This past year, loneliness has been searing for many people. For others, it’s been a relief to be off the hook of social obligations and to have more solitude. In either case, as vaccination rates increase and social-distancing restrictions ease, it’s time to reconnect. Venturing out again can feel disorienting, but it’s crucial that we find each other in person, because we humans are social creatures and we suffer in isolation.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, research had identified the devastating physical and mental health consequences of loneliness, including increased risk of depression and higher mortality rates. When we’re stressed, we crave connection thanks to the hormone oxytocin, which makes us want to huddle together to ride out a storm. That’s why it feels unnatural to socially distance in a crisis, even though it’s been necessary to stay physically apart during the pandemic.
Now that we have the opportunity to socialize face to face, let’s harness the gratitude we feel about reconnecting and bring it to the effort needed to deepen our relationships. Making friends and enriching friendships requires three main ingredients: warmth, regularity and vulnerability.
When we feel lonely, we can get caught up in worries about whether or not we are liked. These concerns may cause us to seize up and cool off the caring presence we might otherwise offer. Instead, focus on being a warm friend. Be curious about the people you’re with, letting them have the spotlight. Notice what you enjoy and admire about your friends. Offer your compassionate presence when someone’s having a hard time.
Friendships need regular attention in order to thrive. Take the leap to keep the contact going and initiate the next visit. As we return to in-person work and reconvene for sports, faith communities, classes and hobbies, look to strengthen connections with people you see consistently in these settings. Staying connected from afar might require more creativity, so prioritize setting up a routine for regular contact to nourish long-distance relationships.
Among those you gather with, look for the person who reciprocates your warm attention and take a risk by sharing something vulnerable. Tell this person about a difficulty you’re facing. Let her/him know what you need. Ask for help. We might think we need to trust people before sharing authentically, but the opposite is often true. We discover who among our new friends is trustworthy by sharing our vulnerability and learning how they handle it. Taking this emotional risk can turn a surface companion into a trusted friend.
For more ideas about overcoming the challenges of forming and deepening friendships in adulthood, see Kat Vellos’ guidebooks, We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships and Connected from Afar: A Guide for Staying Close When You’re Far Away.
And if you want support developing your social habits, please join me for the next cohort of my Habits Deep-Dive Course, starting May 26th.
Photo Credit: Valentina Barretto