The Theory of Loneliness

Why Being Alone on Valentine's Day Isn't Our Biggest Problem

Duke Unfiltered | Aditya Joshi | February 16, 2016

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On Sunday, as I crawled into bed (thoroughly uninvited) with my roommate and his girlfriend, I was reminded that the most obnoxious holiday of the year was upon us. Though St. Patrick’s Day, with its leprechauns and pinching, definitely comes a close second, I’m talking, of course, about Valentine’s Day… or as single people everywhere  have come to know it, “Why Are You So Alone?” Day.

I know, I know. It sounds bitter when I put it that way. And sure, maybe my roommate’s girlfriend coming into town for three days was putting a bit of a damper on my V-Day spirit. But I don’t think anyone who has been to Valentine’s Eve Shooters can deny that Barney Stinson’s “Desperation Day” theory has some validity to it.

Loneliness tends to rear its ugly head during this time of year. Many, amidst the formals and the post rush fog, wonder why it is that they’re the only ones who feel alone. They think about it when they aren’t stressing about some test or paper, and it serves only to stress them out even more. But the more I ruminate on it, the more I’m convinced that the source of loneliness in college stretches beyond our proximity to happy couples frolicking on useless holidays and instead has roots in our friendships.

Being abroad and in New York without a ton of my best friends made me feel introspective. I had time. I wasn’t stressed out. I began to sense a change in my friendships. Talking to friends in exotic environments far away from the Duke pressure cooker led to deeper conversations than usual. And, interestingly, even in an unfamiliar location miles from home, I never felt alone. It quickly became evident that this was a byproduct of two things.

For one, my lack of stress allowed me to maintain and deepen friendships which I had already made. I began to realize that many of my friendships at Duke were based on a real moment, but they had turned into five minute conversations as we passed each other on the main quad. Excluding my closest friends, all of our conversations were about how stressed we were, where we were going, and what we had to do. Despite our best intentions, these fleeting moments of friendship serve only to reinforce our feelings of loneliness.

Our “do it all” mindset turns every social interaction into what might as well be a series of tweets. Even when I get lunch with people I consider close and trusted friends, both of our minds are elsewhere, whether on the work we have to do or the social commitments for which we had to find dates (if we even had time to attend them). We’re too busy stressing out about all of the ways our time could be better spent that we don’t allow ourselves to dig into the lives of our friends.

When you ask me, “Have you seen Joe lately?”, I want to be able to answer more than “Oh, he’s working at Apple, and, yes, he’s still wifed.” I want to be able to tell you that he got to take a private cruise on a junk around a bay in Vietnam or his thoughts on the new Star Wars movie. I don’t want to keep letting my closest friendships be reduced to spouting information I could find on a Facebook or Linkedin page.

This superficiality is the reason it’s so easy to feel like something is missing at a school full of kids you know and consider your good friends. Nobody “has time” for two hour dinners or confessional conversations, so they’re not releasing any emotional weight and are holding all of their problems and worries and baggage inside. By midterm week, everyone on campus is a walking stress case, and Perkins is an airless trap for anxiety. These conditions are inhospitable for fostering deep friendship and intimacy, and, as a result, we begin to feel like we’re drowning in work without a single person there to throw us an emotional line.

The second contributing factor to loneliness is much more our fault than anyone else’s. Going abroad was sort of like starting school over again. Without many of the familiar faces I’d come to rely on while walking through campus, I reverted to O-Week “Friend Making” mode. In doing so, I found that the amount of effort I exerted finding new best friends abroad was infinitely larger than the effort I put in maintaining my Duke friendships on a weekly basis. Why am I not making an effort to get more exposure to those I consider among the most important people in my life? While this is mostly unintentional, I definitely feel like I’ve been more willing to exert myself in the pursuit of new friendships than the deepening of old ones.

Much in the same way that we overstate the lack of real romantic options because we fail to give our attractions a chance to mature into something more, we fall into fits of loneliness because we feel confined to our friends. We strive to expand the pool of friends we have instead of diving deep into the pool we already know. Whether we mean to or not, we can sometimes treat our friendships in the same way we treat our extracurricular achievements. We end up valuing appearance over substance, and we convince ourselves that the more people we know, the more loved we’ll feel. In reality, we collect surface-level friends to drunkenly hug at Shooters, when what we really want are people that will be there the next morning.

If you ask students what they love most about their college experience, I bet you most of them will single out the people. But, sometimes, especially during this time of the year, it’s hard for even the most gregarious among us to escape the temptation of loneliness. The compulsion to blame this on the culture is strong, but we must avoid it.

Our loneliness is in our own hands. If you’re like me, and have a bad habit of making your friends introduce you to everyone they know in the hope of finding that special someone, it’s important to try and remember one thing.

It’s not how many people we know that determines whether we feel like we have support and warmth on campus, it’s how well we know them.