, even the skate park. I immerse myself in all the things that make me bubble with joy, so when it comes time to relax with a friend again, I have many stories to share of my adventures. Time spent alone, just not feeling lonely.
MY DO’S AND DONT’S OF TACKLING FOMO
Use notifications. Dopamine is released thanks to that delightful “ping,” and makes social media all the more addicting.
Make the first move. Worst case, they say no.
Be hard on yourself. Everyone feels lonely sometimes.
Distract yourself. Listen to Lizzo or watch Jonathan Van Ness on Queer Eye. Better yet, go outside or join a community group.
DON’T Forget to #treatyoself! Since, all it takes is some TLC to become your own Fab Five.
Reported Frequency of Lonliness by Age Group (according to the Office of National Statics)
find out more about Sophia here.