I have a confession: I haven’t been a very good friend this year. In spring, while everyone I know was having Zoom parties to combat the loneliness of lockdown, I buried myself in work and ignored the growing feeling that something just wasn’t right. The pandemic had shone a spotlight on an uncomfortable truth: friendships have never been easy but had they ever been this hard?
Between mental health troubles taking their toll, conflicting coping mechanisms and disagreements over social distancing straining relationships, it's been a hard year for friendships. Not only has your contact with your best friends been reduced to a square on Zoom but casual acquaintances have fallen entirely by the wayside (RIP your clubbing mates with whom you had nothing much in common beyond an appreciation of G&Ts and kebabs). 2020 has shaken the foundations of our social fabric in ways no one could have predicted and we've found ourselves having to reshape everything we know about sustaining our relationships.
As a natural introvert with a penchant for catastrophising, this wasn’t exactly my time to shine. I never got around to downloading Houseparty (remember Houseparty?) and while I found a grounding exercise in phoning friends during my daily government-allowed walks, I’ll admit I spent the first half of the year wondering if I'd ever say anything to another person besides, "Honestly, I’m not coping that well."
The pandemic might be new this year but it has exacerbated an already dire situation: loneliness has been a growing public health crisis for years (experiencing it can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day) and leads to higher rates of depression. In 2018, it even got its own minister. Young adults in particular are more likely to be affected than older age groups, possibly due to factors such as precarious work and living circumstances, social isolation in the digital world, and living in big cities with fewer ties to local communities (in Time Out's survey of 18 global cities, London came out as the loneliest, with 55% of Londoners agreeing it is a lonely place to live).
It’s also just really hard to make friends as an adult.
Friendship often stems from shared experiences, found in abundance in our younger years through school and university but tapering off as we grow up and move areas, switch jobs and change living situations. Schedules tighten, responsibilities grow and so we tend to retreat to our existing bubbles and stop investing in new connections.
It took me until the second lockdown to realise that while I'd spent my year worrying about my existing friendships, I'd actually managed to make more new friends during the past nine months than I had in a long time. Years, even. I didn’t set out to do so but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I’d taken several steps to get out of my comfort zone and meet new people with whom I'd be able to be open and honest. I took part in a positive psychology course which met every week; I joined a Twitter call for virtual support groups, as well as a Slack channel for freelancers. I sent slightly unhinged, enthusiastic emails and Instagram DMs to people I hadn't talked to before. I attended more industry calls, webinars and roundtable discussions than anyone should be allowed to. I started writing a weekly newsletter about radical joy and the small but incredibly supportive community I’ve built around it has proved to be a safe haven at a time when that’s what we miss the most.
Of course, not everyone I've interacted with has become a fast friend. But the successes make up for the failures. I now have regular email exchanges with writers I admire and an ongoing WhatsApp voice message chain with friends halfway across the world. The first time I FaceTimed another friend, I was so nervous you’d think it was a first date. I even got back in touch with someone I’d known years earlier and picked up right where we left off, albeit with an added edge of pandemic-related catching up to do. I have plans to meet up with many of these people when this is all over which feel far more concrete than the "We must get a coffee soon!" plans I'd make with my pre-pandemic acquaintances.
To be honest, even if we never get to meet up IRL and our connection lives on through our phones, that’s okay, too. I've learned that friendship is not defined by how many Sunday brunches we share but by affection and mutual support. It gives us something to hold onto in a year where every bit of joy we can squeeze out of life counts, and serves as a reminder that we’re all looking for connection and belonging exactly as much as the next person. Spending our days on social media, taking part in Zoom pub quizzes and watching the same shows as everyone else (is it just me, or does Tiger King feel like a million years ago?) are different ways of combating the same kind of grief that was making us miserable pre-pandemic. Judging by the number of online communities that have proliferated in the space left empty by face-to-face hangouts, we might have hit the nail on the head as to what friendship will look like going forward.
This year has shone a spotlight on what we really look for when things get tough and I hope we don’t lose sight of that. That’s my advice to anyone looking to shake up their social life, in 2020 and beyond: reflect on what it means to you, which interactions you find draining and which recharge you, and use that knowledge to try as many approaches as you can. If you work for yourself, Leapers is a community aimed at supporting the mental health of the self employed; if you’re in media, Tim Herrera’s events were some of the most interesting I’ve attended, and his Twitter feed is always helpful and full of like-minded users; Tallia Deljou, whose positive psychology group I joined this past spring, hosts regular and wonderful free workshops; I’ve attended webinars by searching for “Zoom” + industry keywords on Twitter, and while I’ve never had much luck with Facebook groups or MeetUp listings, those are a great option too. Even the silliest approach could lead to authentic connection, which we’ve never needed more.
And if you get my DM saying I think you’re really cool, please be nice. I’m just trying to make a friend, the only way I know how.