Not Being Lonely Is Hard Work: The Link Between Loneliness And Depression
“You guys have so many friends,” my father once told me. “You don’t ever have to spend a night at home alone, if you don’t want. You’re lucky that way.”
We weren’t lucky, though. Some days, we were frickin’ exhausted.
The thing nobody tells you about “having a vibrant social network” is that building one and maintaining it takes a lot of effort. For every night we can call up people and magically conjure a social gathering, there’s two where we’re slumped on the couch going, “I guess we have to go out.” We’re reaching out, we’re coordinating dates on Google Calendar, we’re squeezing in time between my writing and Gini’s quilting and the kids visiting…
And that assumes we have a friends’ group to begin with! Hoo boy, if we don’t have a variety of close friends then that process gets agonizing. Suddenly, you’re going out on buddy-dates, hanging out for an evening full of awkward to see if you click as a group, and then doing it again with the same people even if it was a little awkward because honestly, most initial friend get-togethers are clunky and sometimes you need three or four gatherings before the edges rub off and you feel comfortable with each other.
I’m tired just thinking about it.
And yet when I see movies about friendships, I always see these effortless groups where friendship is a purely positive force. When the lead character has her big let down, their friends are there to catch her – yet there’s never the scene from the perspective of the friend who was planning to curl up and watch Netflix in glorious solitude and yet they had to throw all that away to be a shoulder for their buddy to sob on. (Or if they have that scene, it’s proof that friend is a bad friend for inconveniencing you, which is equally toxic.)
Friendship bolsters you. But it also costs.
And I think about that today thanks to an excellent article in the Boston Globe from a guy who doesn’t think he’s lonely. He’s got kids, plenty of people at work, a lot of friends on social media….
But after his boss assigned him the story on loneliness, he realized that he was lonely. Because he had a lot of activity in his life, but no close friends outside of his wife and his kids, and as every parent knows, your kids can be a delight but they can’t quite be your friends (at least when they’re young).
There’s a difference between staying superficially in touch with lots of people and having a few stalwart buddies.
And I think of this paragraph:
“‘Since my wife and I have written about loneliness and social isolation, we see a fair number of people for whom this is a big problem,’ Schwartz continues. But there’s a catch. ‘Often they don’t come saying they’re lonely. Most people have the experience you had in your editor’s office: Admitting you’re lonely feels very much like admitting you’re a loser. Psychiatry has worked hard to de-stigmatize things like depression, and to a large part it has been successful. People are comfortable saying they’re depressed. But they’re not comfortable saying they’re lonely, because you’re the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.’”
I think he’s right.
I think a lot of people who are depressed are, at least in part, lonely – and they’re not sure what to do about that. (And a therapist is often just paying someone an hourly rate to listen to you, which can often be a rent-a-friend business.)
And I think part of that process of combating loneliness involves acknowledging that close friendships aren’t necessarily easy. It’s like exercise; some people are naturally drawn to working out all the time, but most of us like “having exercised” but still groan as we schlep down to the gym.
The most successful healthy people are often not the people who love exercise, but who have accepted that the minor unpleasantness of putting in an hour down at the gym will make their lives infinitely better.
Friendship, at least for me and my wife, is a weird balance, because as introverts we have a natural reluctance to going out with people. Left to our own devices, we’d rather nest in at home every evening – we’ve spent time working, we want to relax, going out with people and putting out more energy seems exhausting.
Yet we do it. Because we realize that if we followed our natural instincts all the time, we’d be unhappy in the long run. We need friends. But we can’t just call up our friends when we need them – that’s treating them like tools. So we gotta get our duffs off the couch and say those precious, precious words:
“Wanna hang out?”
We need to reach out and cultivate those relationships in advance, to schedule nights out, to go to events we’re not really thrilled about when we start out – because, like exercise, a lot of the time it actually turns out to be pretty awesome once we’ve started. You feel pumped, you feel jazzed, you feel glad that you went and did it.
A lot of maintaining good friendships is getting past that inertia of “Don’t wanna.” (The other half is knowing which nights you’re absolutely right to spend at home alone.)
Friendships are wonderful, and empowering, but they’re not a free natural resource for most of us. And I think a lot of people wind up lonelier than they should because they’ve got this weird, sitcom-fed idea that friendships just happen – Joey and Monica and Chandler just wind up on the couch at the coffee shop by magic every night.
Whereas the truth about friendships is that those “you wind up in the same place every night” usually only happen when you’re living in the same place, which only really happens in college. Once you’re a grownup, your friends scatter, and you have to chase them down – Joey’s at the cafe every Tuesday for open mic night, and Monica lives on the other side of town but really wants to see that show at the Capitol Theater, and Chandler’s working lots of overtime but hey do you wanna catch a drink when he gets off work at 8?
You have to schedule. You have to go to places with people you’re not 100% comfortable with yet. You have to decide to leave your apartment.
That all takes a certain amount of labor. And you get rewarded big in the end – there’s nothing better about walking into a room and seeing that smile when your buddy shows up and getting that hug and knowing that yeah, this evening was totally worth going out for because you stuck with these people until you had a history together.
Yet that takes effort. That effort isn’t not good, it’s not bad, it’s not wrong. It’s just… what it is. And if you don’t put in that time, you wind up lonely.
Sometimes that loneliness decays into depression. Or sometimes the depression saps your efforts to get out, which decays into more depression. (Gini and I have both been battling sickness lately, and that shows in the sad way we’ve let some of our regular social engagements slip. We want to fight that. We need to, honestly.)
But to fight that loneliness, you gotta organize outings. The get-togethers no longer come for free when you get past a certain age. And I think the sooner you can acknowledge that, and get past the reluctance to fight that, the better your life will end up being.
It’s okay that it’s not effortless.
It’s not for most people.
Now get out there and friend it up.