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Friendships are crucial to survive the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic. Why do they feel so hard?

This period of social distancing may increase our loneliness, but it’s really only exacerbating a problem that’s been building for years.

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Part of the Pandemic Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


Between 2010 and 2017, I moved across the country 5 times, living in 5 different states in every part of the US.
I made friends in each of those places, and when I moved on to the ntext, the friendships quickly faded.
When I finally settled down again and reached for the phone, I realized that I hadn’t made a real, lasting friendship since I was in school.
And it isn’t just me. A Pew Research poll of 1,011 adults reveals that one-third of Americans feel they have a support network only some of the time.
Millennials may be emerging as the loneliest generation. In one market research survey, 30% reported feeling lonely “often” or “always.”
This period of social distancing to slow the progress of Covid-19 only complicates what has been a steady decline in human connection.
But study and after study confirms that friendships are a key component of a long and happy life.
In fact, research by George Vaillant, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard University, found that a predictor of whether someone would be alive at age 80 was the answer to this question:
“Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at 4 in the morning to tell your troubles to?”
So what’s stopping us from building these important connections?
Time is certainly one factor. According to a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, it takes an average of 50 hours together to consider someone a casual friend, and 90 hours before you regard them as a good friend.
Children can also get in the way of nurturing friendships, especially for women. Children reduce the hours per week a woman spends with friends from 14 to 5.
It seems counterintuitive, but social media may have a negative effect on our ability to maintain friendships. As our “friend counts” increase, our IRL friendships suffer.
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar found that the number of friendships we can maintain is related to the size of our brain’s neocortex. And online friends take up space that we won’t have available for new friends IRL.
And as our time spent engaging with digital media and social networks continues to rise, the time we have to spend with friends vanishes.
The changing shape of the economy has also affected our abilities to connect. Nearly 20% of Americans work nonstandard hours.
There have been big increases in the number of remote workers in the US as well. And 19% of them report loneliness as their biggest challenge. Now, imagine millions more in the same boat during the pandemic.
Without dedicated time to “unplug” and more drains on our leisure time overall, it becomes hard to build routines that involve friends.
If you struggle with forming adult friendships, experts have some useful advice. Psychologist Anna Akbari suggests thinking of friendship as a kind of networking that has enormous personal payoffs. “Choose the individuals deliberately and thoughtfully invest in them by putting in quality time.”
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair explains, “Usually the basis of making a friend is a shared experience.”
As adults, we often need to seek out these experiences. Blair suggests finding a group or class that feeds your passions, or volunteering for a cause that’s important to you, when this is over. 
Jackie Luo, who runs IRL society, recommends that we boldly push past small talk and open up about the big things happening in our lives.
There’s no way to completely avoid the initial awkwardness of moving someone from “acquaintance” to “friend,”
but putting the effort into building real friendships is always worth it.
Right now, nurturing our friendships requires extra effort.
But it’s times like these that we need each other more than ever.

Correction: This comic has been updated to cite the correct research study by psychiatrist George Vaillant.

Selected Sources:

“Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore” The Atlantic

“The Friendship Crisis: Making and Keeping Friends as an Adult” Parents.com

“Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?” The New York Times.

“Millennials are officially the loneliest generation” Vice

“How Friendships Change When You Become an Adult” The Atlantic

Aubrey Hirsch is a writer and illustrator in Berkeley, California. Her work has appeared in the Nib, the New York Times, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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