‘Why would people hang out with me?’
When you talk to Gerine Lodder, there’s a chance she might suddenly gaze at you in all seriousness and ask: ‘Do you ever feel lonely?’ And you’ll likely be taken aback.
How often do people even ask you this? What on earth is this woman thinking? It’s not like you’re a loser or anything.
Nevertheless, forty to seventy percent of all young people occasionally feel lonely. That means there’s a good chance that the honest answer to this question is: ‘Actually, I am.’
And Lodder knows this, because the behavioural scientist has been studying loneliness for years. She doesn’t just study isolated old people, by far the most well-known group of lonely people. According to her, there is another time in people’s lives when they feel particularly lonely: when they are young.
Almost every student goes through a period when they’re lonely
In three to ten percent, the feeling plagues young people chronically. ‘In new environments, loneliness is useful, because it motivates people to make a connection’, says Lodder. ‘I think almost every student goes through a period when they’re lonely.’
No need to invest
And yet, very few people talk about the issue. Lieke, a third-year student, noticed this as well. She returned from her Erasmus semester in Spain after less than two months because she felt too isolated.
Outwardly, she looks perfectly fine. She is smiling broadly and looks well-kempt and relaxed sitting on the couch in her room. She is a typical vivacious Groningen student. Nevertheless, loneliness has marked her time at the university.
It all started during the KEI week. Lieke moved from a small village where she knew everyone to Groningen, then unknown to her. During the KEI week, she met a boy with whom she fell in love. ‘And we’ve been together ever since. On the one hand it was really nice, but it was also just easy. I didn’t need to invest in any new friendships. I figured a boyfriend was all I needed and that I’d be fine seeing my friends from back home occasionally.’
Kind of scary
For Lieke, approaching new people was kind of scary. ‘Every time I sent anyone a message, I worried I was being pushy.’ And people weren’t approaching her either, which meant the status quo was maintained. She did some committee work for her study association, but this didn’t lead to the social contacts she so craved. ‘I was having a pretty good time at university, but I did have this feeling of emptiness.’
In a final attempt to experience the full student life that everyone else apparently had, she became president of her study association. ‘I figured it would force me to make friends’, she says.
Unfortunately, this, too, failed. In addition to her board work, she also worked two jobs. Her studies and boyfriend took up the rest of her time. ‘I was rushed all the time and couldn’t do very much.’
Instead of making new friends, she was constantly travelling back and forth and slowly becoming exhausted.
She finally hit a wall in September, when she was doing a minor in Spain. She looked in the mirror and saw what the loneliness had done to her: she had gained ten kilos, her hair had become stringy, and she was tired all the time. ‘My life was just one big black hole’, she says. ‘I quit after two months in Spain and temporarily moved back in with my parents. I felt like a failure.’
There are various causes for these feelings of loneliness and the inability to do something about them, says Lodder. Such as underdeveloped social skills. But a negative environment that excludes people is another cause. And then there are people who have great social skills and no trouble being around people, yet who feel lonely anyway. They interpret their environment in a negative way, creating the feeling.
Negative state of mind
Student psychologist Eva Slot recognises the problem. ‘It’s something that often comes up during our intakes. Many students have no problem asking someone out for coffee, but there’s always this little voice in the back of their head that says “Why would people want to hang out with you? You’re no fun”. That can be a powerful negative force.’
Especially international students can have a hard time. ‘They have difficulty making a connection. Sometimes they just don’t know how. It’s especially difficult if their housing situation is bad, preventing them from making many spontaneous connections.’
When you’re not feeling well and you think about your relationship, you can suddenly name a bunch of things that are wrong
Lodder wants to know how people end up feeling lonely, and how that feeling works exactly, because so far, no one really knows. The few studies that have been done used questionnaires that were administered with long periods in between. This means their results are almost certainly tainted by the negative state of mind that comes with being lonely .
‘Think about it. When you’re not feeling well and you start thinking about your relationship, you can suddenly name a bunch of things that are wrong. Everything sucks.’
This then makes it seem as though every single interaction, for a lonely person, is a negative one. But this might not be the case at all. ‘That is why I want to take a more precise measurement: from day to day, hour to hour, or even moment to moment. What lies at the core of that feeling?’
However, she realises it will take time before she truly figures it out. ‘And I think the issue is too great for us to wait for that. So I would like to ask people to talk about loneliness and normalise doing it. It might make it easier for people to admit how they feel, and to get the help they need.’
She has started doing so herself. ‘I was preparing for my TedTalk, in which I ask people to talk about loneliness, when I realised that I myself wasn’t doing that.’ She has since changed this. Depending on the context, she will often ask people if they’re lonely, whether they need more social contacts, or if they simply feel that other people have a fuller life than they do.
‘Some conversations are great, while others are uncomfortable’, Lodder chuckles. But she also noticed that loneliness is an issue with people around her, some of whom came as a surprise to her. ‘It was an eye-opener. Only then did I realise how difficult it is to ask for help.’
A social worker she had encouraged to ask the question reported: ‘It’s easier for people to talk about sex than about loneliness.’
I really hate talking about my loneliness
Since she’s moved back to Groningen, Lieke is doing better. She wants to finish her bachelor this year so she can have a fresh start in September, when she will move to Berlin for her master. ‘In Berlin, I will try to be less of a chicken. There’s nothing wrong with talking to people or sending them the odd message. I might even join a debate group. I think it might be nice to belong to something in such a big city.’
Don’t deny it
She has an easier time talking about her loneliness than she used to. Nevertheless, it’s not something she tends to shout from the rooftops. ‘I know I shouldn’t be ashamed, but I don’t want people thinking I’m pathetic when I talk about how I used to feel, how I still feel sometimes. I’m not a loser.’
She does have a piece of advice for people having the same issue. ‘I really hate talking about my loneliness, but once you do, you’ll find that other people are going through it as well. So don’t deny it. It’s not weird. So you feel lonely sometimes. So what?’
Do you feel lonely?
Talk about it with other people. A lot of people feel lonely sometimes, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of
Don’t be afraid to message your fellow students to ask them over for dinner or a coffee date
Make time to have a social life. Keep in mind that being a student isn’t just about studying; it’s also an important time in your life socially speaking
Actively look people up. The app HeyVina (available for free in the App store or on Google Play) connects young women looking for a connection. Or join a dinner club through eetclub.nl
Visit Jimmy’s, a meeting place for young people where you can join projects or pitch your own ideas
Ask yourself how long you have been feeling lonely. Is there a logical underlying cause, maybe because you just moved or started studying? Or is the issue a more long-standing one? In that case, it might be a good idea to talk to a professional: research has shown that the most effective way of dealing with loneliness is cognitive behavioural therapy