In 2018, a survey of over 20,000 individuals found that almost half of Americans reported feeling lonely — 46 percent reported feeling alone, 47 percent said they felt left out and 20 percent reported rarely or never feeling close to others. This was roughly three years ago, and even then, the most at-risk demographic for loneliness was young adults, specifically those aged 18 to 22.

This worrisome upshot in feelings of social isolation has recently been dubbed “the loneliness epidemic” by many including the current surgeon general. Not only does loneliness take a toll on an individual’s mental health, but it also has been associated with an increased risk of developing dementia, coronary heart disease, functional decline and cancer mortality

To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic and public mandates to socially distance have only exacerbated a pervasive problem in our society. In October 2020, the proportion of young people who reported feelings of loneliness spiked to a rate of 61 percent, an alarming statistic given that 40 percent of American adults had already been struggling with mental health concerns since the early months of the pandemic.

While terms like “social distancing” and “isolation” have become common jargon in our pandemic vernacular, they are not interchangeable with loneliness. While they are inextricably intertwined, loneliness must be situated adjacent to isolation, not wholly within it. As Jeremy Nobel, a faculty member at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, frames it, “the experience of loneliness is 100 percent subjective. Isolation is the objective state of being physically separate. Loneliness is the self-perceived gap between our social connectedness and that which we aspire to have.”

The analogy I often suggest is to be a young adult in New York City. I, among many others, I presume, once fantasized about the fluttering buzz of “the Big Apple,” enthralled by the false pretense that to be constantly inundated with the presence of others would be enough to suppress any sense of loneliness. Only recently — after a couple summer stints in other urban dwellings — have I acknowledged that my childhood association between the Big Apple and constant companionship would be a scarce luxury at best. 

In fact, New York City often engenders the exact loneliness I imagined would be obsolete. Look no further than Olivia Laing’s “The Lonely City” to glimpse into decades of how one of the busiest cities in the world has also harbored some of the world’s most poignantly lonely people — and their multifaceted portrayals of such loneliness through art.

A similar reality is true for places like Yale.

I recall that in the years before I arrived in the Elm City, I had already become acquainted with Marina Keegan’s acclaimed commencement piece in the News and her posthumous book, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” Here, she had written about an invisible web that connects us, a reverberating feeling that we’re all “in this together.” And she’s not wrong. There is some thread that connects us, a shared community to which we belong. Yet unfortunately, ahead of my first year, I had distorted such expectations of this place to imagine a promised land which would liberate us from any and all loneliness — a Yale that meant we would never be alone again. 

The truth is, to be surrounded by the omnipresence of others is not to be satiated in our social connectedness, just as living in New York City does not necessarily preclude us from having an emotional and social hungering for companionship.

Yet, just because we are not ensured companionship, friendship and social connectedness does not insinuate we are excluded from it either. While “the opposite of loneliness” is not something promised and effortlessly afforded to us, it is likewise not beyond our grasp. Instead, it is something to aspire to.

Meena Venkataramanan parses out the distinction quite aptly in her reflections titled “University Friendships — and Beyond.” Adopting the term “University Friend” from Indian-Canadian essayist Scaachi Koul, she writes, “The University Friend is distinct from a friend from university: the former ceases to exist when a class ends, a club is abandoned, or campus is vacated, but the latter has the potential to be everlasting.”

There are few silver linings in a pandemic, but if anything, it has taught us how to navigate with resilience. While Venkataramanan writes of her experiences at Harvard, the same reality holds true for Yale and any other institution: “The pandemic has largely rendered University Friendships obsolete. During this time, friendships can no longer be purely circumstantial: it takes special effort from both parties to keep them afloat.”

In the end, the pandemic may hopefully subside within the year, but the loneliness epidemic will be much harder to dissipate. We’ve come to learn that just as New York can be “The Lonely City,” Yale can likewise be a lonely college. And to exist here does not spontaneously vacate those feelings of loneliness. Instead, it must be a constant effort — an everlasting striving to connect, to reach out, to be intentional and to discover and rediscover companionship and closeness with those around us.

AIDEN LEE is a rising senior in Pauli Murray college. His column, “It’s Complicated,” runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at aiden.lee@yale.edu.

AIDEN LEE
Aiden Lee is a staff columnist whose column, "It's Complicated," runs biweekly on Wednesdays. Originally from Arizona, he studies economics.