Pandemic isolation and social distancing took a huge toll on our social lives over the past 18 months.
Maintaining our friendships has been harder than usual “in this era of no hugs and no handshakes,” says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D, a psychologist and producer of The Friendship Blog, an online advice column. “Not only is making new friends more difficult now, but many of us have less psychic energy to do so because of the stress associated with COVID-19 and the havoc it wrought on our lives and livelihood.”
Medical experts often remind us that our health and emotional well-being are influenced by the company we keep.
Research shows that adults with an active social network have enhanced immunity, increased longevity and a lower risk for depression and dementia. A well-known study conducted by Cigna, the health insurance company, found that loneliness had the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.
Simply put, friendship is good medicine.
Get it together
Social media platforms provide a much-needed sense of connection during periods of lockdown. But commenting on Facebook selfies and sharing photos of your lunch on Instagram are no match for communing in person.
While Americans collect hundreds of friends and followers on social networks, many report a lack of depth in these relationships, says Shasta Nelson, author of “Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness” (Seal Press). “Virtual friendships don’t carry as many emotional health benefits, unless you’re also spending time together offline,” she adds.
With or without pandemic restrictions, meeting and making new friends remains a challenge — especially for retirees, empty nesters, and people who work from home.
Try these tips to expand or enrich your own friendship circle:
• Be proactive. Don’t wait for others to call. “If you want to start a new friendship or revive an old one, you have to reach out several times,” Nelson advises. “Friendship takes mutual effort. There’s no other way to foster a real relationship.”
• Look for kindred spirits in your neighborhood. Levine suggests checking out apps like Nextdoor or a civic club for potential friendships. Start a walking group, or host an outdoor coffee hour or book group at a local park.
• Reach out to colleagues. Schedule phone time after work hours with former or current co-workers who share your interests.
• Locate old school friends on social media. “Start with an email to assess their interest in reconnecting with you,” Levine says.
• Express sincere interest in people. Polish your conversation skills and pay attention to social cues. Be a careful listener; keep an open mind.
• Send snail mail. Check your address book for neglected relationships to revive. “With more time on their hands, many people enjoy getting a letter or a card from a friend,” Levine suggests.
• Don’t take old friendships for granted. Find thoughtful ways to show your appreciation. Stay in touch regularly.
Build a tribe
Keep in mind that some friendships naturally fade over time. Sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst found that most people re-evaluate or replace about half of their friends every seven years, typically after a major change in residence, career or lifestyle.
New friendships need time to grow and deepen, Levine reminds us. It’s wise to “proceed slowly while keeping our expectations in check,” she says. The idea of having one best friend, for instance, is often idealized in films and TV sitcoms. But Levine says it’s more realistic to build a team of close friends. Having a variety of pals puts less strain on one friendship.
“No person — whether a friend, spouse or lover — can fulfill all of an individual’s needs for friendship and support,” Levine says. “Some friends are better listeners; others are role models who set the bar higher for our career goals; others are kindred spirits with whom we have shared interests. Nurture a few close friendships to meet your various needs.”
Best of all, she adds, having a variety of healthy friendships guarantees that you’ll almost always find someone who has time for you.
Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published lifestyles columnist based in Royal Oak. Visit cindylaferlehappythings.blogspot.com.
How to gather safely
To protect yourself and loved ones from the COVID-19 Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends these guidelines for social gatherings.
• If you host a party, plan it outdoors if weather permits.
• Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
• Choose small gatherings over large ones. Avoid events that don’t allow 6 feet of space between guests.
• Check with hosts to discuss COVID-19 safety guidelines.
• Wear a mask in indoor public spaces if you’re not fully vaccinated (ages 2 or older). Generally, you don’t need a mask in uncrowded outdoor settings.
• Wear a mask at crowded events, in communities with high numbers of COVID-19 cases or if you’ll close with others who are not fully vaccinated.
• Stay home if feel ill. Know when and where to get tested for COVID-19, and know when to quarantine.