How not to be lonely – the magic formula for making friends

Loneliness is one of the most dangerous threats in modern society. This is a fact that has drawn increasing attention in recent years as study after study has shown the scale and dangers of loneliness. Research indicates it is a health risk more dangerous than obesity and equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The UK has appointed a Minister for Loneliness to try and deal with the issue, and in his recent book Them, Senator Ben Sasse went so far as to identify it as one of the primary challenges of our time, and even a fundamental driver of our political dysfunction.

On an experiential level, loneliness is like draining the color out of life. It’s highly linked with depression and is, quite simply, a drag on your entire existence. It’s also something you’re almost bound to encounter in the modern world, particularly if you’ve moved to a new city, some of your friends have moved away or are more busy (e.g. new jobs, kids), or myriad other reasons. So how do you avoid loneliness? Which types might be affecting you, and how do you sift through all the advice and options to deal with it? What, in all the advice out there, actually works?

A WebMD article on this lists the following suggestions for dealing with loneliness: 

face-to-face connection with others is the best remedy –through support groups, civic activities, adult education classes, social groups, volunteering, faith-based activities, political activism, book clubs, travel clubs, and even dating websites. All can all be useful ways to combat loneliness and isolation.

These are all great suggestions, but it’s easy to get lost here. You get motivated, research a bunch of the above, sign up and go to multiple events, and then you get burned out. You don’t feel like you’ve made friends, you didn’t like a lot of the groups, you haven’t met people you feel connected with, and you back off and end up feeling more lonely! So, how do you break out of this cycle?

Here’s my recipe, which is a condensing of much of the above research into a few simple steps.

Step 1. Cut back or remove Social Media and Television

When we’re lonely it’s easy to get caught up in social media and television. We’ve got too much time and browsing social media feeds, chatting with distant friends, and getting lost in a TV series is an easy way to avoid our loneliness. We get moments of feeling connected through some sitcom or we get into a discussion with friends about politics and we think we’re having more social contact. The research above though shows that such contact actually makes us feel MORE lonely. It actually cuts the legs out from the social contact we have.

The best solution is to simply cut these out of your life, but for many of us this is too drastic a switch to pull off (and if we make changes that are too drastic we are more likely to burn out and fail in making changes (future article to come on this topic)). As such, the real point is to reduce your exposure.

Remove social media icons from your homescreen, go for walks instead of watching TV, and perhaps most important of all, take some time to notice how you feel when you are doing these things. You open up Facebook for “just a few minutes” and then end up browsing for much longer; stop to think at the end, how do I feel? Better than before I opened this up?

Similarly with TV, you find a great movie or get sucked into a new TV show, sometimes this can be a great escape! But often you get sucked in, feel better for a while as you’re watching, and then at the end somehow mysteriously feel worse about yourself and your life. You get tired and go to bed and you just aren’t happy; did the TV time seem to make that better or worse? If worse, was it worth it for a distraction?

Sometimes these things can in fact be helpful for us, sometimes we reconnect with a friend or see a great movie and feel better about things. Often however we’re using them to escape and they actually make us feel worse, so however much you cut back here (or don’t), start paying attention to how you feel during and after. You might start to notice more clearly what’s actually helping you and what’s making you miserable.

Step 2. Sign up for 1-3 social events that happen weekly – AND GO!

Go out and find 1-3 weekly social events that interest you and sign up. This could be activities in groups, classes (check your local public high schools for adult courses), volunteering at a retirement home, or anything else (reread the list of ideas from the WebMD quotation above). Any kind of group or organization in your local area for any purpose that interests you will work, and it could be a bit more or less frequent but at least weekly is generally best. Don’t overwhelm yourself or you’ll burn out and stop going, but find some things you’d enjoy with other people, no matter what they are. THEN GO EVERY WEEK!

This, right here, is the key to making friends. Find a social event that has some of the same people, see them every week, and friendship will happen. Crazy, huh? Kind of magical. I learned this piece of wisdom from a therapist; in his case it was a bowling league and he signed up to go weekly and the people there were some of his closest friends now.

This does not mean they will be your best friends tomorrow. The frustrating truth here is that this takes time, but it is not excessive time. In my experience somewhere between the third meeting and the end of the third month friendships have generally started to form. And to ensure they so, ensure you apply Step 3 in these groups as well.

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Step 3: Watch for chances to reach out, and take them

At these events, and all across your life, look for moments of connection and reach out! This can be reaching out to old friends and asking to meet and catch up, but is also about making new friends when you see a chance. If you chat with someone at an event or in the checkout line and enjoy it, ask if they’d care to meet up for a coffee to continue the conversation some time. Invite them out to an event or to check out a museum. In our society we think such things only happen for dating purposes, and this works for that, but it can work just as well for making friends.

