Maybe you feel as though you have fewer friends than you used to. After all, it’s often easier to connect with others when you’re a kid going to classes and participating in after-school activities than it is to find people you have things in common with as an adult.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve always struggled to maintain relationships. Shyness, introversion, and social anxiety can sometimes get in the way.
Loneliness is a problem for many. Unfortunately, this issue can take a toll on your health and even affect how long you live. If your social life isn’t quite where you’d like it to be, however, there are many strategies that can help you get and stay close to others.
Loneliness is a Growing Problem
Loneliness affects people of all ages. Some research has found that college students spend less time socializing with friends than they did a couple of decades ago. Additionally, studies have long found that many older adults tend to be more socially isolated, with more than one-third of adults over the age of 45 saying they feel lonely.
This problem only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more people than ever before reporting problems with loneliness. Other issues like working long hours and moving to new areas more frequently can also contribute to the problem. Surveys show that U.S. adults report having fewer close friends and less emotional support than they used to.
The Health Impacts of Loneliness
It may not be too surprising that feeling lonely is linked to mental health struggles like anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. However, it can also affect your physical health in big ways.
If you’re lonely, you’re more likely to have problems with heart disease and high blood pressure. Your immune system may plummet, leaving you less protected against infections. As you get older, your mind tends to function more poorly, putting you at risk for conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. You also need to go to the doctor or hospital more often.
In fact, driving away loneliness is so powerful that it can make you 50% more likely to live longer. This means that loneliness has the same impact on your health as a cigarette habit!
How To Feel Less Lonely
The good news is that, like other health issues, loneliness is something that you can treat. Creating deeper connections is like any other skill — it’s not something you’re born with, and it’s something you can actively learn and practice.
Find a hobby
The first step in making new friends is to spend time around new people. Becoming more connected to people with things in common can help decrease your sense of isolation.
Choose an activity you enjoy, and see if there are any local groups with that focus. If you’re not sure where your interests even lie at the moment, no problem! Try out a couple of different activities and see what sticks! You may want to look into:
- Attending a find-a-friend event (or hosting your own!) through Meetup
- Finding classes on art, dance, music, learning a language, or using computers at your local library or community college
- Joining a community band, orchestra, or choir
- Searching for a local walking group, hiking club, or sports league
- Signing up for a group swimming, cycling, or yoga class at your local YMCA or gym
You may also be able to find groups or classes that meet online. This can be a great first step when gathering in person seems intimidating. However, online connections shouldn’t completely replace face-to-face ones, as social media can sometimes lead to increased feelings of isolation.
Volunteering is a great way to not only meet people but also to feel more connected to a wider community. Look into opportunities through local nonprofit organizations, church groups, or political campaigns connected to an issue you care about. You can also sign up to help at a nearby school, hospital, animal shelter, or community garden.
Spend time on your relationships
Meeting new people is only half of the anti-loneliness equation — you also need to strengthen your existing connections. To form deeper friendships, consider:
- Planning regular in-person meetups
- Asking open-ended questions to get to know the other person better
- Being open and honest about your struggles
- Taking time to listen
- Trying new things with others you’d like to get to know better, such as scheduling a meetup over coffee with a new friend
Reach out to others who may be in the same boat
Have a friend who struggles with loneliness? How about a parent who has a hard time getting out of the house? Maybe you know of an elderly neighbor who could use a friend?
By paying attention to the social health of those around you, you could help someone else as well as yourself. Call someone up for a little chat or schedule an outing to a nearby place you’d like to explore.
Getting Professional Help for Loneliness
In some cases, feelings of loneliness can grow too strong to deal with on your own. A mental health provider can provide treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help reduce loneliness. A provider trained in CBT can even help you learn and practice new social skills and move past feelings of anxiety when talking to new people.
If you’re not sure where to start in getting outside help, talk to your primary care provider. Fighting loneliness is possible, but you often have to take the step of reaching out!