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Loneliness, and why we need to practise talking about difficult things

Becca Funnell considers loneliness at university, and why talking about it matters.

Loneliness is not the absence of social interaction – it’s the absence of satisfying social interaction, a mismatch between what you need and what you experience. Given many of us arrive at uni with very high social expectations of constant live-while-we’re-young partying, forming life-long friendships and exciting romances, it’s no surprise that the reality of adjusting to life in a new place with new people can be disappointing. 

But loneliness is not an inherently bad thing. A kinder way to think about it is as a natural signal from your brain telling you to be with people! Just like when you are hungry you know to grab a snack. Perhaps the most important difference between signals to other needs and loneliness is that the latter is not talked about so casually. I think we’d all benefit from changing that.

A 2021 ONS survey found that more than one in four university students of an >2,700 person sample, said they have felt lonely often or always. If I had been asked in my first year, I would’ve been the 1 in 4. It’s not that my college wasn’t full of welcoming people (huge shout out to Wadham!), or that I was spending an unusual amount of time alone – I got my boogie on 1/2 times a week and played netball (often hungover). Nevertheless, I was lonely often; I felt small and I missed home. 

Dr Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford has found that humans consistently need three types of friendship: 

  1. close friends, who you’d go to with an urgent problem 
  2. casual friends, who offer shared support, and you might chat to in the lunch queue 
  3. and thirdly, communities of people: those who study your subject, are in a club with you, or are at your college

When one of these layers (of what I like to think of as a wonderful social tiramisu) is missing, then we can end up feeling three types of loneliness: intimate, relational, and collective, respectively. 

Leaving home for uni is tantamount to mastering the recipe for this lovely tiramisu, enjoying it just the way it is, and then suddenly having it taken away, mid-scoop. Reconstructing the pudding can be dauting and confusing. 

Let’s take a trip to the loneliest and most dramatic moment of my first year. It was a cold winter’s night and I had stolen myself away to the chapel to cry in private on the phone to my mum. Fast forward 1 ½ years and I’m back at the same chapel showing a group of summer school students around enthusiastically. I’ve been laughing uncontrollably and playing games like ‘duck duck goose’ all week, beaming with pride and love for my college as I chat to the kids about college life.

How did that happen? Well, a large part of it came from constructing an incredibly gorgeous social tiramisu over those 1 ½ years. 

Things started to change at the end of Hilary last year: lockdown started and we faced a challenging term at home. We all had to learn to enjoy our own solitude, and for a while I was rubbish at it! I filled my time with study and other ‘productive’ activities to distract myself from feeling lonely, but completely burnt myself out. After admitting that it wasn’t working, I started spending time doing things I really enjoy: scrapbooking, going on walks and listening to podcasts. Spending this time alone with my thoughts allowed me to understand myself better; I started to enjoy the solitude. 

Building strong relationships with ourselves is crucial to allow us to be alone and not feel lonely. After building this connection, I felt more prepared to re-enter the social world at uni once I was back. What also made a huge difference were the few close friendships I’d made over the summer, and the knowledge that they’d be with me at college when we returned.

I find that my close friendships give me this rocket fuel for social interaction, and the more people I talk to openly and earnestly, the more I want to keep on talking to new people. This is not an experience unique to me; when we experience satisfying social interaction, we are more likely to interact with others openly, and they in turn are more likely to react to their social situations more positively. It’s a wonderful positive feedback effect that increases our collective capacity for connection, and it highlights the value of being kind to those around you. It also underlines how important that first layer of the social tiramisu is – making the effort to create close friendships will help you navigate the rest of the social world at uni. 

At this point in my journey towards creating my delicious social dessert (haha), I had the energy to get involved in various clubs and participate more fully in college life – the building of that third layer started to get in action! The things I stuck with became a huge part of my university life and made me feel like I belonged. 

Throughout this journey from loneliness to loving my university life, I have noticed several things which make me optimistic. First, small gestures make a big difference. Reaching out to others can make them feel seen and open the doors to friendship, be it casual, close or a friendship that becomes more than a friendship. 

Secondly, the more openly I talk about my experiences of loneliness, the more I realise my experiences aren’t uncommon. Feeling lonely is not something to be ashamed of, or something that you only feel when you are in crisis; it is a part of our daily lives, and we need to learn how to recognise it in ourselves and do something about it when it comes. Let’s start talking about loneliness like it’s the mundane human experience that it is, rather than one of the bad words your parents told you never to say. 

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