The magic here is that most people are quite open to and happy to have more connections in their lives and are just waiting for someone else to ask, but we’re all so afraid to that few actually do. So just ask!

To help with this, here’s a bit of a script you could use:

Hey, I enjoyed chatting with you. I’m looking for new friends these days (optional addition: because (I’m new to the city, some friends moved away, been too busy with work until recently)) and would love to exchange contact information and maybe catch up again some time. Is that something you’d be interested in?

A lot of people are afraid to admit that they’re lonely or looking for friends. They think it makes them seem sad or pathetic, but as the above studies show the majority of people in our societies need more friends! This is in fact totally normal, so it’s quite okay to just be open about that. The above is also a good way to communicate to someone that you’re not looking for a date; if you are looking for one just leave out the part about looking for new friends and it works just as well.

Another strategy is to have a mental list near to hand of things you’d like to do or check out. Research your town or city to see what looks fun to you and if you think something from it would interest someone else ask for that:

Hey, it was a pleasure to meet you today, I’ve been wanting to check out (insert event, cafe, restaurant, or activity here) is that something you’d be interested in doing some time?

If there are concerts coming up this works fine for that, but it works particularly well for events that don’t have a specific date or that happen multiple times so you can find a date when you’re both free. Museums, sightseeing places, food/drink activities and the like are all particularly good here.

And finally, if you’re up for the really direct approach you can just outright say:

Hey, you seem really cool, wanna be friends?

Again, a lot of people feel too hesitant about doing this because it seems too direct, but it shows a lot of confidence and courage to just assert something like this. It can be very attractive if done with confidence (without being pushy of course).

Of course, you won’t always get a yes. Sometimes people are just too busy, aren’t in a moment to be looking for new friends, or any number of other reasons. If they say no, accept that don’t start to think it means something about you. It takes a lot of guts even to ask a question like the above and you should feel successful just for having asked. In my experience though, someone saying no is relatively rare so wait until you’ve asked ten people before you start judging what responses are typical. Whether at one of your weekly social events or anything else, keep an eye out for the people you’d be interested in being friends with and then just ask!

Step 4. Get healthier

The last step of this plan is easier said than done; get healthier. Seem unrelated to the issue? Part of the problem of loneliness is one of vicious cycles. You feel lonely so you try to escape it with artificial connections (TV, social media, alcohol). This often encourages laziness or unhealthy habits (too little exercise, unhealthy food, too much or too frequent alcohol). This makes you sleep badly, which all then combines to make you tired, which makes going out or being social seem harder, so you don’t do it, feel lonely, and watch TV, etc., etc.

Lack of social contact can also be demotivating so you do less, make less progress on what matters to you, feel worse about yourself, eat junk food or skip workouts because you feel bad, and then don’t have the energy to be social.

There are many more cycles like this, and a big piece of getting past loneliness is about slowing or breaking these cycles. The three steps above will, over time, help all this, but sometimes they need a bit of a boost as well and they always take a bit of time. Getting a little healthier helps you stay motivated with the plan and makes the whole process just that little bit easier to stick with.

Of note: I’m not talking major life change here, do that and you’ll burn out and never stick with this. Just add a bit more activity in your life. Go out for a walk instead of watching TV (with an audio book or podcast if you like), try to get some sort of cardio exercise three times a week, avoid overeating and balance what you eat a bit more with fruits and vegetables. Cut back on alcohol and sugary drinks and get better and enough sleep.

Small changes are the key here; no massive new diet or workout routine, just a bit healthier food/drink, workout a bit more, and try to get at least some physical activity (even if it’s just a walk) every day so you sleep better.

This is important because it helps you be more positive, energetic, and it aids in slowly breaking all the vicious cycles. This is where a myriad of small changes over time make a large difference.

That’s it!

Seems a bit too simple? Well that’s because the hard part here is to be patient and consistent. Going to one event every week for three months matters much more than going to ten events this week. Eating a bit healthier and moving a bit more every day for three months matters much more than getting in a great workout every day this week. The key here is to be consistent over time, which is why I perpetually emphasize small changes here; you need to KEEP these changes and big changes lead to burnout! In its simplest form this whole recipe is really about finding one new social event and going every single week you can; the rest of the steps are just ways to be even more efficient. Do them all though and you’ll be shocked at how quickly you feel like you have real connections in your life.

To repeat one more time, here are the four steps again:

  1. Cut back or remove Social Media and Television
  2. Sign up for 1-3 social events that happen weekly – AND GO!
  3. Watch for chances to reach out, and take them
  4. Get healthier

And that’s the simple recipe to move beyond loneliness and make friends.

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