Rarely do Harvard students talk about loneliness. We’ll gladly discuss commonalities: the p-set due this morning, perpetual lack of sleep, yesterday’s consulting event, the three midterms we had on the same day last week, the shuttle’s propensity to always run late.
Yet loneliness is everywhere. A freshman at Cornell University recently created a video talking about her experiences struggling to fit in on a campus without any friends or social support. In the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni reported on the “scourge” of loneliness that pervades campuses. While these insights put loneliness on the map more broadly, they only begin to skim the surface as to why it occurs on an interpersonal level.
Three years ago, Crimson columnist Andrew D. Kim ’14 reflected on “how much easier it is to tell someone that you are depressed than to say that you are lonely at Harvard.” Despite the prevalence of loneliness at Harvard, the topic remains a taboo—a wound better covered up by a smile and a simple “I’m fine!” Conversations are rarely the red flags they need to be, as students all too quickly find themselves suffocating under tidal waves of solitude.
Harvard is a lonely place for many reasons. One theory is that students are fierce individualists, and seeking help fuels concerns that they may be interpreted as bothersome; the fear of being perceived as weak or friendless takes precedence over the fear of loneliness. Another theory holds that students are not genuine with each other, an insincerity born out of a sense of competition that views friends as “utility-maximizers” in the race to get ahead.
There are as many theories as lonely people on campus. But the subtle yet pervasive culture of competition and autonomy seems to be the commonality that leads to the degradation of friendships in lieu of connections and overworking in place of self-care.
This is a multifaceted issue, impossible to solve with a one-size-fits-all solution. But no matter how we view it, Harvard’s problem of loneliness is unacceptable. We must work together to de-stigmatize the notion that being and feeling lonely makes us a failure. Too many of us suffer from this common issue to simply pretend it does not exist.
“I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE I WAS PRESENT, EVER”
For Shelby J. Martinez ’18, leaving Harvard was the best way to fight loneliness. Her story is one that has happened countless times before, and it begins with a familiar narrative.
At first, Martinez didn’t even experience loneliness. “My freshman year I felt very much like an outlier. A lot of my friends told me how lonely they felt,” Martinez said. But over the course of that year, the specter of loneliness grew, brewing on the back burner until time inevitably forced its presence to be known. By her sophomore fall, she felt emotionally isolated, despite being surrounded by multitudes of people around Harvard.
“I didn’t feel like I was present. Ever. I always felt like I was acting out the routine. I never felt like I was making emotional connections with anyone, and if I had an issue, I either shoved it in the back of my own emotional closet or I just didn’t tell anybody because everyone else was so busy.”
Martinez’s loneliness drove her to put Harvard on pause during junior spring as she made self-care and emotional well-being her top priority. Yet the way she avoided seeking help speaks volumes. How many of us have chosen to keep issues to ourselves because we are afraid to “bother” others, or afraid to appear “unlikeable or socially maladapted,” to quote Kim?
One way to solve this is by breaking down the stigma around asking for help. We all know there is a stigma, but feeling the need to seek help is not a failing, no matter what we may think. We may think that our peers are smarter and better than us. But loneliness is not always obvious—some people are just better at hiding it than others. It is easy to dismiss the popular student always surrounded by friends in the dining hall as someone far removed from loneliness, but he or she may be surrounded by their own demons.
A PROBLEM OF UTILITY
Harvard’s social life is often hierarchical, predicated upon social connections and networking. This predatory view of social relationships can be daunting to freshmen, who may enter campus believing that they have to make certain friends in order to ensure success at, and after, Harvard.
The majority of Harvard students arrive on campus with few connections. Three-quarters of the Class of 2017 were the only ones from their high school to enroll at Harvard. While Martinez may have hidden her struggles from her friends to not bother them, others may hide from “friends” because they don’t want to risk further isolation.
