Why the Friendship Recession Matters and Ways to Cope

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman laying on couch
© Lucas Ottone / Stocksy United

You’re connecting with friends on social, engaged at work and often surrounded by people — but you still feel so lonely.  

Loneliness was already on the rise before the pandemic. The current U.S. surgeon general called loneliness a public health concern back in 2017, and census data between 2014 and 2019 revealed that the amount of time Americans spent with their friends decreased each year — leading to what some experts have called a friendship recession. So, it’s no surprise that a recent study found 20% of younger adults are lonely

“Loneliness is the perception of not having sufficient relationships and interactions with others,” says Dr. Sebastian Tong, a physician at the Family Medicine Clinic at Harborview Medical Center and principal investigator of a study on loneliness interventions. “It’s about how the individual perceives things.” 

That’s the sneaky thing about loneliness: You can’t tell if someone is lonely based on how social they are. Sure, being on your own can increase feelings of loneliness — and the uptick in time spent alone is undoubtedly causing this for many Americans. But you can also be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. 

Loneliness is bad for your health 

Some more not-so-great news? Along with being increasingly common, loneliness harms your health. 

Case in point: You likely knew loneliness is painful, but you may not have known that research has shown prolonged isolation is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is also associated with higher rates of diagnosable mental illness and worse neurological and cardiovascular health, Tong says. 

“We’ve seen broader implications for all health outcomes and overall mortality,” he says. “People who are lonely are more likely to die younger.”  

To be clear, this doesn’t mean you need to panic. Feeling lonely every now and then is not a death sentence. But loneliness is a real health concern, and you deserve to feel cared for, find connections and seek support. 

How to feel less lonely and more connected 

Loneliness is not a personal failure. But it might take some effort to make the feeling go away. 

Tong recommends two strategies to stop and prevent loneliness.  

Redefine your current relationships 

No, we’re not talking about the defining-the-relationship talk.

“We’ve seen evidence based on studies with older adults that it helps to change your perception from feeling lonely to not feeling lonely based on the social interactions you already have,” Tong says.   

In short, it’s about shifting your mindset to notice, enjoy and be grateful for the relationships currently in your life. The idea comes from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is all about challenging unhelpful thought patterns.  

Say you have a weekly call with your best friend who lives across the country. Every time you chat, you think about the distance and how far away you feel from loved ones. Try to notice and redirect these thoughts to instead focus on how nice it is to catch up. The mileage is still true, but you’re allowing yourself to acknowledge the good parts and feel connected with your friend. 

It takes work to retrain your brain like this. Gratitude and mindfulness meditation can help, as well as working with a CBT therapist. 

Interact with new people 

The second strategy is what psychologists call a social navigation intervention, which basically just means finding ways you can engage with other people.  

If you aren’t interacting with folks in your current routine, you will likely need to make changes and try something new to feel less lonely. Making friends is hard — especially as an adult, especially with the Seattle Freeze — but it’s also worth it. 

What to do to meet and connect with people: 

  • Work or hangout in a coffee shop. Small interactions can help ease loneliness if you’re open to them, and cafes are gold mines of social activity. You’ll likely have a short conversation with your barista (ask how their day is going or find out what their favorite drink is), and just having the noise from others around you can help you feel a part of a larger community and less alone. 
  • Join an activity. Yes, we hear the internal groans from all you socially anxious Seattleites. But hear us out. Making a change in your routine makes a difference. Think about what hobbies and activities you enjoy and join a group, be it a running club, art class or MeetUp group. Challenge yourself to talk to at least one person and see where it goes. It can help to join a reoccurring activity (say, a weekly writing group or wine tasting), so that you can build your connections over time.  
  • Deepen an existing relationship. Speaking of building on your connections, think about the people already in your life. Are there acquaintances you’d like to know better? Or past friends you’ve lost touch with that you could reach out to? Take a breath and then take the leap and text them to see if they’d like to hang out.  

It might feel uncomfortable but changing your perspective and putting yourself out there can also be pretty exciting.  

“Connecting with others is how we feel healthy and well,” Tong says.