What makes us happy? Generation after generation has tried to answer that eternal question. Can money buy us happiness? It’s complicated. Does professional achievement set us up for a fulfilling life? Not really. The answer could, in fact, be more simple – and accessible – than you might think. Friendship could be the most important indicator of health and happiness, according to two new research papers published in the British Medical Journal this month.
The studies join a mounting body of evidence to indicate a link between strong social networks and overall wellbeing. Another project – the longest study on human happiness ever to be conducted – found deep relationships to be the number one indicator of wellbeing in life. Simply put: “Good relationships lead to health and happiness,” authors Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz wrote in a recent article.
But there’s a catch. “The trick is that those relationships must be nurtured,” they add. And it turns out tending to our most precious personal relationships is challenging.
After years of pandemic adjustments, many of us have never felt more isolated, myself included. In the past month, just over a quarter of adults in Britain reported feeling lonely, according to the Office For National Statistics. In the US, three per cent of people said they had no close friends at all in 1990. That figure had risen to 12 per cent in 2021, according to surveys by Gallup and the Survey Center on American Life.
On average, we meet our best friends aged 21, according to Snapchat’s 2019 study “The Friendship Report”. Our early twenties are normally dominated by socialising, with people between the ages of 20 and 24 spending the most amount of time per day mingling than any other age group, according to the American Time Use Survey. But whole generations who have come of age in the past three years have missed out on vital opportunities to establish solid social networks, a troubling detail when we note that investing in friendships in our 20s can inform better relationships in mid-life, according to another study.
Even pre-pandemic, academics had been warning about the impact of rising individualism: a loneliness epidemic sweeping western societies. Prolonged isolation has the same effect on the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can shorten a person’s life span by as much as 15 years, according to the US National Institute on Aging. The world’s largest loneliness study found that 16- to 24-year-olds were the loneliest group, with 40 per cent reporting feeling lonely “often or very often.”
And as life responsibilities stack up, despite our best intentions the “let’s catch up soon” mantra becomes more embedded. Jobs, moves, partners and babies all take precedence as we enter mid-life, with friendships too often relegated to the sidelines.
But, just like anything else, we can actively prioritise our friendships by flexing the right muscles. “Having healthy, fulfilling relationships is its own kind of fitness – social fitness – and like physical fitness, it takes work to maintain,” write Waldinger and Schulz.
After one redundancy, a pandemic pregnancy and two years of motherhood, my own “social fitness” could do with a workout. Working from home during lockdown (goodbye work wife and coffee machine rants) and experiencing my first pregnancy behind closed doors in the shadow of Covid (hello unparalleled anxiety and unresolved trauma) definitely made me more insular. Maternity leave and spending my days speaking baby talk was the nail in the coffin.
And I know I’m not alone. Researchers in Australia found Covid-19 accelerated late modern physical disconnection, isolation and loneliness. They observed people had “pruned” their social networks, shifting from “broad, locally focused bridging networks towards more selective, online, bonding networks”.
Three years after the first lockdown, many tell me they are still waiting for their socialising mojo to come back. They complain of smaller and less active social networks. Friends don’t go out as much as before, colleagues work from home more often, and neglected friendships have struggled to heal from three years of disconnection.
But it’s not just the pandemic. As I enter my mid-30s and those golden opportunities of youth for regular socialising, such as school and university, become a distant memory, it feels like I’ve forgotten how to make – and crucially, keep – friends. Evenings spent catching up with friends in the pub have been replaced by trying to wrangle my child into bed, followed by collapsing onto the sofa, shell-shocked, in front of Netflix.
How can we open ourselves up to connection?
Start by taking stock, say Waldinger and Schulz. How are your relationships faring? “It never hurts -especially if you’ve been feeling low – to take a minute to reflect…on what you wish could be different about them.”
“If you’re the scheduling type, you could make it a regular thing; perhaps every year on New Year’s Day or the morning of your birthday, take a few moments to draw up your current social universe, and consider what you’re receiving, what you’re giving, and where you would like to be in another year.”
According to Jeffrey Hall, professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, it takes between 40 and 60 hours within the first six weeks of meeting to make a friend, which perhaps explains why I’ve struggled to feel connected to new circles of people I meet regularly since becoming a time-poor working mother.