Harvard is known for being a networking mecca, but this attitude can often spill over from finance events into the dorms. People are commonly used as social capital, a goal to check off from the to-do list. This makes defining relationships between people tricky—is this a friendship or is this a social stepping stone, a transactional interaction that holds little weight, a meal that will never be grabbed?
“I get the sense that a lot of Harvard students tend to view friendships as utility-maximizing tools rather than as genuine interactions between other people,” says Kenneth Shinozuka ’20. “And I think that mentality fosters a sort of community where friendships are built on a very tenuous basis, and it’s unclear whether or not somebody wants to be your friend simply to be your friend, or to use the social connections you have.”
This is well-documented in certain Harvard circles. Some make friends not for who they are but for the clubs or societies they are in. Using these connections to tether themselves more broadly across the campus, these “friendships” may only serve the purpose of moving up social and even professional ladders. For the rest of us, friendships may not necessarily be tied to concerns of popularity and self-image, but they can still be similarly superficial—never moving past a study group or club acquaintance.
Real friendships do exist on campus, but there are also many “friendships” that are meant to serve as vehicles to prestige and respect. Even if many of us do have deep friendships and don’t actively engage in this, we likely know many that do—and participating in these kinds of interactions can precipitate feelings of isolation and superficiality.
“At Harvard, it’s easy to have these fake friendships with people, like the ‘oh-let’s-grab-a-meal-sometimes’ friendships,” said Martinez. “Sometimes those are the only strong lifelines you have. And so when those fake and superficial relationships are all you have, and you feel like you’re breaking, there’s nothing that you have. There’s nothing to really catch you when you fall.”
We hide ourselves behind a mask to interact with others, even though they are also hiding, crouching behind their own makeshift facades for fear of jeopardizing this network. If we continue choosing to conceal our loneliness for fear of losing whatever tenuous connections we’ve made, our anxieties will only turn inward.
AMBITION AND ANTI-SOCIAL MEDIA
It is possible that loneliness may arise from more innocuous actions. It is well-documented that social media is tied to greater feelings of loneliness. On a campus where it often seems like half the students in any given lecture are browsing Facebook and Twitter, it makes sense that loneliness would be more prevalent. This is not unique to Harvard but to our generation as a whole.
We come from all across the country and all around the globe to pursue the opportunities found around Harvard Yard. And yet we choose to remain comfortable in the confines of our Facebook feeds. This is not to generalize the student body’s struggles at large, but it presents another way in which our lifestyles invite isolation.
“When you go on Facebook [and] Instagram, people are always posting what makes them look the best, right?” asks Victor C. Agbafe ’19. Agbafe is an Undergraduate Council representative for Dunster House who has supported efforts and projects by the UC to make students more aware of the struggles others face. “And...because of all the accomplishments people have, you think, ‘Wow, everyone’s so perfect! Am I really worth it, am I really worthy here?’ You start to question your validity as a human being.”
Martinez agrees. She said the feeling was like “[s]omething’s wrong with you, or [that] I’m not doing college right, or I’m not putting enough effort, or I’m putting the effort into the wrong thing.” Questions like these naturally arise within us. “Imposter syndrome” is well-documented on Harvard’s campus. Yet Facebook—ironically a creation of Harvard—has exacerbated this problem.
It is easy enough to say, “Get off Facebook and go outside,” as so many counsel. While we encourage students to follow this approach, as it does have benefits, we understand that it may trivialize many deep-seated issues that others face. And overall, it is incredibly hard to pencil in time to commit to friendships in our perpetually-filled calendars. It is easier for us to isolate ourselves in our rooms or Lamont Library and absorb ourselves in schoolwork and Facebook. But we do so at our own peril.
FILTERING THROUGH RESOURCES
There is a critical need to pay attention to the effects of loneliness among the student body. A Crimson analysis of students’ mental health reported that 40 percent of the College utilized mental health services. Data collected from the recent Class of 2021 survey indicated that 21 percent underwent mental health counseling, a number that has dramatically risen since the Class of 2017’s reported 12.5 percent.
