Millennials Are Lonely. Can ‘Adult Dorms’ Fill the Void?

“I’ve worked with a lot of clients in trying to find different communal and co-living situations,” Debra Kissen, the clinical director for the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago and a spokesperson for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America tells SELF. “I’m a big fan,” she adds. “But it can go wrong.”

It all comes down to the fit, Kissen says. “It’s either interesting or exciting or it sounds like hell. It’s a natural litmus test.” She recommends sitting in on a house meeting or stopping by for dinner—with the co-living company’s permission, of course. Meat eaters probably shouldn’t join a vegan apartment just to make friends, and probably everyone should avoid a living situation where appearances are prioritized over real connection. “Don’t just look at the pictures. You really have to go and experience it,” Kissen says. Then you just have to “go with your gut.”

Even if you find the right vibes, co-living spaces are “not going to be the answer to everything,” Kissen says. For people who feel socially isolated or lonely, “the environment can help, but there’s also personal accountability to create change.” To make the change real, you’ll likely need more help (in the form of therapy, for instance) than even the most vibrant co-living space can provide.

But Jenny Taitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, tells SELF that’s not necessarily a reason not to try something new. For some people, even those dealing with social anxiety, putting yourself out there can be helpful, she says, even if it feels painful at first.

Your mind-set around the experience can play a huge role too. “If you’re going to negatively evaluate everything and you see everyone else in this version of an adult sorority,” you will probably hate your co-living experience, Taitz says. But “if you can frame a co-living community as more than just meeting your best friends, but as some way to align yourself with your values,” you may end up actually enjoying yourself.

How to feel less lonely—wherever you live.

While co-living spaces may help some people transition into a new phase in life, they aren’t a cure for more significant social or mental health issues. But Russell, who developed the most widely-used scale to measure loneliness in 1978 as a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, says there are small steps people can take to address these dark feelings.

The first step is understanding the problem you’re dealing with. Loneliness and isolation are often used interchangeably, but to psychologists like Russell the words mean something completely different.

Isolation is a fairly objective measure of how much time you spend apart from other people, while loneliness is a more subjective emotional state that can leave you feeling “alone in a crowd.” Put another way: “Loneliness is not a reflection of social isolation; it’s that your relationships aren’t matching your expectations,” Russell says.

And because there are so many individual causes of loneliness, it’s important to take the time to look inward and think about where those feelings may be coming from. If social isolation—simply not being around people or having access to people who share your values—is the cause, building some social structure will be key. That could be something like joining a book club, starting a regular workout group, or, yes, moving into a co-living space.

It’s also essential to understand whether you’re someone who regularly feels lonely, or if you’re currently just going through a tough time. If you feel this way regularly, you may want to seek out help in the form of therapy.

But, Russell says, “you have to remember that certain events are going to make anybody lonely,” like death, divorce, or a big move to a strange city. In those cases you’ll eventually have to work to create new friendships. It may take time, energy, and, for some people, a membership fee.


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