Prof. Piet Bracke received his PhD in sociology in 1996 on a thesis about the gender difference in depression and the social inequality of women and men.
He is currently a professor at the Department of Sociology, where he is part of a research group, Hedera-Health & Demographic Research, that conducts socio-demographic and health-sociological research. This research currently focuses on education and health inequalities, on reproductive health, on mental health and the organization of mental health care, and on formal care use and/or medical consumption from a medicalization perspective.
The emphasis is on cross-national, comparative research that should contribute to the further development of the macro-sociological perspective on public health.
Jasmine is a PhD student within the Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences.
Piet Bracke: [00:00:01] Some people can actually be alone without feeling lonely. You know, they spend the whole weekend by themselves. They don't feel lonely. And we all had the experience of being at a vibrant party and nevertheless feeling alone.
David Chan: [00:00:19] Welcome to Unpublished a podcast about mental well-being at work. The podcast has been created by Trustpunt, the confidential advisor service at Ghent University. Now in the series, we focus on topics related to academia and the research community. But there's a wealth of information in the series that will be inspiring whatever your walk of life. My name is David Chan. I'm a lecturer at Ghent University and I'm the host of Unpublished. In each episode, we tackle a topic about mental well-being in the workplace. The topics are sensitive and often seen as taboo. They include phenomena such as imposter feelings, cultural differences, and loneliness. Now for each of these topics, I talk to an expert in the field who gives fascinating insights based on their research and professional experience. Alongside our main guest, you'll hear clips of individuals in academia sharing their own personal stories. With this podcast, we hope to create a greater openness towards the issues we cover and to help create a safe, comfortable space in which to talk about mental well-being in a positive way.
David Chan: [00:01:31] Lore, hello. Welcome.
Lore: [00:01:33] Hi, David.
David Chan: [00:01:34] Now you work for Trustpunt. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and Trustpunt?
Lore: [00:01:37] I'm Lore. I'm a confidential counselor at Trustpunt. Trustpunt is a psychosocial well-being department at Ghent University. People can come to us if they need a listening ear and actually all issues related to mental well-being at work can be discussed with us during a confidential conversation.
David Chan: [00:01:56] Now we're making a podcast to discuss some taboo topics about mental wellbeing at work. Now today's topic is loneliness. Why is it important to talk about loneliness?
Lore: [00:02:07] Well, when we talk with international researchers, we noticed that they experience feelings of loneliness. So it is a common problem. Not only international researchers struggle with it, we know that a lot of people have issues with loneliness as well. And also on the broader level, we live in an individualistic society where people sometimes tend to isolate and struggle to make profound connections with each other. So that's why we definitely wanted to make an episode about this topic.
David Chan: [00:02:35] I had a very interesting conversation with Piet Bracke. He's a professor in the Department of Sociology at Ghent University. We also hear a testimonial from Jasmine Siew. Now she's a Ph.D. student with the Department of Experimental, Clinical, and Health Psychology, and she's originally from Cornwall but now lives in Ghent. Well, one of the first questions I asked Piet Bracke was if he could tell me more about the concept of loneliness. How can we define or experience loneliness?
Piet Bracke: [00:03:05] It's always a personal experience, but that doesn't mean that you do not share it with others because of your similar situations that are related to your life course. Whether you are an adolescent, a young adult, or in your middle range of years, or whether you are a senior and older adult, it all depends on which stage of your life you are in, but also very strongly depends on - let's say from a broader perspective - it also depends on how society is organized. And at a lower level, the way that you participate in social activities and so on and so forth. You must realize, David, that some people can actually be alone without feeling lonely. You know, they spend the whole weekend by themselves, they don't feel lonely. And we all had the experience of being at a vibrant party and nevertheless feeling alone.
David Chan: [00:04:06] This is also what Jasmine experienced and pointed out. There really is a significant difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
Jasmine: [00:04:15] Being alone is something that I choose. I can be alone if I want to be alone. Whereas I think loneliness is something that you don't really get to choose. Loneliness is something maybe that you feel and it's upon you that you want to seek connection with people, but maybe you're restricted. And I think during the pandemic is a perfect example where I was both alone in a way and I felt lonely, whereas I don't think I've ever felt that in my life before, apart from during the pandemic, really feeling both of them. Often I want to be alone. Sometimes when I'm busy doing work on my Ph.D., I choose to be alone. But then when I want to seek connection and yeah, different social experiences with my friends, then I have the opportunity to do so. So I think it's really being alone is something that I essentially choose in a way. But feeling lonely is more a feeling which you don't get to choose, and sometimes it's difficult to get out of it.
