Lonely at Harvard?

It surprises me how much easier it is to tell someone that you are depressed than to say that you are lonely at Harvard.

Neither is simple, both coming with their own vulnerabilities and social costs. However, efforts to destigmatize and encourage open conversations about depression have made great strides in molding how the average Harvard student views the condition. Depression is a recognized psychiatric illness with a biological basis with which the public can identify and sympathize. Society could still benefit from more awareness about depression, but at the very least liberal-minded, sympathetic populations generally understand that the depressed are victims rather than makers of their misfortune.

On the other hand, you cannot say that you are lonely without feeling that it is largely your own fault. Although loneliness is admittedly less severe an affliction than depression, social isolation does not benefit from the same sympathetic perspective of victimhood. Feelings of alienation are not by themselves a mental illness, cannot yet be attributed to brain chemistry, and receive relatively little attention in the mental health discussion here at Harvard.

As a result, loneliness is often perceived not as a misfortunate circumstance, but rather a social dysfunction of one’s own invention. There is an understood but unspoken assumption that if you are lonely, then you must be unlikeable or socially maladapted. Insidious logic dictates that people who are likeable can make friends and people who can make friends are not lonely. Unlike depression, loneliness is a reflection of your fundamental character and affability. There is no pride to be salvaged in loneliness.

Harvard is an especially difficult place to talk about feeling socially unfulfilled, because Harvard is the one place where we feel we have no right to be isolated. Surrounded by an unprecedented amount of common interests, diversity, and warm welcomes, we are inundated with opportunities for companionship. By the end of freshman fall, many students are already gushing about how they have never felt so well connected before Harvard. If you cannot bond at Harvard, it follows, you must not be able to bond anywhere.

Therefore, to say that you are lonely is to risk being painfully judged in a community where loneliness is rarely raised as an issue. You can maintain your self-respect in admitting that you are stressed about your work or that you are angry about a friend’s behavior. But to say that you are lonely is to reveal that you are unable to accomplish what Harvard is structured to make easy: connection.

What we often fail to realize is that feelings of alienation are not a reflection of social aptitude or dysfunction. The word “loneliness” evokes images of the sorrowful student sitting alone in the corner of the dining hall without friends. At Harvard, loneliness is never this obvious. Often, bouts of loneliness are found in affable individuals with active social lives. Despite the vast number of superficial connections each of us maintains on a daily basis, truly satisfying relationships are incredibly difficult to achieve. Even the very people who seem to thrive can suffer from a lack of a deep, nourishing bond with another human being.


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