College can be a socially vibrant and exciting time for young adults — there’s a seemingly endless amount of opportunity to connect with new people, whether that be in class, around campus, on dorm floors, at a party, etc. However, college can also be lonely at times too; it may not seem like it because stigma prevents people from talking about feelings such as loneliness. People are much more likely to keep it to themselves until such feelings pass. Furthermore, on social media people usually post versions of themselves having fun in large groups which can make it easy to feel like you’re left out or missing something. The truth is, loneliness is an experience we all have — thankfully it is typically short lived among people.
What is Loneliness?
Defining loneliness is tricky; scientists have not reached a consensus on an exact definition because the experience of loneliness overlaps with so many other experiences. For example, in one study asking people to describe what their loneliness felt like, people commonly used the following words: emptiness, disconnection, loss, longing, grief, abandonment, existential, isolation, helplessness, pain, depression-like, and rejection. While science does not have full agreement on an exact definition, it does have various models/frameworks of loneliness, with the cognitive model being the most backed by research. The cognitive model understands loneliness as distress a person experiences when they perceive a discrepancy between how much social contact they are actually getting and how much social contact they are wanting to get. The model also describes three types of loneliness one can feel.
Intimate loneliness refers to feeling like there is an absence of significant others (a spouse or relationship partner, best friends, or other close connections). These are relationships where you have the greatest amount of intimacy and connection.
Relational loneliness refers to experiencing an absence of a social circle in your life. These may be more distant friends, family you draw support from, and other people you socialize with regularly.
The last type is collective loneliness — feeling lonely along the lines of your broader social identity such as disconnection from your college community, racial/cultural identity, team or group you’re in, etc.
Across the literature, risk factors for increased loneliness include age, gender, widowhood, partner loss, living alone, loss of close friends, and economic challenges. Notably, however relative to all other risk factors, the most significant predictor of loneliness is age. Age has been shown to account for 88% of the variance accounting for loneliness, with early adulthood years being a group most at risk..
For some college students, this may be the furthest or longest time away from family, friends, and home they’ve ever been. For others, it might be hard making new friends or finding a well-suited social circle. Other transitions around this age period include greater independence and responsibility, increased exploration of personal/social identity, and working to clarify life goals and purpose.
Young adults who are ethnic and racial minorities may be at a particularly higher risk of loneliness as well. This could be because they are exploring their sense of belonging across the additional dimension of culture. Thus, if you’re not a part of dominant culture, come from an immigrant background, etc., you may be at a greater risk of feeling lonely.
What are Some Ways to Reduce Loneliness?
Recent research has found having high quality relationships are much more important than having a high quantity of relationships. So if you are lonely, focus on the goal of meeting one or two friends. You could start with identifying people who you already have some contact with, perhaps in a class or someone you know through a hobby. If you need more opportunities to get those initial connections, there are also lots of options on or off campus. For example, you could volunteer within the local Evanston community, join a school organization, or join a local Facebook group around an activity you like.
One thing to keep in mind is that high-quality relationships take time to develop. Science supports that spending time together can help progress the relationship toward becoming more fulfilling but those first several encounters might feel awkward or hard. The key is to stick with it and give the relationship a chance to flourish. It may or may not amount to what you were looking for, but if you quit too soon you’ll certainly never know. That said, equally important to consider is if the relationships you are starting to develop feel safe and healthy. Sometimes the desire to alleviate loneliness and feel connected becomes so strong it can lead us to dismiss or minimize boundary crossings, inappropriate behaviors, or other violations to the self. In such circumstances, it would not be helpful to continue to stick with the relationship as these are signs it is unlikely to lead to the meaningful connection you were looking for and may even cause you harm in the future. If you are interested in learning more about boundaries for healthy relationships, Mindful Psychology Associates’ Maren Panzirer has a blog post offering more detailed information (see “Boundaries and Healthy Relationships for College Students“).
Other research found social cognition therapy (usually CBT based within a framework of loneliness) has been effective. Therapy can be helpful in having conversations to expand how you think about yourself and your social life. This can reduce the intensity, duration, or frequency of loneliness. It can also be a good space to develop social skills or greater confidence to engage with others.
Lastly, distraction can be another way to ease loneliness. Feelings of loneliness ebb and flow and, more often than not, they are short lived. When you are feeling lonely, diverting your attention with an activity can be a helpful way to ride out the feeling until it passes. This can include doing things like going for a walk or bike ride, playing video games, reading, making art, etc.