The UK has such a massive problem with loneliness that a few months back, the government appointed a dedicated minister to tackle the issue. It’s mostly younger adults – especially women – who report feeling the loneliest.
"Humans are broadly social creatures and company is essential for most people, warding off depression, anxiety and even some aspects of dementia," says clinical psychologist Sally Austen, as a reminder that connections are crucial not only to have fun, but to protect our physical and mental health. This would be all well and good if it wasn't so damn hard to make friends as you get older.
With social media, people make less time for face-to-face friendships, and that can amplify feelings of loneliness.
Friendships and relationships are hard work. And as you get older, they can become more difficult to build and maintain. "[As adults,] the people we meet tend to have already established friendship groups and may not be looking to increase this," Austen explains. "We have less spare time to invest in meeting up with new people, [and] we possibly have more preconceptions about what makes a 'good friend' and are therefore more choosy."
Things change. After university, where making friends is quite natural, people may decide to prioritise their career over their social life, they might move to different places, leaving friends behind; others decide to invest more time and energy in romantic partners and family. "When we move into new situations such as following house or job moves – or when our friends have significant life changes that take them away from us somewhat, such as they get married or have children – this is when we might feel the need to consciously seek out new friends," Austen says.
So how does one do that?
In 2016, Lucie Walker, a 27-year-old digital communication officer now based in London, relocated to New Zealand for travelling and work, but she found meeting new people quite challenging. A negative experience in the past, moving from southwest England to London, had made her quite anxious about social rejection; on top of that, not everyone was interested in investing in a new friendship that would only really last one year, until she left.
No shame, just be honest: there is nothing wrong with looking to connect to new people if you want to.
"I thought: 'I can’t stop myself from connecting to new people because I am nervous that they will reject me'," she explains. So, being a writer, she started researching bloggers in her area and found a girl who had moved from Canada: "I emailed her and I explained I was new to the city, that I also enjoyed writing and photography, asking if she would be interested in just going for a coffee," she recalls. That coffee turned into a breakfast date that earned Lucie a thoughtful new friend and access to a whole new circle of people who shared her creative interests. "If you have a hobby, if you do sports – it can be anything – chances are you may find [like-minded people] on social media," she says. "Just send them a message and say: 'We’re interested in the same things, maybe we could get chatting'."
No shame, just be honest: There is nothing wrong with looking to connect to new people, if you want to – whether you’ve just arrived in a new place or have lived in the same town all your life. "I think part of my success was to say: 'I’m new and I’m looking to make some friends'," Lucie admits. "And then I just said 'yes' when people invited me. It might have been a second thought [for them] to invite me, but I said 'Yeh, I’ll go,' and I made an effort when I was there to talk and be engaged," she adds.
Getting closer to someone you sort-of know could also work wonders. "Look at what you do with your life and see if maybe there is potential to make friends there," suggests Lucy Atcheson, a counselling psychologist who also treats relationship issues. It’s probably not the most natural of things to start a conversation at the gym, but it might be more realistic to talk to someone you regularly see at class or on the bike next to you, and certainly easier than breaking the ice with a total stranger. "There are also the obvious things people always talk about, like joining a book club or something like that, which I think is a really good idea, but if people are pushed with time, striking up conversations with people they’re crossing paths a little bit already [can be a great idea]," Atcheson says.
With social media, she warns, people make less time for face-to-face friendships, and that can amplify feelings of loneliness. But if virtual interactions are no replacement for IRL contacts, the internet is still an amazing place to find someone who’s into the same obscure band as you or knows exactly what art show you might want to check out at the weekend.
"When I was at uni I wanted to get involved in music and in politics as well, and no one wanted to do those things," says Stephanie Phillips, a 29-year-old freelance writer and musician from London. "I was writing a music blog at the time and I saw a callout to help organising a festival." Stephanie not only went on to volunteer for the event but through the organising community was able to meet the people she would start her first band with and go on into the punk DIY scene. "It’s been rolling on since then," she says.
As she puts it, it’s all about finding a way in: "Organising a festival was really good for me because I got to meet a lot of new people and I had to talk to people a lot. I was shy when I was younger, and it gave me something solid to do and an easy way to find out more and go to more gigs and kind of see more people, really."
Not all friendships are for life, but all connections can be meaningful, as long as everyone involved is happy, validated and appreciated.
Taking part in a practical project, like planning an event, where there are tasks and deadlines to focus on, may also help to overcome fear of rejection, which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Atcheson reveals: "People judge somebody else negatively before they can be judged negatively, so they almost expect rejection and that’s why they want to reject the other person." The key would be to foster a more positive mindset and challenge any catastrophic assumption: "Rejection isn't inevitable, and actually we could make a connection and it could be nice and it could be fun."
Obviously, not everyone we meet is going to become our best friend, but they might enjoy going for walks, visiting art galleries or going to the theatre just as much as you do. "Try and say, 'I’m going to look for something we can connect over' rather than assume that we are not going to connect," Atcheson advises.
It’s all about layers, spaces and contexts. Not all friendships are for life, but all connections can be meaningful, as long as everyone involved is happy, validated and appreciated. Do not pressure yourself too much, as Atcheson says: "Sometimes [there is] a mutual drift, and that’s part of life. We don’t always have to make friends that we know we can sustain forever all the time; rejection isn’t always rejection, it can just be a different state and a different chapter."