real life

You're not alone: We're all bloody lonely and it's a new kind of social sadness.

At work, at a party, at a family gathering, you’ve probably heard this conversation play out:

“How’ve you been?”

“So busy!”

“ME TOO.”

“How’s work/the kids?”

“Work’s nuts/The kids are so busy/Getting through it all!”

“Same.”

Pause.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this conversation. It’s small talk, and sometimes the situations call for it.

But one thing we’re getting extremely good at in social interactions is masking. We mask what’s really happening. We default to ‘busy’ because we all know that there’s nothing worse in our society than looking like you’re doing nothing.

We apply the same rule to our social media lives. We’ve become experts because we perform ‘busyness’ online, every day. What we don’t do is say that we’re lonely.

On a digital level, we’re more connected than ever. And yet, somehow we feel distant.

We’re trying to bridge this gap between the real ‘us’ that people know in person, and the digital ‘us’ we present to the world. The problem is, when the digital ‘us’ starts to control our feelings too much and affects how we perceive reality.

It’s that old cliché that you can be in a room full of people and feel completely alone, and it’s never been truer.

Take that proverbial room and imagine your social media feed as that room. It’s filled with people with better bodies, better clothes, better houses, better careers, better relationships, better social lives, more money, better smash cakes – better everything. At least that’s what we tell ourselves.

Now think about how often you enter that room. Every morning, the glow of an iPhone or Android screen signals the start of our days. If I haven’t checked my Instagram in the first five minutes of waking up… have I even woken up yet?

The addictive slot-machine-like power of social media makes it virtually impossible to not enter the room. What if I miss out on something? How are my likes going? Who sent me a message? Who didn’t?

It’s not our fault. In a world of 24/7 instant gratification – instant news (which is often more horrifying than gratifying), instant entertainment, instant shopping, next-day delivery of fashion, instant food, instant communication – we’ve become stuck in a cycle. It’s the reason why the idea of a digital detox is a thing, and for most of us, a scary thing. (For starters, I might actually regain feeling in my left thumb if I stopped scrolling, but why would I do that?)

When we’re in this digital room every day, it affects how we feel and operate in the world. We check our feeds for a dopamine hit, because social media promises that.

Often it delivers – social media offers us greater means of connection, moments of inspiration and pure self-expression. Personally, I’m a huge believer in it.

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But sometimes we don’t get that hit and suddenly, without warning, it cruelly turns into a trigger.

It could be a photo of an ex. A photo of a squad of friends. A picture of a couple. An influencer on a free holiday. A family who look like they’ve figured life out. Someone whose passion is now their hustle. A political issue. A Trump tweet. Climate change. Injustice.

We all have different triggers, and social media knows how to press them to make us feel wanting. It’s a kind of melancholia, or a ‘social sadness’, that you feel foolish for succumbing to.

So what do we do to take control of these feelings?

We mask. We perform a put-together image of ourselves to show the world how “un-lonely” we are. We ‘join’ movements, but still feel alone. In our Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, SnapChat, TikTok and other social versions of ourselves, we carefully curate the images and messaging we want others to see. We’re all performing our personal PR campaigns, and there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that.

David Gillespie speaks to Mamamia’s No Filter podcast about how to spot a digital addiction in your family. Post continues below.

There’s greater awareness than ever about the idea of public performance to mask real mental health, thanks to organisations like R U OK. Someone can say they’re OK, look like they’re OK, and they’re not.

Loneliness can be hidden by anything. And the more we admit it, the better. A smile can hide loneliness – it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be smiling. But we can always let people in, looking for ways to connect meaningfully with others, rather than keeping up appearances.

The modern world makes it hard to unmask, because if we want to connect on real, authentic levels, it takes effort. When everything is convenient, we don’t put in the effort.

The reason I’m writing this is because of a conversation I had with a friend at an LGBT community event, in person. We got talking about the news that the lockout laws had been lifted in Sydney, in a bid to revive the city’s “ghost town” nightlife that’s seen 100s of businesses close over the past few years.

My friend observed that the city’s nightlife is a signpost of broader issues with urban culture – like the way communities are struggling to forge connections as cities get bigger and more expensive, and staying home is just easier than going out. How do we get people to want to go out and forge communities? More green spaces so people with dogs can meet? More, free government-subsidised events, like Vivid in Sydney or the Moomba Festival in Melbourne? More online groups staging meet-ups?

We didn’t land on a final answer, because there are many answers to these complex issues. But what I know is that people feel less lonely when they are part of a community. I am fortunate enough to be part of a subculture with its own rainbow of mini-subcultures, the LGBT community. And that makes me feel less lonely, both in person and on my social media.

For others, it’s a sporting group. Or the gym you go to (the fervour of Barry’s Bootcamp followers is full-on). Or the local charity you volunteer for. Or a book club. Or a mother’s group. Or a live music venue. Wherever we find our tribes.

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It might start in a Facebook group or on an Instagram page. But when there’s a real-life touchpoint, the feeling of belonging is stronger – just think of how Greta Thunberg and Celeste Barber have galvanised their online followings to feel seen and take tangible action.

Why Celeste Barber doesn’t think she’s ‘brave’. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia

Tribe hunting takes effort. It means breaking through the culture of convenience to forge new relationships and participate in life. To feel like we belong somewhere, we have to push past the brain’s negativity bias – our tendency to overemphasise negative experiences, according to psychology – so we can literally take a broom to ‘social sadness’ when it arises.

The more aware we are of how social triggers govern our feelings, the better equipped we are to manage and minimise them. “I’m feeling like this because that image makes it look like they’re living a better life than me. But it’s only an image, just chill.”

At the same time, we can replace those feelings with positive interactions with people who share the same values as us. We can be active, not passive, participants of communities. The good kind of busy.

So, when we wake up in the morning and turn on our phones to check our socials, let’s ask ourselves:

‘Do I feel like I’m part of a community when I walk in?’

‘Can I be my real self here?’

‘How can I make others feel seen?’

If our digital selves are making us feel lonely, then we need to review what we’re putting in that room and how we’re venturing outside of it.

We need to feel open enough to talk about what’s making us feel lonely and how we can take action on it – with friends, with family, with workmates, with random connections we make.

And most importantly, with ourselves.

Can you relate? Are there other things we can do to feel less lonely in the age of social media? Let us know below.

Feature image: Getty.

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