You’re reading Here, Try This – our month-long plan encouraging you to try something new every day.
One of the biggest challenges of wading through pandemic life is maintaining friendships – it’s hard staying connected to the people we care about when we’re currently not allowed to go outside for anything other than essential purposes and so many of us are suffering from serious Zoom fatigue.
So when we say that 2021 might be the perfect time to make new friends, we realise that sounds ambitious. Rash even. But stay with us a moment.
Yes, making new friends as an adult is challenging even in non-Corona times. A pre-pandemic study by Red Cross in partnership with Coop revealed more than nine million adults in the UK are often or always lonely.
But given the mental health challenges of lockdown – whether that the solitude of living alone, or the overwhelm of family or house-share life – it can be more powerful than ever to connect with people outside your immediate circle.
“Human beings are a social species that relies on cooperation to survive and thrive,” as Deidré Wallace, clinical psychologist, relationship therapist and educator, explains. “So when they get left alone for long periods, they can start feeling lonely, which can lead to feelings of isolation and worthlessness.” As key workers, parents and anyone with caring responsibilities knows, it’s also possible to feel lonely when we spend lots of time looking after others.
But here’s the surprising part again. “Right now, it’s a great time for making new friends,” says Wallace.
Whether you’re a social bee who’s missing the connections you usually find easy to make in your work or free time, or the more introverted type who hasn’t sought new friends in a while but feels the need to now, here’s where to start.
“A lot of people are only too grateful to chat whilst standing in the queues we see outside most shops – even though they may be standing two meters apart and wearing a mask,” says Wallace. “Just try it. You’ll be surprised just how friendly and approachable people have become.”
The same is true of parklife – you don’t have to break lockdown rules to say hello to the neighbours you see looping the same paths every day or week.
If you do manage to pluck up the courage to speak to someone in person, from a distance, grasp the opportunity. “Who knows, while you natter, you may just have just made a new friend or important contact,” adds Wallace, who recommends asking questions as a way to warm up conversation. “Good communication is an important skill and this is an opportunity to practise.”
Another way to connect in person for people less keen on actually saying hello on the street is to take on the challenge of smiling at a stranger. “Seeing someone smile because of your smile can only change the general feeling of malaise and anxiety. And what a great way to meet a new friend!” says Wallace.
Interacting with strangers is not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, so another option is to nurture and build friendships online. If that sounds impossibly vague or and like hard work given how many of us are exhausted with staring at screens right now, Wallace has some tips.
“Start a Facebook Group with an interesting focus that people can contribute and comment on,” she says. “You can check out other Facebook groups for ideas. It could even be a local Facebook group, and as the members grow, you could decide to meet up after the pandemic is over.”
As well as the potential for relatively easy meet-ups after the pandemic, there’s a deeper reason to socialise online with people that live near you.
“Covid is helping us recognise the need for local communities that we can feel we belong to.” reflects Wallace. “And as more people choose to work from home, the more they will need their surrounding community to offer better support, places to socialise and network, and so on.”
It’s an energy game
There’s an irony to all this: forming new friendships requires energy, but so many of us feel completely depleted right now, given our existing responsibilities, the stress of work (or the lack of it), and the seemingly endless news cycle and monotony of lockdown life. Finding the motivation for friendships, new or old, may seem low on the agenda, but keep the mental health benefits in mind.
Even something as simple as taking your ear buds out on a walk can be a small step towards sending the right message to people around you, and the body language signals that suggest you want to connect, says Wallace. So find your own version of opening up to people, whatever that may be.
“It is important to gain new friends as they can reflect where you are in life but also new friends bring a new energy” Wallace concludes. “They make life more exciting as they can bring new conversation and insights that can help you grow. And they may also introduce you to new people and new opportunities.”
This new year, we focus on fun, not denial (because we’ve all had enough of that). Follow our month-long plan, with a new Here, Try This idea each day, spanning easy ways to engage your body and mind, inspiration for your food and home, and tips for boosting how you feel – inside and out.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.