So Why Does All This Matter?

On April 22, the television program 60 Minutes Australia aired an episode on loneliness, calling it an epidemic as deadly as smoking. (Bonus for Star Trek fans: the video contains an interview with William Shatner!)

The episode’s key points are:

(1) you might be surprised to learn who suffers from loneliness

(2) any major life change can result in a period of prolonged loneliness

(3) loneliness-induced stress damages not only mental health, but also the immune system

Australia isn’t the first country to examine this issue. In late 2017 former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called loneliness an epidemic with the potential to reduce one’s lifespan, and in early 2018 the U.K. appointed its first-ever Minister for Loneliness.

As a result of the growth of social media and the increase in people working from home, the potential for loneliness has flourished. Add a major life transition like divorce, retirement, a move, or death of a spouse, and loneliness can hit hard, with both mental and physical repercussions.

Loneliness can also strike socially active people who are surrounded by loved ones. If you feel like nobody in your circles understands what you are going through, you can feel achingly lonely – hence the popularity of support groups for new mothers, widowers, and more.

I have always felt loneliest the first six weeks after a move. I don’t yet know anybody, so the phone isn’t ringing, and I don’t know anybody to call if I want company. It takes time to form even casual acquaintances, and I really struggled during those periods. Over the years, I learned to plan ahead. I brought books I’d been wanting to read, explored my new neighborhood, tried some new recipes, caught up with old friends, and engaged in some hobbies. Despite all that, though, it was still hard not having any connection outside work.

What can you do if you find yourself in an extended period of loneliness?

  • As William Shatner says in the video, do something for somebody. Join a volunteer group or do something on your own to help somebody else have a better day or a better future. Any feeling of connection to others, even if you don’t know them personally, can help.
  • Seek out others in the same situation as you. New at a job? Perhaps there’s another newbie with whom you can have lunch while you work on meeting people. First in your peer group to have kids? Ask your pediatrician about a group for new parents.
  • Have a list of projects and activities to work on during your lonely period while you are trying to meet people.
  • Remind yourself that loneliness does not have to be permanent, that almost everybody feels lonely at some point, and that professional help is available if you find that you’re not able to combat it using the above tools.

When in your life have you felt the loneliest, and what did you do about it?

Where Do You Start When You Don’t Know Anyone?

A new friend of mine grew up in a small town, so everybody she met already had some sort of connection to her. When she moved to a city, she didn’t know where or how to begin. If you’re moving to a place where you don’t know anybody, how do you get started?

Introductions: People you know may know somebody in your new town. Even a casual acquaintance can introduce you to someone who ends up becoming a close friend, so start working your networks. If you’re active on social media, post something along the lines of “Thinking about moving to San Diego but don’t know anyone there. Would love to meet up with some residents while I’m in town checking it out next week. I’d appreciate any and all introductions!” (Sadly, I have not had similar success using this technique to meet single male billionaires.)

Memberships: What organizations do you belong to (or are eligible to belong to)? University alumni associations can be a great way to meet people, as can fraternity or sorority alumni chapters. So can professional associations and unions. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) often have group gatherings, as do the recipients of some major scholarships. When you’re a member of a group like these, you can walk into an event where you don’t know anybody confident in the fact that it doesn’t matter, because you all have something major in common (and might even discover some mutual friends).

Groups: I asked you in an earlier post to think about what activities you like doing that would be even more enjoyable with a friend. There’s probably a group of people already doing that activity together. If you love writing and wish you had at least one writer friend, then look for a writing group. MeetUp is a great resource which I’ll discuss further in a future post.

Sit at the bar: Many restaurants offer the full food menu in their bar. Sit at the actual bar counter – patrons who sit there, even in twos, are generally open to talking to the people next to them.

Tell people what you’re looking for: In general, people enjoy helping other people. Make it easy for strangers to help you – tell them what you’re looking for. Have a few stock lines or questions you can pull out of your back pocket when the timing is right. At a university alumni happy hour? “When I was at USC, I used to love pretending I was on the crew team. Do you know anyone who pretends to row here?” At an RPCV gathering? “My two years in Morocco were among the best of my life. Where’s the best Moroccan food here?” Better yet, because it leads you to other people, “Do you know any groups for people who love cooking foods from other countries?”

I could do an entire blog post on each of the above strategies, and perhaps I will eventually. What about you? Do you have any additional tips?

