I’ve been told that I’m calm under pressure, but that’s only on the outside.
To prepare for my first TV news show appearance, I put on berry-red lipstick and started breathing into my belly, an alleged relaxation technique that never seems to work. In the background of the video feed, my turquoise-blue couch stood out against white walls, where I had hung Cambodian fans and other colorful souvenirs from my travels.
The topic of discussion that day? Loneliness among young people.
Initially, I had assumed the network wanted me to share some of my expertise as a science reporter—including the extensive research on loneliness, social connection, and well-being. But after a few emails, it became clear that I wasn’t the expert guest on the show. Instead, I was the human-interest story—the example of a lonely young person, exhibit A of the isolated millennial.
As I waited for the show to begin, my public-speaking nerves churned around in my stomach alongside the sinking realization that I was about to talk about some of my most vulnerable feelings in front of thousands of people.
How did I get here?
For four years, I had been a “digital nomad,” traveling the world and living for months at a time in places like Bali, Rome, Beijing, and more. Along with my partner, I had stood in awe of golden Thai temples, hiked the white cliffs of Dover, and slept fitfully on bumpy overnight trains in Vietnam.
Travel can be glamorous, but it’s also solitary. When you move every few months, making awkward small talk with strangers in the hopes of forming a friendship that probably won’t last seems futile—particularly for an introvert like me. So, to be honest, I didn’t really try to meet people.
But I can’t put all the blame for my loneliness on travel. In fact, the seeds had been planted much earlier. I grew up valuing self-reliance to the extreme, and I would have to learn the hard way how much I needed people.
Productivity above all
When I started high school, my violin was my best friend. At least that’s what I told myself when the girls around me paired up into twosomes. One summer, I practiced violin for four hours a day, perched in front of a fan to stay cool. I counted the minutes with a timer that I would pause when I stopped for a water break. Afterward, I’d note in a pink felt journal how much I’d practiced: “July 7, 2004: 3 hours, 50 minutes.”
That was also the year I enrolled in a prestigious Saturday music program in New York City. Sometimes I’d attend a Friday-night sleepover—I did have some friends—and then wake up at the crack of dawn, emerging from a warm sleeping bag into the chill morning fog. During the one-hour commute into the city, I’d doze in the backseat of the car and think about my friends lazily waking up and eating pancakes together, without me. In my memory, Kelly Clarkson is always playing on the radio, singing “Breakaway”: “I’ll take a risk / Take a chance / Make a change / And breakaway.”
But I couldn’t break away yet. Thanks to a bit of early reinforcement, my identity was set: I was the smart one, the good student, the valedictorian. I was the type of person who valued achievement, not the type of person who valued love and friendship. Four hours of daily violin practice eventually morphed into studying from nine in the morning to nine at night, including on weekends.
In college, I learned that you can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people. One of my first nights there, I went to a Montreal bar with a group of friends and acquaintances who (far braver than me) danced to hip hop music, arms up and clothes flowing. I sat back and watched, sipping a strawberry margarita—the first full drink of my life.
A friend kept checking on me, as if a few ounces of alcohol were going to make me pass out. “I’m fine,” I kept saying, waving her away.
That night, I lay in the darkness and stared up at the ceiling, feeling far away from home. All I could think was, “These aren’t my people.” I didn’t love to party or drink like all my peers seemed to, and so I turned back to my books.
Back then, I believed achievement was the source of happiness. I thought that needing others in order to be happy was a form of dependence—one I wanted to avoid. No, I was independent. My perfume was Femme Individuelle (no joke). When my partner and I started dating, school was my top priority; we routinely haggled over what time I’d finally quit studying and meet him for dinner. In my mind, we were two separate people with separate, busy lives—and I liked it that way.
After college, when I had the chance to travel the world and write—a fantastic career opportunity—I didn’t really consider how it might affect my social network.
But research (and common sense) could have predicted how it would all turn out. Constantly moving, I was cutting myself off from the benefits of settling in a single place, of living close to family and volunteering in my community. Indeed, research suggests that frequent travel often leaves people “searching for more enduring relationships.” When someone remarked on how difficult it must be on the road, though, I had no idea what she was talking about.
Oddly enough, I hadn’t felt lonely during most of my travels. But that was about to change.
The opposite of wanderlust
During a six-month stay in Toronto, Canada, I started a meetup that met monthly to discuss happiness. I told myself it was a smart career move, a way to build credibility in the psychology world—but deep down, some part of me probably just wanted to be part of a group. Among the frequent attendees was my partner’s sister, who (in my mind) didn’t fall into the category of “people I’ll never see again who thus aren’t worth getting to know.”
She and a good friend of hers—who would become my friend, too—were there at the first meeting when I sat, latte in hand, eager to see if anyone would show up. They jumped in when the conversation lagged and congratulated me afterward.
They were all there at the last meeting that summer, on a boiling August day just a week before I left Toronto. A dozen of us convened on the back patio of a cafe to discuss self-esteem over iced teas and coffees. As people started to leave, they asked me where I was headed next—and I smiled and talked about Oktoberfest in Germany, about Italy and Greece. Inside, I was sad that I wouldn’t be seeing everyone in September.
