I recently bumped into someone I went to school with and – because I wasn’t doing anything in particular – we ended up in a bar together. After a few glasses of wine, the friend, Tara, admitted that she was "really, really lonely."
I was expecting her to bemoan a lack of romantic life, but she didn’t. Instead, she went on to describe how, since leaving university and getting a job, she’d lost touch with a lot of her friends, and was struggling to make new ones.
"The problem is, by the time you're an adult, you are supposed to have a set of friends for life. But I don’t. And how am I supposed to go out as a grownup and make new ones? It's so tragic, but when I look at my social media friends and see their lives are a whirl of parties, weddings and holidays... I feel like a complete failure."
Tara's words resonated with me. Most of us live our lives – to varying degrees – online, and it creates the illusion of never being alone. You like the pictures of a friend’s wedding you weren’t invited to, gaze at pictures of someone else’s holiday on Instagram, chat on Twitter to someone you’ve never met – but can this ever be a substitute for the real thing – going to that wedding, being invited on that holiday, meeting that person on Twitter? The answer seems to be no. If anything, social media compounds our sense of loneliness, because it invites inevitable – and often unfavourable – comparisons to the social lives of others.
Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom. There seems to be a growing awareness of just how many of us are lonely – and the tech sector is creating solutions to this very real problem. Dating apps have been around for a while, sure, but more recently the industry of friendship apps and websites has begun to boom.
The most successful of these is Meetup, which has more than 20 million members and counting. Here you can make platonic friends with people based on your interests, and whether you like bird watching or minimal German techno, you'll probably find someone like-minded.
Maria, 27, described feeling "ashamed" at the barren state of her social life and "not knowing" how to rectify it. Interestingly, it was her recently divorced mum who turned her onto Meetup. "Mum didn’t want romance after a horrendous divorce – Dad ran off with her best friend," says Maria. "Being married for over 30 years meant that she had allowed nearly all her friends to drop away. She realised how perilous her situation was and got online to meet like-minded women of a similar age. Her social life is much better than mine and she’s a new woman. So I’m giving it a whirl."
Friendship app, CitySocializer, is growing in popularity with young Britons. Like MeetUp, CitySocializer provides people with a direct vein into the social heart of whatever capital you are in – giving you access to groups of people attending events, whether a bookshop reading or a night out clubbing.
Getting men and women in their 20s and 30s to talk about loneliness is quite an onerous task, as it seems to be something of a taboo – like admitting to alcoholism or an eating disorder – but the statistics tell a bleak story. A survey from the Office for National Statistics says that "Britain is the loneliest capital of Europe." It goes on to say "overall, Britons are less likely to have people they can turn to in a crisis or to feel close to neighbours." On this last point, we came 26th out of 28 European countries – beating Denmark and France (but they scored higher in other areas).
Children have no problem asking other children to be their friend, but this is a skill we seem to lose fairly rapidly in our teenage years.
One of the things you can infer from this poll is that we are more insular and less connected to others than our European counterparts – a kind of modern version of the British stiff upper lip – and this seems to chime with a lot of adults I speak to.
Claire, 24, admitted to lying to her colleagues at work about her social life, creating fake parties, gigs and theatre trips – not as an exercise in self-aggrandisement but so they didn’t worry about her. "I got myself into a really vicious cycle at work. I faked a really exciting social life, so now they all assume I’m busy doing more exciting things, and never ask me out. It would seem weird to suddenly be free at weekends, so the lies about parties in the countryside continue."
This cycle of being too polite – or too ashamed – to reach out to others to ask for help, or just an invite to the pub, seems to be a recurring theme. Children have no problem asking other children to be their friend, but this is a skill we seem to lose fairly rapidly in our teenage years. When you ask anyone from the age of 15 upwards if they would actively seek out a friend or friendship group, most of them look at you like you’ve just asked if they would parade around naked in public.
As Suzie, 21, explained: "I see big groups of friends at uni in the bars or in the library or lounging around on the grass and I desperately, desperately want to join them – but I don’t. They’d probably think I was a stalker – or worse, desperate." It makes sense – we are taught in our romantic endeavours not to seem too keen or "desperate", so why would we treat making friends any differently?
Interestingly – and rather counterintuitively – romantic relationships seem to be a massive culprit in this loneliness epidemic. People in their 20s and 30s tend to become fixated on finding 'The One' and dedicate a huge amount of time and energy to their partner. As a result, friendships can play second fiddle, which doesn’t seem that important when we are besotted and in love – but can become a serious problem when a relationship sours or breaks up.
We cannot underestimate the seriousness of loneliness – it is inextricably linked to mental health
Michael, 29, described to me how a messy breakup had left him completely isolated (most of the mutual friends had been "her friends"), depressed and borderline suicidal. "I’d really neglected my mates when I was with Katie for five years – she didn’t like them much – and I just felt like I couldn’t go back to them, after not bothering with them for the last five years."
We cannot underestimate the seriousness of loneliness – it is inextricably linked to mental health, and is often identified as a major factor in depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem and suicide. Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind (the leading mental health charity) identifies loneliness as "both a cause and effect of mental health problems."
What is heartening about the world of friendship apps and websites, then, is that they're tackling this problem head on, and seem to be chipping away at the stigma surrounding loneliness. They have seemingly, for instance, sidestepped that early secretive, somewhat uncool stage that internet dating suffered from. They are diverse, bright and fun, cater for all needs and personalities – and young Britons flash the apps on their phones with pride.
Ella, 27 – who I suspect has a busier social diary and more friends than Cara Delevingne – summed this up when she enthusiastically explained her love for Vina, a kind of Tinder for finding friends: "I checked out of Tinder ages ago, as a lot of people I know have – too much grossness! But I did find that some of that 'How you doing' was starting to seep into some of the bigger friendship apps. Vina is brilliant because it's for girls only. I’ve met two of my best friends on Vina."
There you have it: With the click of a button, you could make a friend for life.