An advisory released last month by U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy offers an overview of both the current epidemic of loneliness and the scientific consensus that feeling socially connected matters for mental and even physiological well-being. Issues around social connectedness are especially relevant for student health on college campuses, as year after year a major annual survey finds that a majority of college students experience loneliness, with transgender/gender-nonconforming students being especially impacted.
Promoting student well-being is an end in itself, especially as campuses continue to welcome a generational cohort already struggling with mental health. Yet social disconnection also has ripple effects for colleges as institutions: lonely students may be less likely to do well academically and be more likely to leave college without graduating.
As a researcher of the ways people experience meaningful everyday social connections who has spent time at multiple universities, I understand that every college is a unique social context that will need to promote social connection in its own way. Yet I believe the following six research insights should offer helpful parameters for mapping out plans to address loneliness on any campus. Each of these points should add either breadth or nuance around strategies to promote social connection.
- Encourage students to connect across various kinds of relationships. An analysis of campus loneliness interventions suggests that promoting more social interactions in students’ lives can be an effective strategy. Yet whom should students be interacting with?
Recent research shows that having a rich “social portfolio” of many different kinds of relationships—such as close friends, mentors, acquaintances and even strangers—is positively related to well-being. Our need for a social circle rich with many kinds of relationships is evident, too, in the three types of loneliness identified by researchers: We may feel we lack close emotionally intimate ties with people who know us deeply and support us emotionally, less close social ties with people whom we can rely on for casual friendly connection and practical support, or we may feel a lack of collective connection, that we don’t belong in our wider social circle.
It would be ideal for students to feel well connected in each of these categories, and so all contexts on campus, from the intimacy of a dorm room to the sports stadium full of unfamiliar faces, should be considered potential arenas for promoting positive social interactions.
- Create opportunities for many repeated interactions. Relationships take many hours of actual social interaction to develop. When a study followed college freshmen as they formed their friendships on campus, it took 40 to 60 hours of interaction to feel like someone was a causal friend and more than 200 hours of interaction to feel that they were a close friend. So, programs to promote connectedness would be wise to structure opportunities for students to have ample repeated interactions with people they meet on campus.
- Encourage a breadth of ways to connect. Moments of connection can arise in many kinds of social experiences. Emotionally intimate heart-to-hearts might be what first comes to mind when we think of especially meaningful interactions, but research shows that laughing, singing or dancing together or helping each other with the practical or emotional struggles of daily life are all powerful ways to connect. Each variety of interaction has its place, and each student on campus will have different preferences, abilities and comfort levels with each kind of connection.
Cultivating a culture where students are in the habit of offering gratitude, celebrating each other’s successes and expressing affection in whatever ways are appropriate and comfortable can also be powerful. Each of these behaviors can be fairly low effort, but when enacted sincerely, they can accumulate over time to have a lasting positive impact on relationships.
- Encourage in-person and online interaction. Meaningful interactions can happen online as well as in person. While there is no exact substitute for meeting others face-to-face, studies do support that connecting digitally positively impacts our well-being compared to no socializing at all.
Strategies to enhance social connection can mix it up between digital and face-to-face environments. Being in the habit of offering students reasons to text or message one another between face-to-face encounters may help them to gather more of those important minutes and hours of interaction that they need to build a close connection.
- Cultivate safety. Students need to feel safe on campus to experience a sense of connection; persistent anxiety and stress disrupt the basic psychological processes required for connection. Meaningful interactions require that we are able to be present with one another, yet focusing and holding open attention on another person is difficult when we are struggling with anxiety. Some research also suggests that because our nervous systems are connected to our facial expressions and tone of voice, it may become difficult to smile and engage warmly with others when we are overwhelmed.
The need to feel safe invites every arm of a college campus into the project of strengthening connection, to ensure that there are ample physical spaces available for socialization that feel comfortable, for example, or that academic pressures don’t overwhelm other areas of life. The work of promoting inclusion and belonging matters here, too, as feeling like you aren’t accepted on campus for your identity can create a persistent sense of threat.
- Loneliness may require mental health intervention. Promoting more access to social interaction may not be the most effective way to promote connection for every student on campus. Ultimately, a lasting global feeling of being connected to our social circle is based on our subjective perceptions of our social interactions and relationships. Students struggling with ongoing loneliness may experience rejection sensitivity, a heightened vigilance for indications that they may be rejected when interacting with others, even if those others actually feel warmly about them. Specific kinds of mental health support such as cognitive behavioral therapy have been shown to be effective for chronically lonely—but not necessarily isolated—people, like many students on college campuses. Therefore, mental health services should be a key part of the equation.
What Is Your Role in Promoting Connection on Campus?
So, what are the next steps on your campus toward ensuring that students have ample repeat interactions with a variety of people, face-to-face and online, and that they feel safe and have ready access to mental health interventions that address loneliness? What would your department’s role be in this project? What do the students you work with feel like they need? Who else needs to be brought to the table?
As the surgeon general’s advisory highlights, when a lack of social connection persists chronically across a lifetime, it not only impacts our quality of life, it may even shorten our lives. College campuses are an ideal setting to intervene—before years of loneliness or isolation add up to such tragic outcomes—to help young adults build relationships and social tools that will support and serve them across long lives. And given the epidemic lack of connection we currently face as a society, now is the time to act.