Americans are on the move, in a pandemic-related phenomenon that real estate experts have dubbed the Great Reshuffling. A July 2021 Post-Schar School poll found that 17 percent of Americans had moved since the pandemic started, while more than 1 in 4 had considered taking the plunge. In many cases, this means that Americans are seizing the chance to live in newly affordable cities or to stake out space for themselves in suddenly thriving exurbs. But even if a move is positive, relocating, particularly during a pandemic, can also spell loneliness.
Loneliness isn’t just a miserable feeling. It’s an emotional weight that can bleed into nearly every aspect of our lives. According to Irene Levine, a Westchester County, N.Y.-based psychologist and author of “Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Break-up with Your Best Friend,” loneliness can interfere with your relationships, self-concept and productivity, leading to stress levels that are deleterious to your physical health. A large longitudinal study found that people of all ages reporting chronic loneliness were at a significantly higher risk of mortality and various forms of cardiovascular disease.
According to Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of “Friendship in the Age of Loneliness,” loneliness was on the rise even before the pandemic brought shutdowns and social distancing. Now it’s at even higher levels. A Survey Center on American Life poll about friendships conducted in May found that about half of Americans said they felt “lonely or isolated” over the past week, including 6 percent who said “nearly every day” or more.
And not only have many of us moved during the pandemic, the coronavirus also has completely changed how we gather together (or don’t) for work and socializing. This makes it more difficult to forge friendships at all, and especially in a new place.
“Often the workplace is the most fertile place for making friends because there’s people that have your common interests and you’re with them many hours during the week,” said Levine. In fact, in the Survey Center on American Life’s friendship poll, 54 percent of respondents said they had made most of their close friends through their job or their partner’s job. But with so many of us working remotely, colleagues might not see each other in real life or even be close enough for in-person get-togethers. And virtual connections, Levine said, can be “more tenuous” than those forged over lunch or at the water cooler.
Furthermore, although you might be more comfortable with outdoor gatherings when you do socialize, shorter, colder days are making these events less viable. Add to that the isolation that’s common over the holidays in the best of times, and the situation can start to look pretty bleak. But that doesn’t mean you should hibernate with a cozy blanket and your remote control until spring. According to experts, there are steps you can take to ease your loneliness – whether you’re new in town during a pandemic in the dead of winter or just in need of more connections.
Know you’re not alone. If the pandemic has a silver lining, it’s the fact that we’re finally addressing loneliness, says Poswolsky. Declining social support and mental health issues have been simmering under the surface for years, but “we weren’t talking about them in plain language before.” The conversations we are having help us appreciate how essential relationships are. And, perhaps as importantly, they let us know we’re not the only ones feeling isolated.
This realization helps reduce shame, which is an important first step toward connecting, says Miriam Kirmayer, clinical psychologist and friendship expert. “When we feel lonely, but then we judge ourselves over that, it makes it even harder to put ourselves out there and to be vulnerable.”
Pause. Before diving headfirst into the friendship pool, reflect on what you’re looking for in a friendship. Ask yourself, “How have I changed during this time? And what do I want out of my friendships moving forward?” said Poswolsky. While some people may decide they want to return to concerts, parks and events with all their friends in 2022, others may prioritize talking to three or four close friends on a regular basis. While both approaches are valid, Poswolsky says the pandemic has nudged many of us to realize how much more we value deep friendships with a handful of people versus randomly chatting with someone at a party or liking a friend’s social media post.
Also, take time to consider where you stand on covid-19 precautions. Kirmayer suggests determining in advance “what’s a preference and what’s a nonnegotiable.”
How you approach the covid conversation depends on the circumstances, but it’s vital to communicate your needs. “Those kinds of conversations can make us feel incredibly vulnerable, but it really can be essential to feeling close, connected and safe in our relationship,” said Kirmayer. If you’re not on the same page, it’s better to know that up front.
Make the first move. According to Levine, people who move often believe that everyone in their new location already has friends. “And it’s simply not true.” As people’s circumstances change, so do their friendships — no matter how deep their roots in a particular place.
That said, as the new kid on the block, you need to take the initiative. “You almost have to put the bat signal out there, so then people can respond,” said Poswolsky. He acknowledges how hard it can be but suggests asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen. While being ignored or rejected is never fun, “a little bit of rejection is part of being an adult.”
Get out of the house. Simply going out in public can make you feel less isolated, even if you’re only having casual interactions with the barista at your local coffee shop or the front desk person at the gym. “We don’t want to undervalue our connections with strangers,” said Kirmayer, who says research shows we enjoy these types of “weak-tie” interactions more than we realize, especially when we’re “starved for social connection.”
Plus, repeatedly going to the same place at around the same time means you’re more likely to see the same people, which can spark deeper connections. According to Kirmayer, “The more you can interact with people over time, the more opportunity there is to build that friendship.” Depending on your comfort level (and the weather) that might mean working at the same cafe every day or hitting the same dog park on a regular basis.
Establish a social routine. Because consistency is so important for building connection, you should also try doing something social, virtually or in person, on a routine basis, as well. Plus, engaging in an activity rather than just hanging out may help friendships evolve more naturally, particularly for men, says Billy Baker, the author of “We Need to Hang Out: A Memoir of Making Friends.” Generally, “women get together and they talk face to face,” Baker said. “And when men get together they talk shoulder to shoulder.”
Regular meetings also eliminate the scheduling hassles that interfere with making plans. “There’s nothing more annoying than that group text throwing out dates to get together,” said Baker, who added that people with successful social lives generally engage in regularly scheduled events (think poker night or book club) with their friends. If you haven’t yet snagged an invitation to a recurring event, start your own. Poswolsky suggests keeping scheduling simple by meeting in the park or in a cafe every week or every month.
Start small. “We’re out of practice,” said Poswolsky. “To jump into the deep end right away and go to a huge event with 200 strangers is not the move.” He advises keeping your social outings smaller and short and gradually extending the duration and increasing the group size as you feel more comfortable. You could also meet virtually before committing to an in-person get-together, says Kirmayer.
Be kind. A little kindness goes a long way. No matter how stressed and isolated you feel, remember that everyone has their own private struggles. “Overlook small affronts,” said Levine. “Recognize that a lot of people are going through tough times.”
According to Kirmayer, “It feels really good to reach out when we're struggling, but it also feels really good to reach out to someone who's struggling.”
Be patient. A solid friendship doesn’t develop overnight. “It really does take time,” Poswolsky said. He compares the process to running a marathon. “You run a few miles a couple times a week and then you’re able to run 10 miles on a Sunday, but you’re not just going and running 26 miles the next day.”
The wait, however, is worth it. Baker recalls how much it meant when his friends checked in on each other via group texts at the start of the pandemic. “I feel like covid, if anything, was a reminder of why we have friends — which is to have our back.”
Pam Moore is a Boulder, Colo., freelance writer and host of the Real Fit podcast, featuring conversations with women athletes on body image, confidence, and more. Visit her at pam-moore.com.