Products are never far behind problems. In today’s ‘loneliness economy’, we’re enticed to flex atrophied social muscles through everything from pay-as-you-go cuddles to friend rental and chatbots imbued with the capacity to mimic human intimacy. This commodification of connection illuminates our struggle to maintain relationships as we move increasingly online. After all, who hasn’t doomscrolled social media assuming the world’s at a party you haven’t been invited to?
The bad news is that loneliness is a killer and worse for your health than obesity. The good news is, connection is attainable for all of us.
Friends hold space for us, keep us grounded and offer perspective and support. But it’s not always easy to maintain friendships when balancing work and family life. Loneliness can creep up without warning – add risk factors such as bereavement, disability, moving home, poor health, unemployment and retirement – and any one of us could find ourselves swimming largely in online social waters.
Loneliness is essentially social hunger – it’s your body and mind signalling for its most basic need to connect. Such is the correlation between being lonely and serious health problems – from cancer to heart disease and depression, it’s no surprise the UK appointed a minister for loneliness in 2018. The appointment of Baroness Barran (an aptronym of Usain Bolt proportions) followed a report showing more than nine million people in the country felt lonely.
I’ve certainly been amongst the nine million at times – with and without company, for loneliness isn’t physical – it’s an emotional state. Here’s how we can lean into connection, make friends and move beyond the taboo of loneliness.
Set aside 200 hours
Remember when you’d make friends in your school lunch hour over a football figure or collectible card? As an adult, you’ll need 200 of those hours before you can call someone a close friend, according to a report published by Professor Jeffrey Hall in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
After studying both people arriving in a new city and first year university students, Hall found it takes roughly 50 hours to move from acquaintance to casual friend, 90 hours to enter ‘friend’ status and 200 hours to become ‘close friends.’ Hall noted in his study that consistency is key. Whilst it’s possible to know someone for six years and be disconnected, through regular catching up, you can become best friends in six weeks.
Join a club
Hall also talks about how our school days were a fervent friendship pool, due to ‘closed systems’ – those captive groups we see repeatedly and form relationships with. One way to ignite these social loops is through clubs – so whether it’s wild swimming, running, football, or knitting, seek out those communal opportunities. We can learn a lot from the Danes in this regard. Masters of leveraging clubs for social cohesion, it’s no surprise they’re consistent high rankers in the World Happiness Index.
Let it happen
Sometimes, as CS Lewis noted in his famous essay on friendship, we just need to let it happen. For Lewis, friendship is a byproduct of living – something that attaches itself to you, like sand on your shoulders during a swim in the sea. He wrote: ‘…those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travellers’. Brutal but wise words hinting at how living an authentic, interesting life will prompt your people to eventually join you.
Friendships are better when they’re about something – whatever that may be. In Lewis’ essay, he writes that friendship arises when companions “… discover they have in common some insight or interest.” Lewis’ best mate was Tolkien with whom he shared a love for all things God, language and myth. You might prefer meme swapping, or hiking.
The third place
A common or ‘third place’ is also a great way to meet people. The term was coined in the ’80s by sociologist Ray Oldenburg and refers to a physical space beyond the home or workplace – with little financial barrier, where conversation is the primary activity. Historically, these have included French cafés and English pubs. Whilst third places have waned with the decline of the high street and rise of social media, conversations with strangers in cafés and parks are still on the table, should you be brave enough to initiate them.
Understand the seven pillars of friendship
The Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar lays out the seven pillars of friendship in his book Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships. They are: language (or, better still, dialect), place of origin, educational trajectory, hobbies and interests, worldview (religious/ moral/ political views), musical tastes and sense of humour. The more of these we share in common, the stronger the relationship.
Being alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely.
But you were just telling me how to make friends? Connection is vital but you can be in your own company, and feel utterly connected and at peace with the world, just as you can be in a crowd and feel miserable. Epicteus noted this almost two thousand years ago: “For because a man is alone, he is not for that reason also solitary; just as though a man is among numbers, he is not therefore not solitary.”
Some of my biggest ‘nights out’ have occurred at 1pm, blissfully alone in a dark room eating jelly beans and watching some foreign social drama unfold. Being alone and entertaining a personal passion, free of arrangements and compromise is a wonderful thing. Embrace it.
Leverage the online, for offline
In Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam explores how we’ve become increasingly disconnected due to the disintegration of social structures – the church, bowling leagues or political parties. These have been replaced by social media, which research shows contributes to loneliness, anxiety and depression.
Is social media all bad, though? This is a big if but – if – we can avoid the doomscrolling, shopping for clothes we already own or googling what type of crisp we are, then online has the potential to augment or ignite offline connections. A podcast I listen to has a Discord group (think MSN / the band forum you were on ten? 20?! years ago) and the members often meet up, albeit at the other end of the country, IRL. I haven’t been to one yet, but I’ve seen the photos of fellow millennial men, lifting pints to the camera, grinning collectively, inviting me in.
Phil Bridges is founder of mental health organisation The Mind Map. He is a lecturer in mental health innovation and a qualified mental health trainer and journalist. Find out more at themindmap.co.uk.