If you left Yale at this exact moment, how many people would you honestly still keep in touch with in a meaningful way? When I asked this question of myself, I recoiled at how few people would have made the list. I have many people in my life who are friendly. There are the smiles and jovial greetings when crossing paths; the let’s-grab-a-meal magicians who vanish as quickly as they appear; the assembly line of hugs, handshake and hellos dancing through a frat house. But when I think of the friends who would, in an instant, or with some sacrifice to themselves, help me when I need them, the list whittles down. This constant superficiality takes its toll. Most people here are miserable because they feel no one actually cares for them. Yale is a social facade hiding a crumbling interior.
Over the course of a month, I have learned how pervasive the sense of loneliness is around campus by being honest and open. Yalies are too proud and nervous to show weakness but all of us suffer from the same problems. Someone has to break the prisoner’s dilemma. I shared these same concerns over meals and during late-night meditations in common rooms. Every person I approached, no matter how confident, happy or seemingly content on the outside, had the same struggle with friendships. All expressed hidden feelings of discontent — of not being able to truly rely on friends; of not being able to talk to someone about more than classes or parties. And everyone was so much happier having spoken about their hardships.
What about Yale leads to this agonizing friendship dynamic? The type of person who comes here is probably the proximate cause. To get here, most of us prioritized work over fun and careers over friends. It took extraordinary dedication to our studies — skipping parties, working long hours on homework or for our clubs — spending time on ourselves instead of others. Friendships are second to our nature, though we still want them nonetheless.
The rigor of Yale strains friendships. This place demands so much from us— stellar grades, impeccable extracurriculars and pristine internships. Friendships will always come second. We got here on our own, and we will be damned if anyone gets in the way. Not to say we don’t care about others. But we see each other in the cold eyes of a self-interested utilitarian. If this friendship is good for both of us, let’s keep it. As soon as the scale tips down one way too much, our egos say it is not worth it.
Using each other, however, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth — relationships become contingent, fickle, transitory. Much of the yearning for better friendships is the desire for a deontological friendship. We want our friends to do something regardless of consequences. To affirm something innate about ourselves, not our usefulness. It’s the type of relationship most people have with their families. Your parents will love you regardless of your marginal return (unless your parents are economists).
In particular, friendships at Yale are remarkably dependent on proximity. For those who have left a residential college or quit an extracurricular, I’m sure you have felt that moment of clarity: that many people just simply weren’t your friends even though you spent many hours with them.
All relationships require sharing the same space, but Yale amplifies that necessity. Why? Our calculus of self-interest can barely tolerate the idea of making an effort for other people. And our ego refuses to take the first step.
It’s interesting to note that some international students feel the sting of superficial friendships more keenly than Americans. Because of constant competition from birth (particularly to make it into the Ivy League) and weak communal bonds (like moving wherever opportunity arises without sparing a thought for family and friends), Americans don’t do committed friendships.
If we want to take mental health seriously, we should care about the culture of “friendship” at Yale. We should care more about one another. You can individually change this.
To those of us already at Yale: Be diligent in reaching out to friends. Talk about friendship and tell people how much they mean to you. Don’t be scared, because everyone feels the same in varying degrees. Spend more time on friends, even at the expense of work.
And to the prefrosh visiting for Bulldog Days: You will meet many people during these frantic days. But when you finally arrive this fall, know that “friends” are not all created equal.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .