Why is it so hard to make friends? In a year when so many viruses have been exposed, researchers keep returning to one in particular: the epidemic of loneliness. It’s the twist of the knife behind so many societal ills, from depression to addiction to violence, and as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One study found nearly 36 percent of Americans felt it was “hard” or “very hard” to make friendships. Today we diagnose the roots of loneliness and search for solutions. And should you ever need a friend, you have one in me — write anytime.
Nick Fouriezos, Senior Editor
who is hurting, and why
1. Challenges Across Generations
Loneliness is so serious that both Japan and Britain have named “ministers of loneliness” in recent years. Former British Prime Minister Theresa May launched the position because more than 9 million Britons reported often or always feeling lonely (with 4 million of them being over 50). The U.K. isn’t alone. A study of older adults in 11 high-income countries showed high levels of social isolation in France (31 percent), Australia (25 percent) and the United States (21 percent). And counterintuitively, seniors aren’t bearing the brunt of this: Over a third of Americans reported “serious loneliness” in a recent Harvard survey, including 51 percent of mothers with young children and 61 percent of young adults aged 18 to 25. A number of organizations have been formed to combat loneliness by connecting old and young, with older netizens serving as remote pen pals, homework helpers and mentors.
2. Our Findings
Nearly half. That’s the portion of more than 300 OZY readers who said this week in a survey that making friends is “hard.” Only 30 percent said it was “easy.” The challenge of making friends has gotten harder with age, the majority said. Some of that challenge is self-inflicted: “I find I’ve become fussier as I’ve gotten older. My time feels more precious,” one Gen Xer said. But, for others, finding the outlets for forging friendships is the hard part. “Creating new friendships requires new settings, and as I age I find my willingness to experience new things dwindles,” said another Gen Xer. “This, combined with a lack of trust in people earned by difficult experience have made me less willing to take a chance on others,” the reader explained.
In Japan, the term hikikomori — combining the verb hiki, to “withdraw,” and komori, to be inside — is used to describe Japanese youth, mostly men, who isolate themselves from society. It first gained attention in the ’90s, when an economic recession led to career setbacks throughout Japan. With the world’s fastest-aging population, coupled with a loneliness epidemic among seniors, Japan’s insurance companies offer landlords packages to cover missed rents from tenants who die alone at home. A cottage industry has emerged in response to the hikikomori, from a $2,800 holographic pop star turned companion to rent-a-sister services in which women help hikikomori rejoin society by dragging them out of their bedrooms for $250 a session. That may seem strange … although if it is, then so is spending $2,500 to get a Cameo callout from Caitlyn Jenner.
You can’t imagine what you can’t say, so perhaps the friendship problem relates to a lack of the right words. English, the most commonly spoken language in the world, for example, has only one word for love. But the ancient Greeks had six, including philia, or deep friendship. Still, that’s no match for Sanskrit, which has 96, many of which examine the nuances of platonic love. The Mandarin word yuánfèn, 缘分, refers to a relationship ordained by fate or destiny. In other words, one between kindred souls. What new words would you create to signify loving friendship? Email us your thoughts here.
5. ‘Intimacy’ for Hire
The booming boyfriends-for-rent business is throwing Chinese helicopter parents off the scent. Young Chinese women, facing intense pressure to couple up in their 20s, enlist men to play the part for needed occasions. One Alibaba blogger recounted the $264 (roughly 1,500 yuan) per day experience, which came with undivided attention but barred “dodgy” physical contact. Still, such services — and the parental pressure necessitating them — force women to perform dog-and-pony shows that could underscore rampant loneliness. In the United States, cuddling is now commoditized by Cuddle Comfort, an app that brings physical contact to your door the way Uber Eats brings burgers and wings.
