But what’s the difference? What makes one person feel lonely and the other not?
While working on my expat book I’ve have been ‘talking’ to a lot of expats online in forums, on Twitter and on blogs about the loneliness of expat life. Loneliness isn’t a problem for many expats. They either cherish the time they have alone as a chance to explore and do their own thing, or they simply destroy any feelings of loneliness by going out and making friends. But for some, solitude is their misery. Some have said it’s difficult making friends with people in their host country because of the cultural or language differences, or admitted that they have never had to learn how to make friends because an easy social group was already in place for them at home. Some tell me they’re surrounded by well meaning people in their host country (perhaps a partner’s family) but that none of these people ‘get’ them and so even in the midst of a crowd, they’re lonely.
I’ve felt loneliness in my life, many times. I have felt like a little image at the end of a wrong way around telescope, small and distant and unreachable. I have felt so alone as to be hollow, a little shell of a girl, almost drained of any connections with humans. And people–friends and family, might be in the next room.
And I have also spent many happy hours wandering through world cities, enjoing the feeling of self sufficiency, the experience of making decisions about where I want to go and when without consulting another. I often think of friends or family while I’m doing these things because I think this is something they’d like to see or experience as well and I look forward to telling them about it later. Less frequently I am submerged briefly with regret that the person isn’t with me to share it right then, because telling them about it won’t be nearly as good.
As an only child I spent many hours creating worlds all by myself. I never had imaginary friends, but I did have great, complex plots I lived in for months, where (like the wardrobe to Narnia) I would step in an out of–when I went outside to the woods by my house I was stepping into the story right where I left off the day before.
But I also wished for playmates from time to time. And when I travelled with my parents or grandparents from campground to campground, the first thing I would do while the adults were setting up camp was to get on my bike and ride arond the campground looking for other kids. I met kids from all over the States that way, and we cut straight to the point the way kids do and just made friends. ‘Hi! Want to play?’ And they’d jump on their bikes and off we’d ride around the campground exploring the area, pausing at one family’s camp for a drink or getting into trouble for crossing the river. I learned early on how to make friends because I had to if I was going to have any. I didn’t have siblings around me to fall back on.
We are social creatures. Other people help us live longer (not many centanarians have lived alone with no social life). And one of the key factors in depression is the lack of social life–and while that could be a chicken and egg thing, there does seem to be strong correlations between unhappiness/poor health and few friends.
But I don’t think the answer to helping lonely expats is just teaching them how to make friends. It’s giving them ideas about how to make the right friends. People who will ‘get’ you. Because even in a group of people, we can still feel lonely unless there’s people who we can actually connect with.
Any stories or ideas you’d like to share, readers?