Life Skills for Meaningful Relationships: Understanding Loneliness and How to Address It

I really wanted to use the title of the hit song by the long deceased King of Rock and Roll, Elvis himself, but, I also wanted to respect copyrights. Somewhere, someone just heard, “Thank you, thank you very much,” in their head. And I now have his desperately sad song playing like an ear worm that just keeps burrowing deeper … 

Take a look at reddit, specifically the subreddit r/college, and you’ll see a variety of topics of interest to the students who post there. No surprise, themes like COVID, financial hardship, job search, exam stress and other predictable topics dominate the forum. However, what may be surprising to learn is that there are many posts – which get quickly upvoted – regarding the loneliness that students feel. And those posts were wildly popular BEFORE the pandemic took hold.

The Rise of Technology and Loneliness Follow the Same Curve

What does this tell us? I’m unable to find a definitive research study on this, but, my bet is that there is a strong correlation between the increase in loneliness on college campuses and the widespread adoption of earbuds. Here’s a stunning admission by one student regarding her eerily “deafening” experience on campus when her earbuds broke. She was stunned that 40,000 students milling about a campus wouldn’t make a sound at all. 

I’d like someone to do a comprehensive analysis to test if the rise of Apple Airpod sales – with 60 million units sold in 2019 alone – follows the same rising growth curve of loneliness experienced by college students. My bet is that the growth curves are the same. Researchers have found a correlation between the level and loneliness and the amount of time spent on social media, so I don’t think that my bet is foolishly made.

In January 2020, CIGNA published its annual report on loneliness. They found that 3 out of 5 Americans were lonely – and that was before the pandemic started. Compared to just two years earlier, 13% more people were admitting to feeling alone. Their findings can best be summed up with the following statement, “more and more people [are] reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.” 

Resilience, Adaptability, and Other Soft Skills are Critical

Okay, so that survey references the general American population, and while those numbers are alarming, our students feel differently, right? Insert large whooshing sound where the air is being sucked out of the atmosphere. Sadly, 73% of those surveyed aged 18-22 reported feeling lonely. That’s a staggering statistic! 

So how do students make friends in a virtual world, particularly the introverted amongst us? They have to make the first move. And, for some, the amount of inertia required to overcome to do that will always exceed the likelihood of executing the move. Soft skills become especially important here. Getting coaching on resilience and adaptability may offer some students a lifeline so that they can achieve “healthy vulnerability.” 

Sharing how you feel – without oversharing on Day 1 – is the first step that can help students explore the interest of other students in developing a friendship. If your effort to share something even as innocuous as “I never know when to speak up in a zoom class,” is shot down or ignored, move on. The student you pitched didn’t take the bait and they’re unlikely to be interested in developing a friendship. Don’t despair! Someone else will be.

It Starts with You

It all starts with increasing your own self-awareness. Put away your phone; hide it in a drawer for a few moments. And yes, put your earbuds in the drawer, too. Sit down, in complete quiet, and really think about how you’re feeling. Put it into words. How would you express the sensations that you’re experiencing at that very moment, alone with your thoughts in the stillness of the moment? Did it make you uncomfortable? Next, transport yourself to a situation, like walking on campus or selecting your food items in the cafeteria line. How does that make you feel? Be honest!

Peel the onion back, one layer at a time. Get in touch with your feelings. Once you do, you’ll be in a better position to share your feelings with others and, with the practice of your communication skills and intentional thought, get a sense of how much is too much to share. Another critical soft skill here worthy of coaching is reading body language. How did the other person respond when you shared something that fit within the realm of exposing your vulnerability in a healthy, not-too-much kind of way? Take note, and learn. 

Can Technology Help Undo the Loneliness Caused by Technology?

We’re not quite there yet but there are indications that loneliness is a key aspect of mental health and that greater attention and investment is needed in this area. For example, Vivek Murthey has been focused on combatting loneliness since he left his post as the 19th Surgeon General under the Obama administration. However, he’s just been asked by President-Elect Biden to steer the taskforce on COVID so it’s unclear if he’ll be in a position to continue to champion loneliness. Let’s hope that he’ll soon have the latitude and time to resume doing so.

There’s a flipside to all of this – using technology to reduce the level of loneliness spurred by our unrelenting obsession with technology. If that sounds like a conundrum, it is. Telehealth portals and doctors-on-demand platforms are designed to connect people to the resources that they need when they need them. Mental health hasn’t been as prominently positioned as publicly as it has in recent years, and COVID will only catalyze the urgency for more solutions. 

Just look at video conferencing and solutions from tech giants like zoom. Connecting isn’t just for business meetings. A cautionary tale: if you’re going to zoom with friends, limit participation to four of you otherwise the gallery view gets too small to derive any meaningful visual connection! The explosion of Facebook Portal, Facetime, Messenger Video Chat, Skype and many other solutions too numerous to list underscores how we need human connection – even if it’s through a screen. It’s not as ideal as face-to-face, but it does afford us with a form of human contact that enables us to read body language, to feel and to connect. 

The holidays are the worst time of the year for those who are lonely. This year will likely prove to be more challenging than any in recent memory. People have lost loved ones, live in fear of COVID, in lockdown, unable to travel, separated from others and unable to do any activities outside our homes. With vulnerability expected to hit an all-time high, here’s a few things to do:

– do something that makes you happy, makes YOU feel good, and boosts your self-esteem and productivity

– transform the holiday into a YOU day

– tune out social media and idealized holiday movies or situations which overly glamorize the day

– realize that you’re not the only one feeling this way

–  appreciate that you are likely better off than so many others

– spread some cheer by giving what you can to others

– send a text, make a call, do a Facetime surprise video drop-in to someone that you haven’t spoken to in a while – make the first move and reach out!

 IF YOU NEED HELP 24/7 please call the national hotline 1-800-662-4357 

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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