The term “big city loneliness” seems like a juxtaposition in and of itself. “I’m surrounded by people,” you think. “So why do I feel so alone?” While it’s easy to talk about all the opportunities living in a big city can offer you — from cultural activities to great food — it can also be a bit of an adjustment. At Starcity, we believe authenticity and openness are at the center of all great communities, which is why we wanted to talk openly about loneliness. We’ve all been there, and we want to help you figure out how to feel less lonely.
Feel lonely? You’re not alone.
Okay, let’s clear something up right away — while loneliness and depression can often make you feel very alone, you’re not the only one who feels that way. The National Alliance on Mental Illness found that one in five U.S. adults, around 43.8 million people, experience mental illness such as loneliness each year.
And, ironically, loneliness is especially prevalent in big cities. TimeOut surveyed 20,000 people living in big cities across the world and asked them if their city felt like a lonely place to live.
The cities that topped the list in terms of loneliness are some of the most populated areas in the world, with London coming in at the top, followed by New York and Dubai.
Unfortunately, feeling lonely can have real consequences. Social isolation, loneliness, and living alone can result in up to a 32% increase in mortality. This means that, statistically speaking, prolonged loneliness is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Symptoms and manifestations of loneliness go beyond the mind, too. Muscle tension, digestive issues, headaches, and decreased libido are just some of the ways loneliness may affect you.
Vice Netherlands spoke to international students living alone in Amsterdam to shed light on what it feels like to experience big city loneliness.
Mario from Italy shares that “most people look forward to the weekend, but for me, it’s the other way around — I look forward to Monday so I can speak to people at work. I feel really down on Fridays because I start thinking about how I’m going to spend another weekend alone, mainly cleaning my room and playing on my computer.”
For some, the loneliness can feel like a neverending loop. Ioana shares that “it’s a vicious cycle — I feel weak because I don’t do anything, and because I don’t do anything, I feel weak” while Maria shares that “loneliness makes me feel worthless, like I can’t accomplish anything, like I’m not a valuable part of society. And it feels like I’m the only person in this city dealing with it. I know that’s unreasonable, but it’s just how I feel.”
Why are big cities so lonely?
The stats and stories show that big city loneliness isn’t uncommon. But why does it happen, and why don’t we talk about it?
One reason why loneliness has increased could be because our social structures have changed. Since 1985, the average number of close friends has decreased from nearly three to only one. In that same time, the number of people who don’t think they have someone to talk about important issues with tripled.
Some other culprits for big city loneliness include not having a sense of community or limited availability of public space. Most time spent around other people is somewhat mandatory — you’re commuting to work or getting your grocery shopping done. Without casual public spaces, there’s less mingling. And it doesn’t help that most people are looking down at their cell phones 24/7 — the international symbol for “I don’t want to talk.”.
New York photographer Luc Kordas has an entire photo series, including the shot above, dedicated to the loneliness of New York City. Yet the reality of loneliness tends never to be factored in our big city dreams.
With 98% of people agreeing that mentally ill people are stigmatized and discriminated against, it’s no wonder so many people keep the details about their mental health to themselves. The problem may be less about real stigma and more about a perceived lack of knowledge, though. 55% of people think they are at least somewhat informed on the topic of mental illness. Yet only 9% of people believe their neighbors are informed on mental illness issues.
This perceived lack of others’ awareness may contribute to the fact that people are really, really not okay talking about mental health. More than half of people are at least somewhat uncomfortable talking about mental health — even with their friends and family.
How to not feel lonely in the city
Even though so many people experience loneliness in the city (and don’t want to talk about it), there are ways to feel less lonely. Initiatives such as Talk To Me London organize days meant to encourage strangers to start a conversation with one another. Coliving can also help alleviate loneliness since it makes it easy to meet neighbors who want to live in community.
If you’re trying to beat loneliness, start by determining what would help — establishing new connections or opening up more with current ones. Talking about how you’re feeling with existing friends or coworkers can get you moving in the right direction. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable talking about what you’re experiencing with those around you, there are resources available, such as mobile apps that can connect you with mental health professionals and helplines that can answer your questions.
If you’re unsure of how to expand your friend group, rest assured it doesn’t have to be too intimidating. Trying to start a conversation with someone staring at their phone in line at the coffee shop can be awkward. Instead, try finding volunteer opportunities to get involved in your community while meeting people with similar interests. Or, choose more social forms of your everyday activities, such as group fitness classes. Trying something way out of your comfort zone is another fun way to strike up conversations with new people.
Making new friends and finding a community in a big city can be tough. But chances are the people around you may be experiencing loneliness and craving community, too. Simple acts of kindness or community service can go a long way in bringing down the barriers we put up. Say hello to someone new today — you never know whose day it could make.