David Chan: [00:05:15] That very stark example you gave there, of being in a crowded room but feeling lonely. Is that a way that can lead us into looking at some of these dimensions? I mean, you're surrounded by people, but clearly, you feel that you don't have a connection.
Piet Bracke: [00:05:28] You have on one hand what people call social integration. This is related to having a network of social relations. Having a network means that the social relations are interconnected to a varying level of degree, of course. Well, you can have a large network, a huge network, you can have a small-sized network, and you can be rather isolated. So that's what we would call in sociology, the structural component. What is the size of your network? What is the nature of your network, and so on and so forth. Apart from that, we have this feeling, this negative feeling, of feeling lonely. This is what we would consider a covert behavioral characteristic. It is something that characterizes the way people behave towards themselves or towards others. It is considered to be a negative feeling. This is very much culturally dependent, but apart from that, you have feeling alone as a behavioral characteristic.
David Chan: [00:06:32] But those connections are not always easy to make. And definitely, when you have moved around a lot as Jasmine did, every time you have to start over and build new networks wherever you arrive. Well, this is how she experienced this.
Jasmine: [00:06:45] I think at the beginning I always have this kind of fear factor. And I remember before I moved to Belgium, I was on this website that's called Meetup. And I remember I was looking I sent out to all these groups and Facebook groups and like, I dunno, it was like the board game groups and walking groups and like dog groups. I don't even own a dog. Just all these possible groups you can imagine. So I felt like, yeah, I'm prepared, I'm ready. I've got all these groups and then I've never once attended one event from any of these groups because actually, I think sometimes it is the fear of having to meet new people in a way. And sometimes you also don't want too many people in your life because you've only got a certain amount of social energy to give away. But so I think, sometimes I have found it difficult to kind of break the barrier and kind of make friends with maybe people who are more from Ghent because they have their whole life here. So yeah, I find that quite difficult and I think especially in the last two years, I haven't met too many new people because I've got my friends now.
David Chan: [00:07:53] How well equipped are we? Are we in a fundamental way equipped to be social animals, to seek out connections? To what extent is that sort of hardwired into how we behave with eachother?
Piet Bracke: [00:08:05] Yes, of course. We are social animals. We were already social before we were human. So we share living in a group with other primates. And this is wired into our body. You can see it fairly easily, for instance, when you often see the dysfunctional way that people that are vulnerable seek help. If you feel downhearted, you feel depressed, you know, you have burnout. We develop behavior that is kind of help-seeking behavior. We kind of show other people that we need support. If you are a little group, you are crying. Someone else will take up the signal. But if you are alone in your living room, detached from others, and you are crying, well your crying has become dysfunctional. It doesn't lead to support seeking or support giving. So these are indications that basically we have some inert strategies of connecting to others that are functional in types of societies that have long passed.
David Chan: [00:09:22] We are social animals. We need people around us. As a Ph.D. student, it's not always easy to connect with peers. You're often working alone on your project, and as Jasmine told us, it can make you feel alone sometimes.
Jasmine: [00:09:35] Not having that contact with your lab as well as your team. So not also being able to build those connections with your lab members. I also find it quite disheartening in a way that over the last kind of two or three years, you haven't been able to build up that enthusiasm for your project. And then if you have an idea and you want to talk to someone about it, you don't want to have to email someone and ask for a meeting all the time. So yeah, I guess you feel, yeah, just quite alone sometimes in that specific project, even though you have your professors and your supervisors and your colleagues who will support you in every single way. But to actually take that kind of loneliness away in your project, until you actually get to the end of your project and you see the final piece and you see how much work you've put into it and you see the end piece, that's when you feel, I guess liberated from the feeling of this project, which has been you and yourself.
David Chan: [00:10:31] What kinds of steps can an institution take to ameliorate or diminish the kinds of risks that these 20-something age group, young researchers, for example, might be prone to? Particularly when they're starting out on a Ph.D., for example, they've moved from another country or they've moved from a different environment. These are sort of times when the vulnerability, I would imagine, is quite high.
Piet Bracke: [00:11:00] It's compared to a lot of other institutions, very internationalized. A lot of people are social, mobile, detached from their home base, moving around a lot, and as such, unable to build stable relationships. On the other hand, of course, it's a very competitive environment. Of course, there are always periods, you know, in the life of Ph.D. students where you can be more at ease. You start your research, you are collecting your data, and so on and so forth. But the period of severe stress comes nevertheless. And then, of course, if you are under a very serious strain, a social support base is of utmost importance. If they do not have a social support base within a research group or within a community of similar Ph.D. students, it could become very devastating for their mental health status.
