It’s eighth week, and I just ate by myself for the first time. As a deeply indoctrinated Lutheran-adjacent Midwesterner, I tend to view every second spent alone as a second wasted. From eating at my house table, to constantly texting my friend group chat, to, in desperate times, soliciting myself to random people at Bartlett to avoid the desolate booth seats, I am deeply afraid of solitude. I worry that my own, unfiltered thoughts will end up creating a feedback loop of self-pity. And yet, despite sometimes feeling alone in my loneliness, it seems that loneliness is a rite of passage for many UChicago freshmen. A walk through the Reg, where everyone seems to be alone in a crowd, is proof enough. Despite the pervasive feelings of loneliness plaguing the UChicago student body, many students handle their loneliness in ways that are not only ineffective, but also indicative of a fundamental misunderstanding of what loneliness is. Indeed, I’ve learned over the past few months at UChicago that one key secret to overcoming loneliness is, somewhat counterintuitively, spending more time alone.
The UChicago Secrets page provides a rare glimpse into the collective struggle of first-years. For the most part, loneliness is a taboo topic, but the Secrets page teems with students’ confessions about being unable to make friends or make the right friends. UChicago Secrets is a modernized confessional, a place for anonymous catharsis, operating under the collective agreement that the themes discussed are fundamentally embarrassing. The people who post about loneliness on Secrets want support but don’t want others to know their names, to know that they’re lonely. And who can blame them? We think that the lonelier we look, the lonelier we become. If people know I’m lonely, they’ll think I’m lonely because of some deep personality flaws, then they won’t want to be friends with me and I’ll be even lonelier. It’s a self-perpetuating social anxiety.
So, we pretend we’re not lonely. We post pictures of our O-Week acquaintances, laugh at and pity the people who write the confessions, and we pretend. We pretend we’re fine. The problem is: Pretending we’re never lonely makes it seem like no one is lonely. It makes us feel like we’re the only one who feels this way. In some ways, UChicago first-years seem to be set up for loneliness. Being transplanted into a new environment can be disorienting enough, but paired with UChicago’s infamous grind culture that leaves students with little time or mental energy to reflect, we’re left with few opportunities to process these major changes. This welcome party of work-till-you-drop extremists leaves the freshman class plagued by a feeling of disconnect, one that can remain throughout our college career. This isn’t to say we aren’t making friends. We are. Yet still, despite having friends, a lot of us still feel lonely. Why? The reason has a lot to do with what loneliness really is.
Like many first-years, my Google search history is questionable. Beyond the obvious, though, is one particularly sad-boi search: “What is loneliness?” As it turns out, I’m not the first UChicago student to wonder this. The third Google result was an article from UChicago Medicine examining the technical elements of loneliness in the context of Valentine’s Day. Sad stuff. What struck me is that the article didn’t just explain loneliness as the state of being alone. Rather, it described loneliness as “a state of mind characterized by a dissociation between what an individual wants or expects from a relationship and what that individual experiences in that relationship.”
Basically, we feel lonely when we’re disappointed with our relationships. That makes so much sense. All of our lives, we’re told that college is the place where we’ll meet our best friends, fall in love, etc. Our expectations couldn’t be higher. When we actually get here, though, reality sets in. We miss our old friends, our communities, comfort. It takes time to develop relationships from which we can expect what we really need.
However, just because college is so often a time of change and turbulence, doesn’t mean we have to feel so lonely. First, we can start by destigmatizing loneliness. Be open, be chill. Talk about feeling lonely—no one will judge you. You’ll find that people might even commiserate with you, making you feel less alone in your loneliness. Moreover, the UChicago Medicine article encourages us to be mindful about gratitude and just generally be more positive to stave off feelings of loneliness. Finally, and somewhat counterintuitively, the article suggests that one of the most effective ways to combat loneliness is to be alone. I realized this week that I hadn’t really spent more than a few minutes alone since I got here. I hadn’t given myself space to reflect on what I expect from my interactions with others and to check in with myself.
As it turns out, I’m not alone. In her article, “Spending Time Alone: A Surprising Cure for Loneliness?” Taylor Bennett points to licensed marriage and family therapist Laura Carr, who finds the root problem of loneliness to be a feeling of insecurity about oneself. “People who are chronically lonely are disconnected,” Carr finds. “They believe that they are flawed in some way. They are looking for connection outside of themselves, but others will ALWAYS fail them because no one can meet that need. It is unmeetable by others.”
Carr goes on to say that in order to feel socially fulfilled, our sense of self-actualization must come from inside; before we can be okay with our relationships with others, we have to be okay with our relationship with ourselves. This isn’t to say that being alone in itself will make you feel connected. Indeed, on its own, it won’t. Rather, we need to use alone time as a tool to develop confident identities and process our relationships.
What does this all mean for UChicago students? For one, it means we need to learn to be truly alone: no friends, no work. Go on a lunch date, party of one. Hit up a dining hall or walk to the Point; be by yourself and think about your life. It’s not magic. Your loneliness won’t disappear, but it will force you to process the insanity of the first few months of school (or, for non-first-years, the insanity of life in general) and, in so doing, will help you both evaluate and create realistic expectations for your relationships.
As I sit at this barren Bartlett booth, staring at my computer like some Gen Z trope, I find that the quiet is nice. It’s hard not to be surrounded by people, but I can tell this alone time is good for me. And I don’t feel lonely, even though I expected to. If anything, I feel more connected. To myself, to my friends, and just in general. My thoughts aren’t being filtered through others’ voices, and I’m free to examine my feelings about starting college, new friends, class, etc. It’s hard to believe, but the best remedy for loneliness, especially first-year loneliness, is some good old-fashioned alone time.
Gage Gramlick is a first-year in the College.