For years, the surgeon general has been warning that America is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, and the forced physical separation of the pandemic certainly didn't help us stay in touch. Surveys show that many Americans lost friends thanks to two years of shutdowns and restrictions, with older Americans more likely to have lost touch with friends.
Some see this as a positive change, a matter of pruning back our social lives to fewer but stronger ties. But for lots of folks the pandemic has simply been lonely. If you've moved into or beyond middle age, what are your prospects for growing your circle of friendships again on the other side of the latest wave of omicron craziness?
The bad news
I'll hit you with the bad news first. You're not just crazy. If you get the sense that it's way harder to make friends as an adult than it was when you were younger, you're on to something. The difficulty isn't that you're uncool or awkward. It's that the essential building blocks of friendship are harder to come by when you're older.
"Sociologists have kind of identified the ingredients that need to be in place for us to make friends organically, and they are continuous unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability," University of Maryland psychologist Marisa Franco told Boston's NPR news station, WBUR. "As we become adults, we have less and less environments where those ingredients are at play."
Adults with jobs, kids, and a collection of other responsibilities also simply have less time available for making friends. And research shows making a casual friend takes 50 hours on average, while close friendships take 200 hours.
The good news
That figure might sound depressing for adults who wish they had more friends in their lives -- after all, finding a spare two hours can seem difficult for busy professionals, never mind 200 -- but Franco insists that while making friends later in life largely doesn't happen organically like it did back when you were in school, it's far from impossible.
They key, she tells WBUR, is not to rely on chance and instead to organize regularly scheduled group activities like a book club, rotating potluck, or biweekly Saturday hike. (Strangely, singing together has been scientifically shown to be a particularly effective way to cement friendships, so maybe search out a local choir if you're musical.)
Not only does this nudge the time-strapped to find time in their schedules for friends; it also shifts friendship from a one-to-one tie to a group endeavor, making it easier to sustain in the face of adulthood's inevitable stresses.
"Researchers also find that when we develop groups, our friendships are more sustainable than they are with individuals. Because there's multiple touch points now, right? Someone else in the group could reach out to all of us, and then we all keep in touch," Franco explains.
It's also essential to get over your initial shyness and actually ask for new people's contact information. This might make you feel awkward or vulnerable, but Franco reassures the reluctant that these conversations are likely to go much better than you fear. "We all have this tendency to think we're more likely to be rejected than we actually are," she says.
Why you should bother
All of which is useful information for anyone feeling isolated after a couple of years of Covid mayhem. But friendships aren't just a nice extra, the cherry on top of the sundae of a successful work and family life. Friends are a potent mood booster and stress buster (while loneliness can be as bad for your body as smoking a pack a day). Friends also help us stay resilient, open minded, and effectively smarter as we age.
So don't give up on making new friends to replace any you may have lost the last two years. It won't happen effortlessly like it did when you were seven (or 17). But with a little planning and courage, it's more than possible. Your mental and physical health will benefit.