David Chan: [00:12:00] Building on that social support base isn't always that easy. When you move around a lot, when you meet new people, it can help if you're an extrovert, perhaps. Or maybe it's better if you are an introvert. Jasmine has a very interesting view on this topic.
Jasmine: [00:12:15] I would consider myself to be an introvert. I have these conversations with friends, and when I say that I'm an introvert, they will laugh at me because they're like, "You're not an introvert, you're an extrovert". And guess this is also linked to sometimes this feeling of not feeling 100% connected with people because, maybe deep down, sometimes I don't have those strong bonds with people, which I might like. So then I guess I feel quite introverted because I feel like maybe, I don't know all of my friends as well as maybe I would if I'd known them for decades.
David Chan: [00:12:49] I think a common idea in terms of this becoming connected is that you know, if you're outgoing, if you're self-confident, if you're a very sociable type of person, you're going to make those connections more readily. You're going to network effectively. If you're more withdrawn, you don't mind spending long periods of time on your own, the common perception is that, well, you're probably not well equipped to make these kinds of networks.
Piet Bracke: [00:13:15] And especially our society kind of admires people who are extrovert, sociable. You know, it's like the most ideal personality, and people who are more inward-looking, sometimes are stigmatized as lonely guys. There are other societies where it is the reverse, where people who like to contemplate, who like to be on their own, are considered to be, let's say, the most ideal types of persons, you know. Apart from that, of course, we need networks as some kind of support base. And we need to build our networks. What often happens is that people tend to think that the contacts are out there ready to be contacted or ready to be consumed or ready to be used when necessary. And that's not the case if you want to be integrated if you don't want to feel alone, It's labor. You have to work on it. You have to participate in social activities. This is labor and this is hard labor for some. And this goes like very easy for others. But in the end, you will have some kind of social support base that you can enjoy, not only in times of trouble but, you know, you can just enjoy, relax, you know, go out to the movies, you have a drink. And in bad times, you have someone you can talk to.
David Chan: [00:14:43] That's a very positive, optimistic message. I think that's really important, that it is possible that these kinds of behaviors that will lead to more connections, you can gain experience and you can acquire them. It's not something that you're never going to be able to do because you're a quieter person. Jasmine completely agrees with this. Sometimes you can simply be lucky about who you meet and when you meet them. But building and even more importantly, maintaining your social network is hard labor.
Jasmine: [00:15:16] I started in Belgium. I automatically had quite a large group of friends because my colleague, she did live in this big house where they had, I think four or five different floors where there was. Yeah, a lot of kind of different like-minded people who are now my best friends actually, and I'm really grateful for them. But even though you meet a lot of different people, you don't have those kinds of connections that you have developed over the years. So from like early childhood up to now. So a lot of my friends are, I guess I would say, kind of new. Whereas having friends which have spanned over decades, is more difficult to keep because you just lose those connections, I suppose, having moved around different places. So I think it can make you feel alone, even though you're not necessarily actually alone physically. But I think sometimes emotionally or feeling connected, you have to make quite a big effort sometimes to build up those connections and really get to know someone's past because I think that's what develops those kinds of strong bonds of people.
David Chan: [00:16:17] We already talked about the role of the institution in reducing the risks of loneliness. I asked Piet, what are the things we can do as teachers, supervisors, or heads of departments to support this social integration?
Piet Bracke: [00:16:30] Of course, this is extremely important, and I must say in my research group, as probably in a lot of research groups, we devote a lot of attention to the whole issue of social integration and group formation. And this is fairly easy. I mean, it's not rocket science. You talk a bit about work, you also talk a bit about children, you talk a bit about social activities. You cannot imagine how important these informal moments are. This is crucial. And this is crucial because, you know, as I already told you, each Ph.D. student, each postdoc, each academic is during his career, sooner or later confronted with very stressful periods.
David Chan: [00:17:16] Absolutely. Within my working lifetime. And I'm old enough, so I've got a few years under my belt. But I've always felt in the places where I've worked, the schools, the universities I've worked in: if you wake up in the morning and you feel okay. I feel quite good about going to work this morning and the sense of I like the people I work with on most days. If you have that just general feeling, you're probably working in the right place. You're probably working in a healthy environment. There's also the question of friendship. In Belgium, in the many years I've lived here, It hasn't always been easy. You can make a connection, but actually, a bond with somebody and you can say, well, this, this is my friend in that genuine sense. It's not easy to get to that stage.