Back on the road, some of my enthusiasm for travel was gone. I had gotten a glimpse of connection and community, and I wanted more. I was relieved and excited when my plane touched down in Toronto the following year. My four-year, 17-country world tour was over.
Suddenly, there were no more shiny objects to pursue—no Korean signs to decipher, no Parisian cafes to discover, no Berlin history to learn. And I was hit with a deep and chilling sense of loneliness.
How to win friends
When I went on TV, the host assumed I had already “crossed the threshold” and gotten over my pangs of loneliness. She asked when it had happened, and I confessed that it hadn’t. “I’m still on the journey,” I said, seven months after signing a long-term lease.
One of the other guests on the show was the founder of Hey! VINA, an app for women to make female friends that I decided to try. (Yet another guest was running a platonic cuddling service, but that seemed like a bit much for me.) Hey! VINA is basically like Tinder or Bumble—you create a profile, swipe through other people’s profiles, and get matched up when there’s mutual interest.
I matched with a native Torontonian who seemed to share my love of cats, optimism, and shyness. We eventually met for a nighttime walk, and the blocks passed unseen as we chatted about psychology, fitness, and the city that was now my home. My conversation felt halting and inelegant; in nomadic life, I had gotten out of practice talking about myself and telling my life story. But on the subway ride home, I couldn’t stop smiling.
The benefit of this digital friend-making approach, in my mind, was that everyone was just as desperate as me.
The downside was that it’s almost exactly like online dating. After each “date,” I’d ponder all the things I had said: Was I interesting? Did I offend her? Then there was the question of whether—and when—to suggest another hangout. Should I play it cool and wait a few days? What if she agrees just because she feels sorry for me?
My first VINA friend disappeared for a few weeks, and I lamented to my brother. “She was so cool, I liked her so much,” I said. “Why doesn’t she like me?”
After some merciless brotherly teasing, he told me not to put all my eggs in one basket.
A change of heart
Luckily, I did have eggs in other baskets. At the time, my personal loneliness-busting initiative amounted to something like, “Go meet people, at least once a week.” I kept “dating” other prospective new friends; I went to meetups, book clubs, and dinners hosted by my neighbors. I attended weekly blues dances, whether my partner decided to come that night or not.
This was a change for me. A decade ago, I defined myself by my work ethic, my intelligence, and my productivity—all brains and no heart. On some level, that became a self-fulfilling prophecy: I didn’t see myself as the type of person who had friends and community, and so I didn’t seek them out.
As my behaviors changed, though, my view of myself started to change, too. Someone said I had a “kind and gentle presence,” a far cry from the cold, logical intellectual I once fancied myself to be. I’ve become more warm and emotional than before. Shockingly, I seem to have joined the ranks of people who believe, in some fundamental sense, that love is the answer.
I no longer think that needing connection makes me pathologically dependent. I believe we all need the support, empathy, and joy that other people bring; we’ve evolved to need it. I think relationships are worthy of time, energy, and money. I recognize that connection is a big pillar—maybe the core—of my well-being. Is that what they call interdependence?
My old self would call me touchy-feely or weak, but I’m realizing the ways that connection requires strength. To cultivate the kind of relationships I want, I have to speak up and set boundaries, and be honest when I’m hurt. I have to tell other people things that I’m ashamed of, my biggest fears and insecurities. I have to forgive people when they hurt me, because, ultimately, I still want them in my life.
These changes didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still grappling with them. Old habits die hard. I still get uneasy when my personal life interferes with my to-do list, and I still have to battle the impulse to prioritize work above everything else, even my partner. When he tries to talk to me during the workday or convince me to leave work early, I feel a surge of annoyance, a little alarm bell signaling a threat to my productivity.
In those moments of internal conflict, I’ve learned to soften a little. I take a deep breath. I try to remember what’s important—that loving, connecting with, and supporting others are not frivolous, but some of the most meaningful things I can do.
Where you belong
I’ve celebrated my birthday in many exotic ways: with a Segway tour in Paris, with open-air dining and a massage in Bali. But my 29th birthday was different. Last year, it was a dinner party and game night at home.
My partner suggested a potluck, where everyone would bring some food. “We can’t make people supply the food for my birthday party!” I protested, uncomfortable about the imposition. “Sure we can,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
That night, the table was set for 12, not two. I kept hearing knocks at the door, and someone else would appear—the couple who had reached out to us, wanting to make new friends after many of theirs had moved away, sporting an elaborate fruit tart. A fellow newcomer to Canada, who had attended my meetups and brought her homemade cornbread. A blues dancer, handing me a cat-shaped bottle of wine. My phone pinged with a message from my VINA friend, who had liked me after all but was working that night.
All the friends and community I had ever wanted were now sprawled across my turquoise couch, eating cupcakes and chatting. They looked like they were having fun, and all I could feel was a little surreal. Were they all here for me?
My head couldn’t grasp it, but some corner of my heart did.
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.