#Wellbeing: understanding loneliness
As social beings we have the need to form close and meaningful connections with others. Loneliness is an unpleasant feeling which is associated with absence of connection and intimacy. It can cause feelings of emptiness and isolation.
Loneliness might have evolved from our evolutionary past, because we need other people for our survival. It differs from person to person, as everyone needs different amounts of social contact. Being lonely is not the same as being alone. Some people enjoy spending time alone without feeling lonely. However, others might still be surrounded by other people (family, friends, partner) and still feel lonely. For example, a university student may feel lonely regardless of being surrounded by flatmates.
Moving to a new location, such as university, might trigger feelings of loneliness for some people. This can be because this is the first time most students have lived away from home. It might be challenging to make new friends, there is a big change in the lifestyle, students might miss their family and their friends from home and there might be high expectations of university life.
The effects of chronic loneliness on our health
Everyone experiences short-term feelings of loneliness at some point in their lives, but when the feelings of loneliness are long-term this leads to chronic loneliness, which can affect all areas of our lives. Feeling lonely for a brief period of time can actually be good as it encourages us to meet new people and be social. However, chronic loneliness is a whole different story as it is associated with a variety of health problems.
Research has shown that it increases the risk of a lot of chronic illnesses (such as heart disease and cancer) and increases the odds of premature death as much as obesity and heavy smoking do (about 30%). It also increases the risk of mental health problems, such as anxiety, stress and depression and affects negatively our immune system. If you are experiencing chronic loneliness, consider using the university services (such as well-being drop-ins or counselling support) or talk to a therapist, who can help you understand your feelings and make changes.
You can measure loneliness with the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which you can find online.
How to overcome loneliness
Focus on the quality rather than the quantity of your friendships. Invest in friends that inspire you, help you grow and make your feel good. Surround yourself with positive people that respect you. Also, make sure you are a good friend and strengthen your friendships by being there for your friend, being a good listener and accepting them for who they are.
Two of the most common places to meet new people are your lectures and your accommodation (if you live with other people). Start a conversation with a flatmate or a course mate when you find the opportunity. You already have something in common (same accommodation or same course) so you can start from there. You could also join Residence Life events, which will enable you to meet new people.
Join a sports club or a society. It will give you the opportunity to meet new people that share similar interests with you and exercise, which is great for your health. Volunteering is also a great way to meet new people. If you enjoy learning a new language, you can take a language class (Languages for All) and meet new people in your class. You could also take up a part-time job, which besides earning money, can be a good chance to meet new people, by chatting with customers and spending time with your colleagues.
Keep in contact with your family and your friends from home. Make use of social media to stay in touch with them.
Go for a walk outside to get some fresh air and exercise (you can even run into an acquaintance). Talk to strangers when you have the opportunity (e.g. the cashier, the shop owner etc.)
It is important to learn to enjoy our own company and be comfortable with ourselves. It is not wise to form a friendship or get into a relationship based only on fear of being alone. Think of an activity that you really enjoy doing by yourself. You could read a nice book, watch your favourite series, paint, exercise, try a new recipe, take photos, listen to music, meditate, learn a new language, dance and play an online game amongst other things.
If you would like to meet new people and need some help improving your social skills, here are some books to consider:
How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie)
The Charisma Myth (Olivia Fox Cabane)
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