For those who struggle with sleep — an ailment that increased during COVID — the bias toward daytime social activity can feel too real. Alone with their thoughts at night, people are increasingly turning toward more manufactured connections. The Sleep With Me podcast began with host Drew Ackerman playing “your boring drunk friend,” as he put it, to help lull listeners to sleep. More recently, the TikTok user @mackickinback amassed more than 1 million followers posting videos of her reading bedtime stories and wishing people a good night in soothing ways. She’s a college student who previously posted kink-normalizing content, and perhaps it says something about loneliness that she left social media in recent months to preserve her mental health.
7. On the Move
Millennials and Gen Z experience higher rates of anxiety than Gen X and baby boomers, an anxiousness that manifests in social settings as much as in educational or career environments. Social mobility plays a role too: A 2015 survey by friendship app Patook found that more than half of those who had spent less than five years in a place found it difficult to find friends, while it was much easier for those who stayed in place longer. Millennials are moving more than past generations, although more of the workforce across all ages is mobile. Many OZY readers suggest recent moves for jobs or to retire had left them socially unmoored: “I moved to a different state after retirement to be physically closer to my son,” one said. “Most of the people my age have lived here their entire adult lives and have lifelong friends. It is difficult to feel like I fit in.”
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In 1977, the majority of college students placed friends above family, religion or work as key to a meaningful life in interviews conducted by the psychologist Eric Klinger. Four decades later, in 2017, Americans placed family (69%), career (34%), money (23%) and faith (20%) above friendship (19%). “Friendships are hard to maintain with so many competing demands on my time,” said one OZY reader and parent of 11-year-old twins who also works and volunteers, and whose closest friends are half a continent away. “We stay in touch by phone and with infrequent visits.”
A friend recently told me he felt there were two ages of the internet: when he had it in his pocket, and when he didn’t. The smartphone has changed our relationships, keeping us connected every moment of every day — but perhaps not as meaningfully connected, as research and anecdotes suggest that social media interactions provide only a mirage of connectivity. There are real benefits, with people finding new online communities around shared hobbies, such as cooking or birding. Knowing that your childhood or college friends are only a click away may have also shifted the risk vs. reward equation of making new friends. “I think social media has made it harder to have real friends not just for people my age but for people of all ages,” said one boomer in our survey. “Social media has created a situation where someone could have 400 friends on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and be totally lonely.”
3. Neighborly Norms
With your social needs partially met, albeit unsatisfactorily, by digital relationships, is it worth suffering through the awkwardness of speaking to strangers to become friends with people in your new neighborhood? Many Americans say it’s not, as 66 percent reported they don’t know their neighbors in one survey (an especially odd fact, given that most people settle in neighborhoods with people who share their partisan beliefs). People in the Midwest are most likely to know their neighbors, with 36 percent saying they consider them as friends, which may also be tied to the fact that Midwesterners are the most likely to stay in their hometowns.
In Speaking of Friendship, women’s studies experts Mary Strong and Helen Gouldner describe middle-class adults as having “friendship budgets” — the time they can allot to new friends after taking work, families and prior friends into account. Surging inequality has only added stress to that limited budget, as childcare prices have skyrocketed and more couples both work to meet rising costs. Plus, people making less and paying more means less expendable income to engage in old forms of making friends — a trend calcified by COVID-19, as more than 40 percent of people who spent money on movies, event tickets or at bars now say they plan to spend less on those activities.
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The rapper 21 Savage examines a failed friendship in this 2018 track, rapping that he prefers loyalty, the action, over love, the emotion: “You can love or hate me and still have my back,” he sings. “I would have went to war with the world on your call. Thought you had my back, you let me fall.” The Atlanta-raised Grammy Award winner emphasizes friendship over romance, while underscoring the little things that define a relationship, such as shooting hoops, with his tragic refrain: “Now I gotta ball without you.”
2. What About Your Friends?
The TLC classic was written by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Dallas Austin early on, previewing the empowering style — somehow combining edgy and playful effortlessly — that would help launch the ’90s band into becoming one of the bestselling American girl groups of all time. The third single on their debut album reflects on friendships tested as their circumstances change. The song suggests fame and fortune won’t rock real relationships, and despite going bankrupt in 1995 and then dormant in the early aughts, the band indeed mounted a comeback together — although without Lopes, who died in a 2002 car accident.
