This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
Deep down, we all know other people's lives aren't as fabulous as they may appear to be on social media. Still, it can be hard to remember this when we're flicking through Instagram Stories, watching people have fun, and subsequently feeling lonely and isolated.
In cities especially – where the majority of us live today – feelings of loneliness can be compounded by the fact we're surrounded by millions of people who all seem to be having a great time with each other, while we're at home alone, binge-watching Netflix until it asks us if we're still there.
Research has shown that loneliness is an important mental health issue and a potentially bigger public health risk than smoking and obesity. The UK government recently appointed a minister for loneliness to help fix a problem that affects around 9 million British people, young and old. Breaking out of a cycle of loneliness can be hard, because the fewer people you speak to, the sooner you'll feel like you're the only person in the world dealing with it – which is why many campaign groups are pushing for a more open, society-wide discussion about the issue.
VICE Netherlands spoke to five international students who moved away from their friends and family to Amsterdam, to start what they hoped would be a thrilling new chapter of their lives. Instead, they found that making new connections in a strange city is a lot harder than they'd anticipated, and that their loneliness affects every aspect of their lives.
Nguyen, 24, from Vietnam, Studies Language Technology
"Maybe it's because I watched too many American movies when I was younger, but I had such high expectations of what university life was going to be like. But the reality just isn't as exciting as I had hoped. I spend all my time working and don't have many friends. When I’m not studying, I watch cartoons – a habit I picked up since moving here, because I spend so much time alone. I even spent my birthday just sat inside, watching cartoons all day.
"My first month in Amsterdam wasn't that bad. I kept busy, and everything was new and exciting. But things soon changed for the worse. I failed a lot of my initial exams because I wasn't used to the system here. On top of all this, I was trying to build a new life in a new city, without anyone to confide in when I was feeling stressed and lonely. It really was the worst time of my life. There were evenings in those first few months when I would lock myself in my room and just cry and think to myself, 'If I died here, nobody would know.' That's pretty fucked up.
"I think what makes me feel especially lonely in Amsterdam is that I’m constantly surrounded by other people having fun in this huge, vibrant city. And when I hear people talking about all the parties they’re going to, I’m left wondering why my life here isn't as exciting."
Irina, 23, from Russia, Studies European History
"I moved to Amsterdam to be with my boyfriend, even though I didn’t really know anyone else or have a job lined up. For the first few months, my boyfriend went to work while I just stayed at home doing nothing. I didn’t really try to reach out to new people because I was worried my English wasn't good enough and I'd end up embarrassing myself if I tried.
"I soon started to feel completely lost. I tried finding things to occupy myself with, like babysitting for a Russian family, which was a complete nightmare – the kid was uncontrollable. I knew I needed to find some proper personal connections of my own, so I applied to university and got accepted. But even after starting uni, I was reluctant to talk to people and didn’t make many friends, which only got worse when my boyfriend broke up with me. I was left here completely alone. He moved out, and after that, for a few months, I was just devastated. I could barely eat or leave my apartment. I ended up losing weight. It was a very scary time for me.
"In this city, most people just do their own thing. If you don’t have any specific interests that fit into a particular scene, you end up on your own. And it’s obviously a lot easier to make friends if you speak Dutch, which I don’t.
"I think it’s important to talk about it openly, because there are lots of lonely people in cities who think they're the only ones, but they're not at all. In that sense, they’re not alone in being alone. Maybe it can motivate them to change something in their lives."
Mario*, 27, from Italy, Works for an Architecture Company
"All my friends in Italy are jealous of my new life in Amsterdam. They assume everything must be great because I have a good job, my English is improving and I live in a great city. It sounds amazing from the outside, but it's not really true for me.
"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. When I do venture outside, it’s almost always just for the sake of it – I go to a bar or grab a quick coffee, then I go home and feel alone again. It’s the same every weekend.
"Humans are social animals, we need other people to survive. I’m like that animal – I can’t remember the name, but it looks like a sheep – that can die from loneliness. I know I won't literally die of loneliness, but life doesn't have much meaning when you’re lonely."
Maria*, 31, from India, Works as a Lecturer
"This isn’t my first time living abroad – I studied in Leicester for six years. But here, it’s like being thrown into a completely different world. I didn't know anyone before I came here, and I didn’t know much about Dutch culture. I found meeting people easier when I was a student in England and we had all the time in the world to just hang around and make new friends. It’s different in Amsterdam, because all of my colleagues have families.
"Most days, I just want to be at work, because then I get to actually speak to people. I couldn’t wait for the Christmas holidays to end; I didn’t know what to do, where to go or who to hang with. I was just locked up in my flat. My flatmate went home to Spain, so it was just me.
"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."
Ioana, 20, from Romania, Fashion Intern
"I started feeling lonely almost as soon as I arrived in Amsterdam to work as an intern for a fashion company. When you find yourself in a big new city with no friends, it can be really difficult. It's nice talking to my friends on Skype, but then the call ends and they go back to their busy lives, while I'm stuck in this sad cycle.
"Every weekday is the same: I work from 9 to 5, then head home to watch TV. I might go grocery shopping at some point, but without friends there aren't really any other options for me. Being stuck in this routine makes me feel really anxious and powerless. It’s a vicious cycle – I feel weak because I don’t do anything, and because I don’t do anything, I feel weak. Also, my friends are far away and have their own stuff to do, so they don’t really know that I’m so alone in this city.
"I actually feel loneliest when I'm commuting, on the Metro. I just stare at people with families and friends, and wish that I, like them, had something to do and people to do it with. Their happiness and general well-being triggers my loneliness."
*Names have been changed to protect identities.