Feeling lonely? You are not alone.
Loneliness has become an epidemic in this modern society and it has also spread throughout the campus. A survey conducted in Canada in 2016 with more than 43,000 university students found that at least two out of three felt "very lonely" in the past year, and about one out of three felt the same within the last two weeks. No comparable study has been conducted yet in Korea, but the situation does not seem any more favorable for the Korean college students.
Some describe loneliness as a state of social isolation. In this view, people who are lonely are likely to be those with only a few social contacts. However, people often experience loneliness even when they are surrounded by many so called ‘friends’. In fact, the number of friends you have is not inversely proportional to the subjective feeling of loneliness.
So, why feel lonely even when you have so much opportunity to meet new people in college life? Loneliness is a drive which is based on certain urge, like hunger. For many, the feeling of hunger is not something that is hard to bear or manage. For others, however, it’s quite distressful and even painful.
This analogy to hunger is quite useful to understand loneliness because they are both drives related to our past experiences and future expectations. We feel hungry when we are suddenly reminded of how much time as passed since the last meal. Our mind tells us that we must be hungry simply because it’s about time that we ate. As social animals, the feeling of loneliness increases with the prolonged absence of a fulfilling relationship.
Another thing about hunger is that it is further intensified by the anticipation of food. People who expect to have a delicious meal tend to feel hungrier than those expecting a plain meal. And especially for those who have to reluctantly wait for their meal because of the professor who won’t finish the lecture on time, the feeling of deprivation can become overwhelming. Likewise, most students enter college with high hopes of making new close friends. Some even fantasize about meeting someone very special. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. College offers much opportunity to meet and get to know so many interesting people. The problem however rises when students expect that making friends in college will come just as easy as did with middle and high school classmates. And without making an honest effort to approach and open themselves up to new people, lonely students often spend their time sneaking into other people’s Facebooks and SNS and envying those who seem to be living as the “insiders.” Such a comparison triggers not only a feeling of loneliness but also inadequacy which perpetuates a vicious cycle of self-isolation.
So, what’s the cure for loneliness? Interestingly, one of the most recommended actions to take by mental health professionals is to stop spending too much time on the SNS. Like sweets, looking at other people’s eventful lives may be a quick solution for forgetting our loneliness, but many of us end up binging on it and end up feeling utterly empty and discontent with our own lives. Ironically, the professionals also recommend that we should spend more time alone to focus on your own well-being. Spending time to take a better care of yourself, such as exercising or reading a good book, can help to boost your self-confidence with something interesting to talk about when meeting other people.
Another aspect to consider is to focus more on building up the relationships you already have, because they will serve as a strong footstep for establishing new friendships. For example, making new friends requires the right amount self-disclosure so they won’t feel emotionally distant or overwhelmed, and your old friends can definitely give you useful feedbacks if you only asked. In fact, one of the things you can do to feel better about yourself is to call up or message old friends just to say ‘hi’. You would be quite surprised to know how some of them are delighted to hear from you and want to catch up.
Lastly, it is important to have a positive attitude toward loneliness. Loneliness is not a disease. It’s a state that will come from time to time, just like hunger. It tells us that those around us are important to us and that we expect something more than just sharing the same space and time with them. So, follow your inner drive and reach out and say “I want to tell you about myself and get to know you”. If you want to expand your list of friends, join a club or a study group. But if that’s too difficult for you for some reason and the feeling of loneliness has become too overbearing, help is available. The CNU student counseling center is open to students with a variety of difficulties you may experience in personal relationships. You may be lonely, but you don’t have to struggle alone.
By Samuel Suk-hyun Hwang, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Psychology
|▲ Samuel Suk-hyun Hwang, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Psychology