If you look at my social media pages, they are filled with happy snaps of travels and adventures that are all part of living an expat life. What it won’t show you are those quiet moments, when the cameras aren’t out, and no one is around to watch.
We don’t purposely fill our feeds with happiness to make others envious, nor do I think we exclude the sorrows on purpose either. I certainly don’t feel like grabbing my camera when I’m in my pjs on the sofa watching a sad movie on Netflix with a bottle of wine on a Friday night.
The reality is that living as an expat abroad, especially if you don’t live in a share home, can be very isolating and lonely. Even though I’ve joined apps like MeetUp and have started to gather a circle of acquaintances and friends, these aren’t the solid, tested friendships of years worth of shared trials and celebrations.
It takes time to form bonds and connections with others. In Perth, a quick text to a friend and I’d have someone to hang out with on any night of the week, no matter what was happening – whether there was something to celebrate, or whether I wanted a chance to rant and rave.
Six months is a long time in kid years, but as an adult when you only really get to catch up infrequently here and there, it takes longer to form those ‘BFF’ bonds that I see kids so naturally and easily form with others, and in fact the bonds that I formed as an expat kid myself.
Loneliness is a common issue faced by most expats, but more than that it is becoming a pandemic issue according to studies from National Science Foundation which sites loneliness as the next big public health issue. 86% of millennials reported that they are feeling lonely and depressed in a 2011 study. Earlier this year it was announced that as many as one in eight adults in the UK do not have a close friend or confidant and that one in five adults felt lonely all the time.
So why, in a world that seems to be more and more connected with the internet and technology, are we feeling more isolated and alone? Science tells us that humans are naturally social creatures and we need connection for our mental health and wellbeing; Johann Hari does a fascinating TED talk on the links between lack of connection and addiction. So when we have technology to keep us connected, why is it that we are feeling more and more isolated?
One answer is that the social media connections that we have are not always connections based in the real world. Whilst your friend-circle online might say a thousand, you don’t actually know or have much in common with all those people.
When you move to a new city or country, and you’re left with a blank slate where you need to make new friends, it can be hard to always find people with common interests or beliefs. Despite the similarities in cultures between the Aussies and the Scots, there are cultural differences, and no matter how many different ‘interest’ groups you join on pages like MeetUp and others, making those connections deepen and last can be hard work.
And it doesn’t always pay off. Adults who are already established with a friendship circle aren’t always interested in bringing new people into the group or putting effort into a new friendship or relationship.
Worse is when new friendships or acquaintances begin to break down because of a lack of shared interested and beliefs, but we hold onto them because we feel too worried about being alone to end them.
The key issue that perpetuates loneliness is technology has made us lazy and changed the social norms a little. Not so long ago it would have been natural to turn around to someone in line and start chatting, or to strike up conversations with the person next to you in your yoga class. Today, most millennials think that’s creepy. Even travelling with friends, I noticed how most of them couldn’t even stand in line without taking out their phones.
If our noses are constantly pointed downwards towards what’s going on in virtual reality, how are we supposed to make true and lasting connections in this real reality? With 7,000,000 people in the UK feeling isolated and depressed, I wonder, if we just look up and around a little more would we see the same loneliness reflected back at us from the woman sitting next to us on the bus, or the cute guy in the coffee line?