Despite the enormity of Harvard’s problem with loneliness, and its intersections with issues of mental health, there are signs of hope and substantive student action. Groups such as the Unfiltered Project at Harvard are doing a stellar job in showcasing the issues of Harvard students to the wider community, using the wide-ranging vehicles of social media to affect positive change and reflection among ourselves.
Other groups—such as Room 13 and QuadTalk—are available for students to unburden themselves of deep-seated issues to confidential peer counselors. The benefits of having these resources to take advantage of without the fear of being judged is invaluable. But while these peer groups must be commended for the great strides they make, we need more student-run initiatives that make us feel comfortable empathizing or confiding with each other.
While we commend the students who devote their time to peer counseling and other initiatives and encourage others to do so, the College must also assist us. The administration does realize that loneliness is a major problem, and accordingly tries to fix it at the start of our Harvard experience—freshman year.
The Freshman Dean’s Office programming during Opening Days hosts many events, not just large-scale ones that are meant for the entire freshman class, but small-scale events within common rooms and proctor suites that help smaller groups get to know one another. This is vital to fostering more intimate connections among students who may have difficulty transitioning to Harvard, but it is not always effective. Transitioning to Harvard’s unique environment is hard, and for many, its effects stretch far past freshman fall.
These events are often replicated in the Houses, but with varying degrees of success—some Houses are known for having a more communal atmosphere than others, leading students to potentially seek social life elsewhere or to eschew it completely. The College must support student- and House-led efforts, and it should be commended for its efforts to do so in the past.
But sometimes, campus resources aren’t enough, or fail to live up to their purported utility. Martinez can be the first to attest to this: “I reached out to CAMHS and they were completely unhelpful. We chatted about Lemonade for 30 minutes and [the counselor] texted me fanfiction to read during my session.”
Though it cannot be claimed that Martinez’s experience is the norm, the fact that it happened speaks volumes. Despite having real concerns, her experience was trivialized, something that could be ‘solved’ through a frivolous conversation and some cheeky readings. Despite the seemingly abundant amount of options for support, these resources failed her. We cannot allow this to continue happening.
Similarly, while the opportunity for students to utilize the expanse of campus resources is important, many peer counseling groups don't quite encompass loneliness within the scope of their work. The statistics shown above demonstrate the need to pay attention to loneliness and to tackle it via peer counseling groups, lest its frequency continue to increase throughout students’ time here and lead to other mental health issues.
TEARING DOWN BARRIERS
Loneliness is universal. It does not discriminate. And it unfortunately is a keystone of the sought-after Harvard experience that isn’t publicized in glossy brochures. Unknowingly yet despondently, many Harvard students find themselves falling prey to this overwhelming sensation. We fear our endeavors aren’t enough―that the friends we surround ourselves with are constantly doing more than we could ever hope to do. These thoughts persist despite our best attempts to eliminate them.
We are aware that everyone’s experience of loneliness is unique; in many cases, it is tied to issues of mental health, such as depression. But regardless of the cause, we must continue to place student mental health and self-care as our top priority on campus by tearing down the social barriers we have created. We should be able to achieve the challenging goals we set for ourselves without falling prey to loneliness. Seeking for help does not make us weak, but stronger, for giving us the courage to admit and work through our problems.
After all, Harvard is supposed to be a place of transformation. Yet, instead of transforming only ourselves, we must transform our relationships with each other. We must see each other as fellow students experiencing the same issues, not as strangers meant to be exploited. There is no cookie-cutter solution to this, but we should do as Kim suggested years ago: Go up to someone, and say: “‘I feel lonely sometimes. Do you?’”
In the end, we are here for more than just education or knowledge. We are here for the unforgettable experiences with friends and classmates that can’t be made anywhere else. We can’t afford to spend our four years at Harvard in isolation—not when there is so much to learn from one another.
Jessenia N. Class ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Quincy House. Robert Miranda ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House.