Marisa G. Franco is a psychologist and author of the book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – And Keep – Friends, from which this essay has been adapted.
Loneliness is a crisis worsening each year. A 2013 analysis of 177,653 participants found that friendship networks had been shrinking for the preceding 35 years. Someone living in the 2000s has four fewer friends, on average, than someone living in the early 1980s. Another analysis found that four times as many people have no friends in 2021 compared with 1990. And research finds loneliness worsened in the pandemic. These trends led anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz to conclude in Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, “We are an anti-human society. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” This loneliness, according to research, hinders our sleep, mental and physical health.
And yet, friendship should happen organically, we tell ourselves, even as the writings on the wall reveal it hasn’t been. To be fair, we may rely on this myth because in childhood, “organically” was how friendship worked. School settings provided us with continuous unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability, which sociologists consider the ingredients for organic connection. And yet, as adults, we haven’t quite realized that most of us lack this infrastructure. Sure, we may see colleagues every day. But one study found while, generally, spending time together is linked to great intimacy, at work, the opposite is true. Norms around professionalism and fears of backlash mean our colleagues access only a shallow dimension of us.
In fact, believing that friendships happen organically actually hinders people from making friends because it stops them from being intentional. One study surveyed older adults and found that those who believed that making friends was a matter of luck were lonelier five years later, whereas those who believed that friendship takes effort were less lonely. The reason? Believing it takes effort was related to engaging in more social activities, such as visiting friends and family or going to church. And it was this engagement in social activities that was also related to being less lonely five years later.
But before we blame ourselves for lacking friends, it’s worth mentioning just how hard it is to make friends these days. While we tend to talk about loneliness as inevitable, it isn’t. Before the 1800s, people lived among their families, farming. They had a community of extended family and friends and were involved in the village life and their place of worship. Their community was built in, not sought after. Before 1800, there wasn’t even a word for loneliness as we know it. The word “lonely” described the state of being alone, rather than the pain of it.
With the rise of industrialization, and of parents leaving home to work in factories, community bonds tapered, and the nuclear family became the centre of people’s world. People began to move for work, but increased residential mobility means relationships become more disposable, according to one study. As people left their family for work, they lived alone for the first time, which magnified loneliness. John Bowlby, a psychologist famous for fathering attachment theory, said, “If people know each other and have long-term relationships, mutual help makes sense, because I can help you today and five years hence you can help me. But if you aren’t going to be here in five years, and the community is constantly changing, it is by definition not mutually helpful.” Increasing work demands, residential mobility and single-person homes explain why The Economist called loneliness “the leprosy of the 21st century.”
Perhaps these remnants of our evolutionary past lead us to assume that friendship happens organically. Because it once did. But it doesn’t any more. If we want to make and keep friends, we need to swim against the tides of disconnection that have been gradually contaminating us for centuries. It’s not fair at all. It shouldn’t be this hard. But once we know what we’re dealing with, we can shed passivity for intention. For friendship to happen, someone has to be brave. Be brave.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.