In a longitudinal study of best friends, researchers found the amount of time invested in a friendship predicted how close the friends remained in later life.
Hall recommends removing some of the pressure and awkwardness of forcing new friendships in adulthood by instead concentrating on opportunities to build shared connections with like-minded people, like joining an exercise class, or starting a language course.
“It’s actually not dissimilar to the kind of work you have to put into building really good nutritional habits for your health, or building really good exercise habits,” he told The Atlantic’s How To Live A Good Life podcast. “It’s rewarding. It’s extremely good for your life satisfaction, your wellbeing, and your health in the long run. But it’s still work.”
Jessica Pan is an author and self-described introvert. After finding herself jobless and friendless, she realised she needed to make some radical changes to feel happier and more fulfilled. So, she took on a year-long challenge seeking out opportunities for connection she previously would have shunned, from improv classes to talking to strangers on the Tube. The experience was transformative.
“After my year of extroverting, I have no fear or embarrassment of asking someone for their number,” she said, adding that she’s made some great friends by taking that chance. “Imagine how many potential new best friends walk out of your life forever because we were afraid it might feel awkward for five seconds.”
Pan wrote about the experience in her book Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: An Introvert’s Year of Living Dangerously. Her number one piece of advice for making new friends: “Make the first move and the second move when it comes to making connections,” she says.
“We’re all busy, but if we put in that effort and quality time, we can truly make some amazing friends. If I have a small fleeting connection with someone in my local café or park, I will make a point to try to stay in touch or say hello next time I see them.”
What about nurturing our existing relationships?
Julie Beck, an Atlantic journalist who spent three years documenting hundreds of stories of friendship, believes there are six forces that help friendships flourish and thrive.
Accumulation, the act of finding friends; attention, being open to opportunities for connection; intention, putting yourself out there; ritual, maintaining a consistency of connection; imagination, being flexible in your view of what friendship should look like; and grace, being forgiving when friends fall short.
In my own life, weeks can go by in a flurry of toddler illness and work deadlines before I even notice those unopened WhatsApps from neglected friends: “How are things!’ I read guiltily, not knowing how to reply. No wonder I’m struggling to feel connected. It strikes me that I’m lacking some “ritual” as defined by Beck’s forces of friendship.
Pan is aware of the importance of this. “I try to schedule phone calls – I call my oldest best friend at least once a week when I’m walking home from work,” she says.
During the pandemic, she shifted her habits further, focusing on connecting with people in her community who she could see regularly. “I always chat with the baristas at my local café and became such good friends with the owner that she gave me her baby’s hand-me-downs when I was pregnant,” she said.
“I always try to be friendly with the parents in my son’s nursery, and I’m even starting a part-time job at a local indie bookshop because I’m craving being part of something bigger than me.”
She added: “It brings me so much joy when a big, unfriendly city like London transforms into my own village of people I know and recognise.”
For those who really are struggling to find the time for face-to-face connection in their community, a 2020 study found that even virtual connections can combat loneliness, to a certain extent.
Online connection can maintain a stable level of closeness, “but then when you get to the next level, which is: Can I make it a satisfying relationship? That’s I think where the line starts to break down,” Emily Langan, an associate communication professor at Wheaton College, said in an interview with The Atlantic. “Because what happens often is people think of satisfying relationships as being more than an online presence.”
In my own life, I’ve committed to making friendships more of a priority. Writing a list of important people, I want to be in touch with more regularly, and scheduling time in my calendar to check in with them, is, so far, proving successful, even if it feels a little formulaic.
And I’m taking Pan’s advice to reach out, and then reach out again, to new connections in my local area; I’m having coffee this week with the mum I met in the playground with the feral toddler and the nice hat. I’ve invited a friend that I don’t see regularly to see a play with me next week.
Hall’s advice to invest in opportunities for shared connection stays with me, too. I’ve been meaning to join a choir in my local area since I moved here but was put off by a trial session with a group I didn’t click with last year. I resolve to try again, and sign up to a new class, starting next month. What’s the worst that can happen?
It seems to me the proactive element of friendship making is what holds many of us back, at great cost. But with a little effort, we all have the potential to be happier and healthier – the research is clear on that. The results won’t be instantaneous, but I’m doing my best to eat my greens. Hopefully, my future self will thank me.