Piet Bracke: [00:18:02] You know what, you must realize that friendships are built during special moments. That all parties involved are open to deep bonding. And of course, these moments can be very diverse. For instance, if you are in your thirties and you have little children, then you build out new friendship networks via the connection with your children. You know, for the simple reason you really admire your own children. And this admiration spills over to other children with their peers. So the parents of the peers of your children, you immediately have like some kind of shared harmonic feeling. So it's a really good starting point for building relationships. But there are other special moments to build relationships. For instance, the whole experience of starting studying in higher education at a university, in a university town. You are so open to bonding. Basically, because you are vulnerable. It's a serious transition in your life. You are very vulnerable because you know, the strategies that worked when you were an adolescent are not guaranteed to be working when you are in your twenties. So you are very vulnerable. So you are very open to making connections with others.
David Chan: [00:19:29] At this stage of life, the stage at which they are vulnerable, what a great message it is for them to take on board. That this is actually an opportunity. These moments in your life where you're feeling enormous pressure and enormous insecurity are actually moments where some of the most important things can happen to you in a positive way. From the importance of real friendships. I want to shift to another important topic the feeling of being at home and the flipside of that the feeling of homesickness. Because when you move around a lot, where do you feel at home? Well, let's listen to what Jasmine says about that.
Jasmine: [00:20:09] I really enjoy it when I go home back to England because when I go home, my mum cooks me my favorite meal, which is just a roast dinner, which I can't get anywhere in Belgium. And I get my favorite chocolate bars and I play with my bunnies which are at home and I have all my home comforts. And I think it's strange because I also have my home comforts in Belgium. But I think. The feeling of being at home is having everything that I know which is connected to my childhood in a way. Recently I went home for Easter and my mum bought me an Easter egg, as she does every year. And then she was like, "Oh, I'm going to have to stop buying the Easter egg because you're 29, you're nearly 30". Its just getting a bit silly". And I said, "No, no, Mum, I really, really want my Easter eggs still. Because no one in Belgium is going to buy me an Easter egg". And I think it's the moments like that where you just feel home to me is where all my childhood experiences are as well. And sometimes I think actually it's these kinds of references to when your childhood which actually really develops these kinds of bonds with people as well. So I think my experience is it's it takes much longer to develop these kinds of connections with people because sometimes these references are so culturally relevant that you just cannot relate. Or maybe you can think of something similar, but it's just not the same. So it's sometimes just blank faces all around.
David Chan: [00:21:30] Well, it's clear that Jasmine recognizes the feeling of homesickness, and she's not alone in that. It is a common issue. But I wanted to know on a broader level what the impact of homesickness can be. So I put that question to Piet.
Piet Bracke: [00:21:43] Homesickness, of course, is a subjective condition. You know you don't have to be homesick. It has to do with a gap. A gap of anticipation, of separation, between you and your home base. You could also consider it as some kind of loss, a painful feeling of impairment that results from having lost your significant relationships. Of course, you don't necessarily have lost your relationships, but it's more like, you know, subjective anticipation. Some people, you know, don't want to study abroad because they already anticipate homesickness. You know, they will say, no, I cannot study abroad. You know, I will be homesick. So there is a lot of anticipation involved. There is a lot of gaps involved between the actual situation and the preferred situation in some countries amongst some kinds of students. Homesickness can be very prevalent, and strangely enough, it might really defer from context to context, from country to country. There is some research showing that, for instance, these students from the UK are more homesick when they study abroad. And there is also research showing that international Ph.D. students from the Netherlands are seldom homesick. We can only guess what the reasons can be for these cultural differences, but strangely enough, the cultural differences are there. So it's also a cultural phenomenon.
David Chan: [00:23:25] Being away from home means you don't get to see your friends or have contact with your friends as often as you'd like to. Now, Jasmine talks about this and explains the fear it gives her of losing people in her life.
Jasmine: [00:23:38] Quite specific to moving around, I guess, is the fear of losing people that you build up these friendships with, and then one day in a way they're gone because you're not there. When I look back on my experiences, that's not been the case. I've actually kept really good connections with a lot of the friends I've made, and I'm very lucky to have a lot of people that I know in different places all across the world. I wish I could see those people more, but yeah, unfortunately, situations don't always accommodate.
David Chan: [00:24:09] One of the interesting things that she mentions is that when you are abroad when you move into a different environment, one of the difficult things to do is to maintain the connections, the friendships you have in your home base as you move into this new environment. It's a source of anxiety. Can I still maintain and still have the same sorts of relationships I had at home?
