Last December, I rode my bike from my brother’s apartment to Chicago’s Union Station and got on a 52-hour train to San Francisco. It was my fifth move in as many years.
I’m in my mid-20s, and I’ve moved over a dozen times. Since college, due to work and school, I’ve lived in Boston, Lusaka, Delhi, Chicago, and now, San Francisco. I’ve done those moves alone, and although I’ve had amazing support from my friends, family, and co-workers, it’s still quite a different experience from moving with a family or a partner.
I’ve figured out that learning to make the most of frequent moving is learning to make the most out of an imperfect situation: All kinds of relationships are difficult to sustain in the same way over distances and time zones. Being mobile is only one way of living life, and by living this way — for those of us who have the privilege to choose to move or to stay home — we inherently miss out on all the other ways to live and build community. But it’s the only life I know, and it is a life I love. I’ve found a lot of joy and meaning in moving, exploring new cities, meeting people very different from me, and working all over the world. And I’ve learned a lot from people wiser than me about how to move well as a single young person.
Chances are you’ve already got at least some of your logistics ironed out; you know which neighborhood you’ll be living in or what your job will be. Maybe you even know already where the grocery store is. When it comes to the more ineffable stuff, though, it can be a lot harder to plan in advance. You might have questions like “How do I make friends?” “How do I look after my well-being?” “Where does dating slot in?” And it can be daunting to answer them on your own.
Here’s some advice from my own moves, bolstered by the insight of a handful of friendship experts. There are a few tactics you can use, particularly based on wherever it is you wind up living, and they break down as follows: Do everything, keep in touch with people, and take time for yourself in ways that aren’t lonely — but understand that you will be lonely at times, and that’s okay.
The most important thing for me, being in a new city, is to put yourself out there to meet people. This could be through work, exercise groups, meetups, social media, volunteering, or even dating apps. This does not have to break the budget. In every place I’ve moved to, I’ve been able to find activities, such as outdoor exercise and volunteer groups, that are completely free to join. As your budget allows, you could also put a small amount of money into a social fund for these activities each month.
I spoke with Marisa Franco, a psychologist and friendship researcher, and Gillian Sandstrom, a researcher at the University of Sussex, about transitions. Both discussed the “liking gap” — people like you more than you think! Going into unfamiliar events and conversations with strangers can be a better experience, even for self-identified introverts, if you realize it’s likely to be a good experience where people like you. Sandstrom found that older adults, having accumulated this knowledge, “anticipate that a conversation with a stranger — any stranger — will be better than younger people do” since they expect a better outcome from such conversations.
My first few days in Delhi, one of my colleagues invited me to three events, and I dragged my tired, jet-lagged self to each one, where I made friends with my colleagues, met someone who invited me to join a football club (I’m still lurking on the WhatsApp group from across the world), and joined a board game/tech for development group. Finding sustainable communities that you see regularly and can invest in, as Allie Volpe wrote for Vox, is key to thriving in a new place.
When you’re meeting people, Franco told me, it’s often good to meet people who are also in life transition stages. This could be other people new to a city or country, people who have just graduated from college, or people who have recently gone through a breakup and are looking for friends. “It’s a shame if you avoid certain ways of connecting because you don’t think that they’re good,” she said, reiterating the importance of connecting through different channels, whether it’s social media, a group for people from the country or city you’re from, or an exercise or other hobby group.
Loose connections are also important. It’s easy to live in a bubble made up of only people who live and think like you, but this robs you of diverse connections and ideas. Sandstrom worked on a huge study on kindness with people from 150 different countries and found that people often reported kindness in interactions from strangers. People may also find conversations with strangers emotionally fulfilling — if they can speak to a particular emotional experience — or that they learn something from talking to people across generations.
Keep in touch
Keeping in touch is important. Reconnect with friends/acquaintances/friends of friends in the city you’re in, and communicate virtually with friends and family far away.
I spoke with Jeff Hall, a researcher at the University of Kansas, about maintaining friendships over time. He told me how young people who prioritize mobility in their lives often have trouble maintaining friendships, learning to treat the friendships they do have “as impermanent because they are; you learn the impermanence of life.” But while friendships may be impermanent, it’s not inevitable that they end when you move away from a place.
Something to keep in mind with reconnecting with old friends is that if you’ve fallen out of touch, it’s not necessarily your fault. It’s common, Hall told me, “to believe that you are in the driver’s seat in friendship.” “What we know,” he said, “is that conception is not accurate; other people choose to be your friend and choose to reciprocate.” People might fall away because of a busy job or a relationship or other things that are not related to you, he told me, but then they’ll be happy to see you years or even decades later.
“The bottom line is, if people fall away from each other because of life, it’s really important to generate an attitude of sympathy and understanding toward other people ... because it’s not about you. If you make it all about yourself, you miss the opportunity for regrowth and renewal.” On the flip side, if it’s you who’s fallen out of touch due to moving or life, it’s completely good and fine to reach out to folks even if a lot of time has passed. They’ll likely be delighted to hear from you!
Now that I’m back in the US, where I grew up, I have found the truth in this. My friends in San Francisco consist of people I’ve met here, people I’ve stayed in touch with over the years, and people I’d fallen out of touch with for years for various reasons but reconnected with when I moved to the city. I also try to introduce my different friends from different stages of life to each other. This makes it easier for me to stay in touch and also for new friendships to form between them.
As for keeping in touch with people far away, I spoke with Hall about different modalities of communication. He talked about the importance of “rich channels of communication,” such as phone or video calls, for keeping in touch first. Text is the next best — like texting someone when something reminds you of them — and finally, passively liking posts on social media. Putting time and energy into long-distance friendships and other relationships is key to maintaining the friendship.
Visiting family and friends when financially possible is also important. I’ve found my relationship with my family has actually strengthened while living far away. Because I’m only able to visit them one to two times a year, I spend a lot of quality time with them when I see them. I have other friends who call their families every day, and while my family calls less often (although we have an active group chat), it has been great to see how different families find cadences that work for them.
This tip is also related to the first! Keeping in touch with old friends, Franco said, can make you feel more grounded, secure, and authentic, which will further give you confidence to put yourself out there and make new friends.
Take time for yourself
Taking time for yourself is especially important for self-identified extroverts like me. It’s easy in a new city to get into a cycle of meeting people and going to things every single day, which is great but unsustainable for all but the most social of us.
For me, this has looked different in different places. In Delhi, it meant eating kati rolls on my balcony at sunset and spending weekends taking the metro to different historical sites. In Chicago, it was biking along the lakefront every day. In San Francisco, it has been city hiking and trying to find every public staircase in the city.
“Whether we look at our alone time as alone time or lonely depends on things like how we’re doing mentally,” Franco said. “Part of it is, honestly, just taking care of your mental health more generally so you feel replenished rather than threatened by alone time.” So going to therapy, exercising, staying connected with friends or family “are all things you can think about doing so you can truly enjoy alone time.”
This may be exercising, reading a book, cooking, or watching TV — basically, doing something you love by yourself. Having time alone without being lonely is vital to making a relocation healthy and sustainable.
All this said, even with the smoothest transitions, there are downsides to being on the move. “Loneliness is going to be part of the process,” Franco said. “It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong.”
Whether you’re moving to a new city for a year or the rest of your life, the first few months can be a daunting time. Learning to balance time alone, new friends, and existing relationships won’t make a move perfect, but can make it much better.
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