How to Lighten the Weight of Loneliness in the New Year
The dates become blurred when I look back, searching in vain for the first of my fitness resolutions. I was 12, I think. Maybe 13. Those earlier efforts speed past my memory like passengers in a train’s window. My mind flashes with only the acute, ephemeral details — hard breathing at the top of a staircase, strained pushups on the concrete slab outside my family’s home, digging in the trash to calculate the calories in my mother’s dinner. New Year’s Day, just like every day after it, quickly fades into abstraction, like one train car blending into the next as the pace picks up.
I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions anymore. Not necessarily because I don’t think they’re worth doing, more because I’m simply too impatient to wait for January 1st to roll around for me to start working on a new goal. Much of the appeal, I think, of new year’s resolutions is in the novelty of them, this sense that we’re beginning a new journey in time and our use of it, learning an instrument or a language, making more money or losing more weight. And yet, when I’d find myself setting the same goal year after year — lose fat, gain muscle — one year’s aspirations become little more than the diluted resolutions of eves past.
Regardless, I had a good feeling about 2020. I would be graduating from college, finding a job, moving to a new city, finally beginning to establish myself. Needless to say, it hasn’t gone quite how I’d hoped. I’ve moved to a city and found a job, but to say I’m not making use of my degree is an understatement. Of course, 2020 has impacted everyone, many people worse than me, so I’m not alone in this.
But the issue is, I ultimately still am.
Of all the cliched Covid-era slogans, one of my most hated has to be “#AllAloneTogether.” I think I’d have less malice towards the whole sentiment if it wasn’t for the fact that even before Covid, I already found myself struggling with this sense of loneliness, this sense that no matter my physical proximity to someone else, there remained this disconnect between the two of us, a sort of superficiality that I couldn’t move past, a veil I couldn’t lift.
My last summer was one of the best in my life. I studied abroad in Europe with my friends, getting wine-drunk in front of the Eiffel tower or having an impromptu, overnight stay in a Prague train station after we missed the last train home for the night. Logistics are hard when you don’t speak the same language. I worked as an intern at a respected journalism publication in New York City, getting to work with some amazing people, and having my work published. During the two months I spent in New York, I felt more independent and energized than I had in years. I also felt lonelier than I have at almost any other time in my life.
For most of my life, I’ve been perfectly content with my own company, it’s easy enough to maintain that sort of state when you grow up in a place with a population of fewer than 7,000 residents. But in a city the magnitude of New York, a place bursting with over 8 million people, you’re confronted daily with a hundred different small interactions, waiting in line to get coffee or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers on the subway, wondering in disgust if they couldn’t find room in their budget that month for deodorant.
While no doubt counterintuitive, I found that the loneliness I became so aware of in New York was precisely because of the sheer number of people, because of the hundreds of small interactions, not despite them. Every small exchange, every passing glance, it all felt like the promise of something undelivered. It was the trailer for a movie that never premiered.
For me, the way I deal with this sort of loneliness and isolation is primarily through food. This holds true for many people today. Roughly one-third of adults in the United States report overeating in response to stress or loneliness. This has been true for years for me, but I found it to be especially so while I was in New York. During my time there I found myself more determined than ever to finally lose my last bit of fat like I’d promised myself I’d do for years. So, I started following an overly restrictive diet, counting every calorie, making it a few days or sometimes even to the weekend before I started spiraling in my head about how lonely I was, how little progress I was making, how I didn’t have anyone to go out with, before I inevitably caved in and binged. If you’ve ever had any experience with binging, I’m sure this pattern sounds familiar to you.
In the year since I’ve become more aware and gained some control over this cycle. Most of that’s come down to simply giving my body the food it needs on a regular basis instead of jumping back and forth between extremes in eating. But the root cause, that sense of loneliness I struggled with in New York, remains a challenge.
In 2020, when the idea of isolation has taken on a whole new context, I think it’s easy to assume that the sort of loneliness I and others find ourselves struggling with is somehow unique to the pandemic. After all, there are daily reminders of the new physical distance we’re supposed to maintain between one another. But I think it’s conflating two very distinct things to blame current public health guidelines for the loneliness so many of us are dealing with right now.
I’ve heard others define the difference like this: on one hand, you can be alone. This is a physical state — not being physically close to people, maintaining distance, wearing a mask, etc. On the other hand, you can be lonely. This is an emotional state, this is a feeling, one you can have sitting by yourself in your apartment or while physically surrounded by people. That second one, that emotional state of loneliness, that’s what I struggled with in New York, that’s what I think so many people, myself included, have struggled for so much of 2020.