Reframing Friendship and Taking a “Friendventory”

One mistake I see people make when they think about friendship is that they approach it like dating.  They look for a friend who resembles a soulmate: someone who has the same worldview, who shares their values, and who enjoys the same activities.  Not every friend needs to check all those boxes.

I once saw a poster titled “A Guide to Love:”

(1) Find someone who makes you laugh.

(2) Find someone who has a good job and can cook.

(3) Find someone who is honest.

(4) Find someone who will pamper you with gifts.

(5) Find someone who is awesome in bed.

(6) Make sure these five individuals NEVER meet!

I think of friends like tools in a toolbox.  You could have friends you discuss politics with, friends you exercise with, friends you go to cultural performances with, friends you take cooking classes and exchange recipes with, friends you call at three in the morning when you get dumped, and so on.  They don’t all have to be the same person.  If you reframe your definition of friendship, your world expands…and then so does your social circle.

Think about what activities you enjoy doing, and which of those activities could be enjoyed with a friend.  For example, I’m an avid reader, I love to write, and I love crossword puzzles.  At first glance, all of those activities appear solitary.  True, I prefer to read and write alone, but I also love being part of a book club or a writers’ group.  I also love trying new physical activities, cooking, going to see plays, and drinking cocktails.  I enjoy many of those activities more when I do them with a friend, but there’s no reason my cocktail-drinking friends have to also be my snowshoeing friends.  (I have, however, snowshoed to a taco bar before, and highly recommend it.)

Once you have your own list of activities you enjoy doing that might be even more fun with a friend, I recommend taking what I call a “friendventory” – in other words, an inventory of your current toolbox.  Doing so will help identify any gaps in which you need to seek friends.  For example, winter is my favorite season, and a major part of why I moved to Maine.  (Pause while some of you shake your heads in disbelief…)  I adore being outside in the snow, I love cross-country skiing, and I’ve always wanted to try snowmobiling.  As my first full winter in Maine began, I learned that my friends didn’t embrace being outdoors in the cold like I did.  If I wanted a snowshoeing buddy, I needed to widen my search. 

People are out there who like the same things you do, and they’re happy to meet people who share their interests – you just have to find them.  Clarity about which people you’re looking for will help you in your search.

What gaps exist in your own friendventory? 

Origin Story: Birth of a Blog

Today is the first anniversary of my move to Portland, Maine, a move I made when retiring after 26 years as a U.S. diplomat.  I know most people move somewhere warmer when they retire, but I’ve never done things the conventional way, and I’m much more fun when not suffering from heatstroke.

I first visited Portland as a stranger on a “retirement reconnaissance” mission, but subsequent visits allowed me to make enough connections to fill a celebratory party a month after my move.  I thought nothing of it – isn’t making friends what you do when you move?   Open boxes, curse yourself for not having decluttered more, and then go out and meet new people?

I soon realized, however, that not everyone has a similar experience.  Several people believe that it is harder to make friends later in life, and the thought of having to make new friends often prevents people from taking steps such as moving to their dream location when they retire.

I encountered many individuals in their forties, fifties, and sixties who were facing major life transitions necessitating a shift in how they did things.  Some found themselves moving back to their hometown to provide eldercare, but no longer had friends there (or didn’t want to fall back into high school patterns).  Some were beginning to understand that their current friends didn’t support their lifestyle changes (such as becoming sober or losing weight).  Others watched as their children grew up and moved away, realizing that their own adult friendships had evaporated while they focused on parenting.  Still others were reeling from the death or divorce of a spouse who once served as the center of their social life.

Facing my own transition, I wondered why I wasn’t struggling in the same way.  I’d love to be able to claim that it was because I remind people of Gal Godot, but a quick look at my photo will make it clear that such is not the case.  It dawned on me that each time my job moved me from one country to another, I subconsciously learned how to make friends from scratch.  After all, if you just sit around and wait for a friendship to happen, it might not materialize until a week before your next move.  Without intending to, I had taken a 26-year-long course in how to take proactive steps to form a meaningful social circle…and now I want to help others do the same.

That’s the origin story of the “Expanding Your Social Circle” workshop I teach.  I envision continuing the conversation via this blog, a place where we can discuss friendship-related issues, share stories, and help people find ways to connect.  I welcome different backgrounds and perspectives, and look forward to getting to know my readers as conversations develop.

What friendship-related issues or questions would you like me to address in future blog posts?