Feeling lonely? You’re not alone

If we aren’t careful, the Cambridge lifestyle can easily bully meaningful social contact out of the picture.

cambridge life cambridge students Cambridge week 5 loneliness lonely Cantabs week 5 blues

Quick disclaimer: this article is not a lamentation of my own solitude, nor is it an advert offering myself as your potential friend (if that’s what you’re looking for, please redirect yourself to tinder). Instead, I simply want to make public a sad truth that I think many acknowledge to themselves privately, but feel too embarrassed to share. The truth is that Cambridge can all too easily be a lonely place, and we all need to be aware of this.

The ease with which loneliness can become a problem is easily identified in a fairly mundane Cambridge day. I’ll use one of mine from the last week as an example. I got up at 9.15 am to attend my 10 am lecture (a triumph in itself). After breakfast I briefly said hi to one house mate whilst unlocking my bike. From there I attended my lecture, went to the library, ate yet another panini in Sidge, attended a rehearsal, went back to the library, popped to Sainsbury’s, and finally returned home for dinner before watching a film and heading to bed. A fairly normal day, except in the course of it I spoke to two people for a total of 5 minutes out of the 840 for which I was awake, once as I unlocked my bike, and again when I walked into my rehearsal. Maybe three if I include the back-chat I gave the self-service checkout.

No, I won't forget now you've told me eight times in your pass-agg tone.

Obviously, not every day in Cambridge is like what I just described, but if you focus primarily on your work, a whole week can end up looking like this. This is particularly true of humanities students, where there is basically no structure to your day, even if (and it’s a big if) you attend that one lecture in the morning. You’re free to read all by yourself, just like your supervisor wants you to. Feeling lonely is never straight forward and has many causes, but being overworked is certainly one of them.

I don’t wish to assume that everyone who is alone is lonely. I was fine at the end of the day I described: I knew I could have had meaningful conversation with a friend if I wanted to. But if we aren’t conscious of maintaining a degree of social contact on a day to day basis, it’s all too easy for our habits to become who we are. Suddenly, you haven’t spoken properly to someone for a while and you feel yourself drifting away from your friends, even if this is simply your imagination. What’s worse is that because you are lonely, you feel unable to tell anyone you feel this way.

The UL reading room doesn't exactly encourage social interaction.

Likewise, just because you spend time with people doesn’t mean you aren’t lonely. Freshers deserve a particular mention when it comes to this. You’re often presented with an idea that university will be the time of your life. If this hasn’t happened for you, take comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone. When meeting new people quickly in a stressful environment, it can feel like friendships lack depth, and that you haven’t really had a chance to get to know each other between your various essay crises. Particularly leaving school friends, it can feel that there’s no one you can really talk to (the standard teary phone calls to mum excluded). The answer is to give it time. You may well have the time of your life: just don’t expect it in a few weeks.

So, why does loneliness matter so much? Well, although it isn’t a problem of mental health, it is intimately tied up with it. Woe betide the Tab writer who tries to be a psychiatrist, but it’s safe to say pretty much everyone has a need for some sort of meaningful human contact; it’s a key way in which we ground ourselves and reflect upon our needs. Otherwise, loneliness and problems of mental well-being are free to exacerbate each other. Mind.org provide this useful diagram:

credit: mind.org

So, when it comes to loneliness, we need to look after ourselves and each other. Part of this is learning to cope with being alone, but this isn’t the whole answer. Simply choosing to go without seeing a friend for a day because you’ve got too much work can easily turn into feeling unable to talk to a friend. Take an hour off to share lunch with someone, join a club, get to know your neighbour. Cambridge doesn’t naturally provide for this in many ways; a few supos a week and constantly bumping into people in Sainsbury's is not “meaningful contact”, and so we need to do more to create an environment where people can’t simply be forgotten about.

As we head into the middle of term and the workload builds up, being conscious of our well-being matters more and more.