Much has been written about how people are lonelier than ever before. An emerging reliance on social media has made us simultaneously more connected and more disconnected. We may be in touch with many more people than ever before and may have hundreds or even thousands of “friends,” but far fewer with whom we share a deep, meaningful, reliable, and durable emotional connection. Social psychologist Sherry Turkle writes that we are “alone, together” and that not only are we paying a price for this in terms of our intimate relationships, but this frenetic tethering also compromises our capacity to cultivate solitude and the joy and creativity it can bring us.
As a college professor for 21 years, I have observed that students coming of age amid this recent crisis of connection appear to have even more difficulty when they first set foot on campus. We know that students are coming to campus more anxious, depressed, and stressed out than ever before.
Sleeping with their phones, pulling their phones out when they don’t want to appear alone, texting peers and romantic interests because it’s “easier,” and their increasing discomfort and anxiety with face to face conversations all reveal this loneliness. Most of my students have not learned the important difference between loneliness and solitude; as a result, too many are perfecting loneliness and not sharpening the tools to appreciate solitude.
Nationwide, parents are understandably concerned about sons and daughters who complain to them about feeling lonely. What can students and parents do?
1. Recognize that these thoughts are very typical and very normal. First, it’s important to remember that for most students, freshman year is hard—OK, many aspects of it just suck. I routinely meet with students who talk about wanting to transfer, assuming that this will cure their loneliness. It is often good practice for students to try to "be here now," to quote Buddhist monk Ram Dass, and to think through how to sit with, and be in closer touch with, difficult feelings.
2. It can take a while for a new place to feel like home. It often takes at least a year or two.
3. Keep your door open when you are in your room so people can stop in, say hi, and hang out. If you’re busy studying, you can invite someone in to study with you or suggest meeting up for dinner later on.
4. Spend as little time in your room as possible (other than to sleep). The more you are in the common areas around campus and outside, the more you will connect with others and with people who have similar values and interests.
5. Attend evening and weekend events that the school sponsors, such as lecture series, dance performances, musicals, interdisciplinary events sponsored by multiple departments, excursions, volunteering, movie nights, etc. Better yet, make it a goal to try to attend events once a month that you would not normally go to; this is the time to try things out and experiment. Take advantage of the reason why you’re in college, and avoid going home on weekends.
6. Look into the array of extracurricular activities, including Greek life, intramural sports, etc., that might be meaningful and rewarding.
7. Consider any opportunities to assume leadership roles in clubs and activities to experience a sense of real contribution. You have the chance to shape your campus!
8. Consider seeking help at the counseling center.
9. Seek out other resources on campus that are there to support your intellectual and emotional well-being in addition to counseling—for example, tutors at the academic success center, writing center, etc. For students who are queer and questioning, many campuses have LGBTQ support services and LGBTQ centers. For students who identify as African-American, Latina/Latino, Asian, etc., many campuses have student centers with cultural specificity that can serve as points of connection and support. Students who have suffered trauma from sexual assault may benefit from campuses with victim/survivor support services.
10. Seek out mentors; these can be professors who seem interesting, coaches who seem challenging and supportive, etc. An implicit and explicit mission of the college experience is to assist and support students as they individuate from their families of origin. Students generally do better in school both academically and socially, and experience greater success when they graduate and launch into the world, when they have identified and nurtured relationships with faculty and staff who become mentors to them. These are connections that have the potential to lead to job opportunities and other sources of enrichment.
11. Students are well served when they find study buddies and study groups. In addition to helping cultivate academic success, these peers can become good friends.
12. As students juggle all that is required of them, they benefit from cultivating habits of good self-care, including getting adequate rest, maintaining a healthy diet, getting vigorous exercise, and taking part in stress-reducing activities like mindful meditation and yoga. Deep reflection assists in any decision-making process and helps with cultivating stillness, self-reliance, presence, and peace of mind, which all enhance the joys of solitude.
13. Find your passion; follow your bliss. All of us enjoy where we are much more when we have a sense of purpose, shape, and meaning in our days. Have you truly given the school—and yourself—a fair chance and explored new things? Consider finding hiking trails, parks, and other green spaces, the beach if there is one, an art museum, or seek out local concerts and performances, or even a day trip that can give you a better sense of the area you will start to call home.
14. Commit to turning off your phone at least an hour every day. The immediate gratification you get from a cell phone distorts your ability to find important answers from within. Experience the world outside your phone.