There’s a scene in the Korean drama film Burning that I think unwittingly captures the essence of why I and so many others find ourselves struggling with overeating when we’re confronted with feelings of loneliness.
Early in the film, the protagonist Lee Jong-su is sitting across a restaurant table from his fleeting romantic interest, Shin Hae-mi. She’s leaving soon to go on a trip by herself to Africa.
“Do you know the Bushmen who live in the Kalahari desert?” Hae-mi asks. “They have two types of ‘starving people.’ Starving people. ‘Hunger,’ in English. ‘Little Hunger’ and ‘Great Hunger.’ Little Hunger is a person who is literally hungry. Great Hunger is a person who is hungry for the meaning of life. Someone wishing to know why we live, what meaning there is in life, that sort of thing. They are the truly hungry people. So they are called ‘Great Hunger.’”
“So,” Jong-su says, “you’re going to Africa to meet great hunger?”
“Cool, right?” Hae-mi says. “Great Hunger.”
Without diving into her existential crisis, I think what Hae-mi says can be used as a helpful analogy here. Often when I find myself using food as a tool to distract me from whatever feelings of loneliness I’m experiencing, I will try and convince myself that I really am hungry, that I have, as Hae-mi puts it, Little Hunger. After experiencing and reflecting on these sorts of experiences, it becomes apparent that this isn’t true. Nevertheless, it’s the justification that always comes back, it’s the story I tell myself every time I turn to food again to cover up other feelings I’m having.
But it’s precisely those other feelings that need my attention. So often when I tell myself that I have Little Hunger, the truth is that what I have is much closer to resembling what Hae-mi calls Great Hunger — a hunger to connect with something deeper, to engage in something truly meaningful to you and your life.
The writer Johann Hari describes exactly this sort of Great Hunger in the context of being alone and being lonely. Hari says:
“Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. If you have lots of people around you — perhaps even a husband or wife, or a family, or a busy workplace — but you don’t share anything that matters with them, then you’ll still be lonely.”
So, the question is, if you have Great Hunger, how do you feed yourself?
Well, obviously it isn’t through food. If that was the case I wouldn’t find myself in the same place week after week, repeating the same unhealthy cycle over and over again. But it’s also not, and I think this is just as important to understand, about simply forcing yourself to be around and talk to people with whom you don’t share any genuine connection. If you already have people in your life with whom you share a deep, meaningful relationship with then that’s incredibly valuable, and that’s something to lean into and develop even more if you’re struggling with feelings of loneliness. But at the same time, so much of the available advice about dealing with loneliness is centered solely around putting yourself out there and connecting with new people, and while I’m all for meeting people, it still seems to be missing the point slightly. To say nothing of the fact that the middle of a pandemic is hardly the most practical time to be trying to make new friends.
In my personal experience, the most effective means I have for dealing with loneliness doesn’t have to involve other people at all. If feeding Great Hunger is about the desire to connect with something deeper, to engage in something meaningful, then what’s to stop you or me from doing that by ourselves? What’s to stop us from reading or drawing or even writing an article like this, from exploring the ideas and questions we have with our own company?
And I’m not alone in this sort of thinking. There is a growing body of scientific research that suggests we can reduce loneliness through creativity. One article on the subject remarked that:
“Involvement in creative expression of all kinds, from painting and dancing to gardening and cooking to simple engagement with beautiful artwork, is increasingly being used as a therapeutic treatment for a variety of conditions, including loneliness, depression, and anxiety.”
Creating something, I’ve realized, doesn’t even need to take external expression. In the same way you can create outward expressions of creativity — writing, painting, even cooking — you can also create something internally. You can even practice something like meditation by which you create a new feeling in yourself, by which you generate greater awareness of yourself, your body, your feelings, your thoughts.
That said, a problem as complex as loneliness cannot be remedied by any one solution or approach. Ultimately, this very article is one of my first conscious efforts to implement this sort of advice, to push myself to engage with something creative in response to feeling lonely. So, if you have doubts about it, I don’t blame you. I do too. I know that it’s an imperfect tool because any singular approach to a problem as complicated and personal as loneliness will be. There will still be nights when I’m feeling lonely and I overeat because of it, when I eat a pack of cinnamon rolls or an entire pizza by myself. Partially because they’re delicious, but mostly because anything more requires an effort that I might not have to give at that moment.
But I also know there will moments like this one right now, when I channel that loneliness into something creative, when instead of staring into my fridge, I’m looking at this page, typing these words, talking to you, to myself, trying my best to feed the Great Hunger.