I couldn’t figure out why I had less energy, why my overall mood seemed to be plummeting, why I was letting dirty dishes and clothes pile up. I’ve become cognizant enough of my own mental health to know when I’m feeling depressed, but it took me a while to connect the dots as to why: I was feeling the effects of social isolation.
The loneliness snuck up on me. I’ve kept a consistent schedule as a freelancer for the last seven years; I thought I’d worked out all of the kinks. So when I took on a new client a couple months ago and my workload increased, I didn’t notice that I was leaving the apartment less and going for days at a time without talking to another person outside of texts and emails.
I’ve always proudly said that I’m good at being alone. It’s been a necessity; I live by myself and work from home, so I miss out on the usual day-to-day interactions that my friends with roommates, partners and office jobs take for granted. I’ve written before that spending time alone has even helped me find myself. But I’ve been so focused on being a solo badass who didn’t need anybody that it didn’t occur to me that loneliness might be something I’d have to contend with.
According to various studies, feelings of loneliness can raise stress levels and inflammation, which can in turn increase a whole host of other risks. After a certain amount of time cooped up in my house, hunched over a keyboard, I was bound to start struggling.
Or was I? Social isolation and loneliness aren’t the same thing, say scientists Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy B. Smith of Brigham Young University: “Social isolation denotes few social connections or interactions, whereas loneliness involves the subjective perception of isolation — the discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of social connection.”
That is to say, if you’re fulfilled by your social connections, you can live a relatively solitary lifestyle without it affecting your mental health, as had been the case for me previously. Alternatively, if you’re not feeling socially fulfilled, you can feel desperately lonely even when surrounded by others. As Holt-Lunstad and Smith note, while being single carries a significant risk of social isolation, “not all marriages are happy ones… we have to consider the quality of relationships, not simply their existence or quantity.”
It’s this distinction that framed my recent dip in a new light: I may be comfortable with solitude, but I’m not comfortable with isolation — there is an important difference. Luckily for me, my friends are the high quality kind. I was embarrassed to bring up how I was feeling, but after I made a glib joke about “not having any human contact,” a freelancer friend made an immediate plan for us to meet up and spend the day working together. This turned out to be just what I needed, and helped me understand the importance not just of having social connections, but using them. It wasn’t just that I’d gotten so busy I’d neglected my social life, I’d actually developed habits that were actively pushing it away on the basis of my desire to be independent.
Dismantling this kind of framework isn’t always as simple as making a plan. “There is a correlation between loneliness and social interaction, but not in everyone,” said Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist, in an interview with the New York Times on the health effects of loneliness. “It may be simplistic to suggest to people who are lonely that they should try to interact more with others.”
A lot of the research I found on social isolation focuses on teenagers and older people. But what of those in the middle? With millennials now putting off marriage and kids for longer, and the number of people pursuing freelance careers growing, we need to be mindful of the compounding effect of isolation on a generation that is already prone to depression.
I still believe solitude is good for the soul. Studies have found that spending time alone “contributes to personal growth and self-acceptance,” especially among young people. Getting over the preconceived notion that you need a partner in order to do certain things has also been empowering for me, and I take very real pleasure in the independent rituals I’ve developed over the years — a solitary trip to the movies, or dining alone in a foreign country.
But there are emotional hazards to making independence such a large part of one’s identity. Because even if you rationally know that leaning on people is not a sign of weakness, your ego can resist — especially when the support you need is emotional rather than practical. There are many perks to a solitary life, but no one can thrive without fostering any deeper connections — and the same is true for those surrounded by people all the time. Loneliness doesn’t discriminate based on circumstance, it’s up to us to listen when we feel it.
Collage by Edith Young.