Piet Bracke: [00:24:32] This could have to do a lot with expectations in the sense that people who are detached from their home base often have mythical ideas about their friends and their family at home. If you live abroad, you kind of think that, you know, while you are sitting there alone in your studio, your friends are having a wonderful life together back home, while actually your friends, they do not meet much more often than you would meet them. If you go back home, let's say twice a year, our international friends would sometimes complain that they did not see their friends for like five months. And then I and my partner were wondering: we had a lot of friends we did not see for five months, and they live only 25 kilometers away. So in a way, it has to do with expectations that maybe become exaggerated because people have some kind of mythical idea about what happens at home. But a lot of other processes are working, of course, at the same time. And I guess that there is a lot of variety and some, what we would call structural factors, are also of importance. We also have the rise of online communication. Ph.D. students in my research group, you know, have contact with their parents. I do agree online communication and personal communication are very different and you cannot substitute one for the other. But you know, basically. Options are enlarged. You have several options to make contact with your home base, making contact with people at the place where you live at the same time. So there are a lot of opportunities for these students to make contact if they have to struggle with homesickness.
David Chan: [00:26:33] It's good that we have that positive story about digital resources because they can be incredibly useful for maintaining contact. But in terms of how to deal with homesickness, that's one of the avenues, the use of digital technologies, but also small things from some of my students. I've talked to them about this. Some of the international students. And they often say things like, well, yeah, there are things that I miss. I've been here for, what, four months and there are things about home that I miss. One of the things that a very enterprising young student of mine did was, the way I deal with it: I cook for other student friends, but I cook dishes from my own home cuisine. But it reminds me I get the smells of home and just that tactile connection.
Piet Bracke: [00:27:21] I do agree because one of the other dimensions of homesickness is the experience of the gap between the culture in which you were born and the culture in which you are living. And this cultural gap is an important aspect of homesickness. And I must say I had the same experience. You know, we organizing this mid-week, and we always invite international Ph.D. students to make us something for dinner that is typically for their home base. And it always has a very, very, very beneficial effect. What I find important is that the people, really feel accepted. When you can say to someone, you know, that you really enjoy their typical traditional kitchen, it's like a way of making contact.
David Chan: [00:28:05] Piet, thank you ever so much for your very enlightening comments and insights into this issue.
Piet Bracke: [00:28:13] It was my pleasure.
David Chan: [00:28:14] There are many things we could take away from what you've said to us, but I'm struck by this image that you've used of bridging the gap. The thing that makes the bridge is something that's thoroughly human. And it's about looking to that human dimension, those human connections that are going to help us when we find ourselves in these difficult situations. Thank you ever so much, Piet. So, Lore, we've listened together to the stories and the advice of Piet and Jasmine. Now for wrapping up, I'd like to ask you a couple of extra questions, of course.
Lore: [00:28:48] Go ahead.
David Chan: [00:28:49] As you said in the beginning, a lot of people experience feelings of loneliness. What would you like to say to these people?
Lore: [00:28:54] Well, it's a normal human feeling, and we know it's not always easy to handle it. So, first of all, I would advise you to try to be kind to yourself when experiencing those feelings. Also, as we pointed out, society emphasizes social contact and social behavior. It values extroverts' behavior more than introverts' behavior. But in fact, these two can perfectly exist alongside each other. It's a continuum. Everyone can relate at some point to one of the two extremes. So maybe one day you can have the need to see other people, while the other day you can feel the need to be alone. And Jasmine explained that very nicely.
David Chan: [00:29:32] Yeah. She clearly feels a difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
Lore: [00:29:37] Yes, indeed. And it's perfectly okay if social contact takes a lot of energy. It's not because you are more introverted that you automatically feel lonely. It's okay not to want as much social contact as an extroverted person. You only have a certain amount of social energy as well.
David Chan: [00:29:52] Do you have tips to build that connection with other people?
Lore: [00:29:56] We heard it from Piet. It is hard work. So our first advice is talk about it. As Jasmine said, talking about it can be an eye opener because a lot of people experience these feelings. And so luckily it's never too late to enlarge your network, try to have an open mindset about this, and it will help you to make new friends. And a good tip is also to look within your organisation or your institution if there are initiatives. For example, Ghent University organises lots of activities, especially for international researchers.
David Chan: [00:30:30] And on top of that, we've heard that any activity, big or small, can help. We've heard some nice ideas like joining a sports club, and this is my favourite joining a dog walking club even if you don't own a dog. This was unpublished, a podcast of Ghent University to give insights about mental wellbeing to our local and international co-workers. Have you been affected by one of the topics in our episodes? Or then don't hesitate to contact a confidential counsellor of trust. But did you find this an interesting episode? Share it with your co-workers. You can find more information about this podcast at www.unpublishedpodcast.be. In the next episode, I'll be talking to Fredrik and Sale about cultural differences. Unpublished is a podcast brought to you by Trustpunt from Ghent University and is produced by Chase Creative.
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