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Insights from the OUE Research Office

Loneliness is “a sad or aching sense of isolation…of being alone, cutoff, or distanced from others” (Parkhurst & Hopmeyer, 1999), and is caused by perceived deficits in the quantity and/or quality of social relationships. Loneliness is a normative emotional experience and we all feel lonely from time to time. In fact, loneliness is thought to serve an important signal function—a “social pain” analogous to physical pain—drawing attention to the fact that our social connectedness is lacking and in need of repair. At the same time, a robust and growing body of evidence highlights the toll that chronic and severe loneliness can take on our sleep, our mental and physical health, and even the length of our lives.

In OUE’s Duke Undergraduate Check-In study (DUCkI), we regularly ask students how frequently they experience loneliness in various contexts. On average, students report experiencing loneliness between “hardly ever” and “sometimes” (mean = 2.30 on a 5-point scale), and less than 2% of respondents report feeling “most of the time” or “always” lonely across contexts.

A key protective factor against loneliness is having a few high-quality, supportive friendships. One particularly challenging aspect of transitions (which many of our current and former students will be facing this fall) is that making new friends takes time. During these transitions, we can encourage our students to (1) enjoy getting to know new people, (2) moderate expectations for immediate connection, and (3) connect with friends and family from home as an important source of support.