Preventing Loneliness: Considerations for College-Bound Graduating Seniors
By Kurt J. Daigle | March 2022
New research suggests that loneliness has the same physical health consequences as smoking cigarettes. The number of Americans reporting feeling loneliness on a daily basis has significantly increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with young adults making up the largest percentage of this increase. A recent survey from the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that 61 percent of young adults (ages 18-25) reported miserable degrees of loneliness. But why?
When I was a school counseling graduate student, I had the amazing opportunity to teach a new course called Defining Happiness; an introduction to the study of happiness and positive psychology. There is something quite ironic and surreal about teaching a happiness course during a global crisis. For our class, our conversations often revolved around barriers to happiness, happiness in dark places and the culture of happiness in a virtual world. At the end of the semester, having both read the research and listened to the experiences of college students, I walked away learning the following about happiness:
Our happiness is more within our control than it is left to chance.
Positive relationships, community and a sense of belonging strongly correlate with individual happiness.
Each Friday, our students would come to class excited to engage, converse and simply be in each other’s company. For the first time, I witnessed students who would voluntarily choose to stay after class to continue conversations. I watched students turn off their phones and stow them away for the entirety of a class period. I observed students who made an intentional effort to get to know their classmates.
This class taught me something important: Loneliness is not simply about the proximity to others, but rather our quality of connection to those around us.
Understandably, students feel great stress and anxiety surrounding their transition to college. In my work supporting students through this process, I’ve observed that the top concern of new college freshmen was rarely the rigor of classes or the job placement rate after graduation, but was more often regarding adaptation and adjustment to college life, and the people who play roles in this transition. What if my roommate and I do not get along? How will I keep in touch with my friends from home? How often will I see my parents? Will I make new friends in college?
This is because social connection and relationships motivate us. They provide a structured system of support that enables us to meet goals, seek counsel and feel as if we are holistically respected.
We see a strong parallel between positive relationships and academic success. As an undergraduate, I served as a mentor for students on academic probation. I quickly learned that students were often on academic probation not because there was a question of their intelligence, but often because they lacked effective skills for learning, a structured support system and (perhaps most important) a sense of belonging or community on their college campus.
With this context in mind, consider the following advice for students:
Put down the phone.
To quote one of my mentors from college: There is risk-taking in friend-making. If your college experience is anything like mine, when you arrive for your first class the room will most likely be silent – with students entranced in their phones. Making new connections in college will require us to be vulnerable and break the occasional norm. Take our happiness class, for example. Once students turned off their phones and were present in the space, opportunities to find new connections were far more frequent and genuine.
Swim in ponds, not lakes.
It is important to find smaller communities within a larger university system. These communities are sometimes bound by proximity (i.e., those in your dorm) or by common interest (i.e., athletics, volunteering or clubs). Finding a smaller pond to swim in makes a larger university feel smaller and less overwhelming.
Find a mentor.
Some of the most academically successful students are those who feel mentored, either by a peer, faculty or staff member. This is someone who is available to answer questions, address concerns and be a cheerleader when things are difficult. Mentors take away the “island phenomenon” of students who feel lost, or stranded without an oar, struggling to deduce the hidden pedagogy of a university system.
Simply put, kindness, community and belonging appear to be some of the strongest predictors for retention and academic success. I challenge you to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. When you sit down next to someone in a lecture hall, introduce yourself. Leave the door to your dorm room propped open. And when you see someone eating alone in the dining hall, ask if you could join.
To quote one of my former students, “I came for the cause, but I stayed because of the people.”
Contact Kurt J. Daigle, school counselor at Farmington High School, at firstname.lastname@example.org.