3. I Am a Meme Now — and So Are You
Tim Kreider writes about the surreal experience of having his words — “If we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known” — taken out of context and made into a massively popular Gen Z meme. His reflections, particularly that such emotional intimacy seemed to convey a “greater-than-normal horror of human interaction peculiar to internet generations,” are worth considering in relation to elusive friendships.
The Joni Mitchell tune is an old ode to love, but lost in its more famous lines is a dissection of the war time wages on friendships. “But now old friends are acting strange. They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed,” the Canadian artist sings. Life stages change relationships. Her resolution “that something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day” quells some of the existential angst.
5. When Harry Met Sally
The 1989 Nora Ephron romantic comedy debates whether men and women can be friends but is really a reflection on the essence of friendship itself — from the two eponymous characters to the close friends who guide them through a dozen formative years. “Anyway, it’s about old friends,” as Sally says in the film’s climactic scene, while “Auld Lang Syne” plays on.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death led to mass gatherings of people united in their fight against racial injustice … which is why it’s not surprising many of those activists formed friendships born from that experience. Job losses led to extra free time for many Americans, who responded by volunteering in record amounts in 2020, with the American Red Cross alone seeing a 20 percent jump in new volunteer applications. Nonprofit websites that foster friendship abound, such as the U.K.-based Samaritans, which offers phone services for those in distress, and the India-founded Granny Cloud, which helps “granny” volunteers conduct virtual classes with underprivileged youth worldwide.
2. Better Social Media
Tinder feels heartless, Yik Yak quickly descended into hate speech, Reddit is too often misogynistic. Is there a safe space on the internet for genuine friendship that also bridges the generational divide? Apps have emerged promising better vibes, from Librex, which seeks to promote “authentic conversations and discourse,” to Unmasked, an anonymous app fostering conversations around mental health. Still to be determined? Clubhouse, which has seen sexism and racism but has also prompted unfettered conversations for pro-democracy activists worldwide, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The massively popular YouTube show “Critical Role” documents a bunch of voice actor friends who play Dungeons & Dragons each week. Their program exploded into a stand-alone media brand after raising more than $11 million in 45 days on Kickstarter in 2019. And as DnD groups split up during the pandemic, either due to shutdowns or members moving away, players increasingly shifted online. Virtual DnD platforms such as Roll20.net provided a crucial lifeline, as did other online versions of popular games such as Settlers of Cataan and Pandemic, helping friends stay in touch even as in-person interactions were limited.
4. Shared Melodies
When an Italian living in London heard his neighbor play the piano through their shared wall, he left a note asking if they could play “My Heart Will Go On” at a specific time. Without knowing anything about each other, the pair began playing a duet at 2 p.m. each weekend. Finally, after weeks, the duo met: Giorgio Lo Porto and Emil, a 78-year-old Polish man who was living there temporarily after losing his wife to COVID in December. They played one last duet, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” before Emil moved out in February. The story has a tearful ending, as Lo Porto shared in mid-March that he had gotten word that Emil had passed, “and now he is reunited with his wife.” It serves as a reminder of the way music can treat loneliness, and connections can be made without saying a single word.
5. Robots and Virtual Reality
People often think of artificial intelligence and virtual reality as the province of youngsters. But the real market should be baby boomers who, while perhaps lacking some technical proficiencies, could benefit most from connectivity tech. That’s why the AARP has invested in VR programs like Alcove, which uses an Oculus headset to stream a living room that can help generations of families play board games or watch movies together across borders. Newer, friendlier robots are pioneering senior care, cheerily reminding elders to take their medicine and checking in on their emotional well-being — not to mention robot pets! The market could be lucrative, with baby boomers reporting more disposable income and twice as much median income as millennials in 2019.