“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,”
poet John Donne in the 17th Century.
Loneliness is a feeling few feel comfortable to admitting. It is generally associated with the elderly population, but recent studies suggest that loneliness among youth is higher than ever before. The term “generation lonely“is catching on quite quickly.
The first nationally representative data on the number of confidants we have has been studied through the General Social Survey in the USA. Their question was “over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?”. In 1985 most people said they had three close friends. The same survey was replicated again in 2004, when the most common number of friends was zero. In 2004 only 37% listed three or more friends, whereas 25% indicated zero confidants. Back in 1985, 59% had three or more friends while 10% had zero confidants. Our network size decreased by almost a third.
Yet, one of the first associations for college life is a full social life. It is considered as the time to make new friends, experience romantic relationships, and go to different gatherings and your first big parties. However, despite being surrounded by so many people all the time, you can still feel lonely in a crowd. It is a common feeling, especially for students during their freshman year.
Different people will feel lonely for different reasons and to varying degrees. We were built for companionship and while a certain amount of loneliness is normal, when it becomes consistent and predominant it can lead to problems with anxiety, social phobia, lowered self-esteem and depression. Simply put, we need friends to keep us healthy.
Some of the most common reasons for experiencing loneliness include:
- Being separated from friends, family and partners
- Experiencing loss of a close relationship (i.e. death, breakup, relocation or conflict)
- Lacking a close partner, friend or confidant
- Long-term history of few friends or weak social support
- Feelings of social anxiety or difficulty conversing with people
Loneliness can make you feel:
- Socially inadequate
- Sad, unwanted, unloved
- Self-conscious, convinced there might be something wrong with you
- Angry and critical with self and others
It must be noted that how you make sense of your loneliness can affect the way you cope with it. Our emotions can overwhelm us and distort our thinking. Often, the lonely think that they are the only ones to experience loneliness, but that is not true.
Another notable social network study, done by Dutch sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst in 2009, surveyed over a thousand people aged between 18 and 65. One of his conclusions is that on average, we lose half of our close network members every seven years. Can you even imagine your current “most dialed” contacts not being in your life in less than a decade?
What can you do about it?
You are not alone. The first thing to keep in mind is that you are certainly not the only one feeling lonely. It is not a defect and it is something that you can try to change. There is a biological need within all of us to feel a sense of connection with others, and when this need is not met loneliness becomes an indicator that something isn’t right. Many college students are likely to feel lonely in the beginning because most of them move away from home and leave their comfort zones.
Change up your routine. This can include small changes such as sitting in a different place in class, eating lunch somewhere new, or studying in the library instead of alone in your room (for this reason some students stay and do assignments on campus). Perhaps try arriving to class earlier and take that time to chitchat with others, offer a ride to another student (or kindly ask for one if you yourself need one), or in those longer breaks invite your classmate for a coffee to pass the time.
Get involved. If your current extracurricular activities bore you (or you have none) try engaging in something new. Chose activities that you could genuinely enjoy and where you could connect with other like-minded individuals. Whether it is an interest group, sports or volunteering, your chances of meeting someone interesting can increase just by giving it a try. At times even just hanging around campus can be enough to beat that feeling of loneliness.
Another approach includes using apps for meeting new people. MeetUp is one of the more popular free apps, advertising events that happen all over the world. The idea behind the Meet-ups is that you find and create communities based around shared interests and activities. If you decide to cancel last minute, don’t worry, there’s always another meetup, and no one should get upset.
Be friendly. Being approachable is a social skill that makes quite the difference. Try using friendly body language, smiling more, making eye contact, and put down all distractions (i.e. your phone). Above all, being friendly also means taking interest in others. When you encourage people to talk try to spend more time listening than talking. Asking questions and listening sends the message that you are interested in knowing this person. Also, try introducing yourself every time you sit down next to someone you don’t know.
Know your style. Some people are more relaxed interacting with a group of friends, while others prefer “one-to-one” friendships. Consider your own preferences but keep in mind it is hard to find that one friend for everything. Some friends could be the buddies you just do sports with, whereas others could be the friends you only go to the movies with. Another approach is to live with a roommate, however you must carefully consider all the advantages and disadvantages before making such a decision.
Have patience. Don’t expect to always be entertained or that all friendships are completely reciprocal. With some people you can connect right away, but it generally takes time when you first meet someone for that initial awkwardness to pass. Some studies suggest it takes six to eight meaningful encounters before we consider someone a friend, while it may take a year or two to become best friends and confide in one another. This does not mean you are not compatible, it just takes time for a close friendship to develop.
Make the time. The most common friendship fights are about time commitments and consistency. By spending time with someone you show them that you value them. Especially if you have an interest in making new friends, try to say yes to most of their invites or be the one to initiate plans.
If you are still struggling try talking to your tutors or consider reaching out to student counseling services. Sometimes we need to learn to develop better coping skills, communication techniques, understand why we fear rejection and promote more relaxed ways of interacting.
Keep going until you find people.