Overcoming loneliness:


Words Gemma Bird



Tangible Media



Do you ever find yourself wishing you had more friends? It turns out you’re in great company. Despite the stigma around loneliness, it’s common – most of us have been there before, are experiencing it now or will go through loneliness at some point in our lives. Most of us will have heard that connection is vital to our health and happiness. Yet the reality is feeling lonely or even isolated is a common experience – and can impact any of us, particularly when big life changes come our way. Moving to a new place, going through a break-up or divorce, falling out with a close friend or losing a partner, friend or family member to illness, are all events that can spark this experience. Loneliness can also develop gradually, or turn up unexpectedly, for any number of reasons. The global pandemic has brought loneliness into the spotlight with lockdowns isolating people, disrupting relationships and driving up mental illness. But studies show it’s been an issue for a long time now, across many di erent countries. And one of the groups most a ected is young people. A poll by the international research group YouGov in 2019 found that 30 percent of millennials (ages 23-38) always or often felt lonely, and one in five reported having no friends at all. Statistics like these are concerning, but they’re also helpful. By surfacing how common loneliness is, this can lift the shame and sense of otherness that often comes along for the ride. Kirsten Radtke, author of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, says it well: “Loneliness is often exacerbated by a perception that one is lonely while everyone else is connected… Perhaps now we can learn how flawed that kind of thinking is, because loneliness is one of the most universal things any person can feel.” I’m writing about this topic because I’ve recently gone through a period of loneliness myself. A year ago, my husband, daughter and I moved from suburban Wellington to a rural town for his work. It was our second big move together as a couple – so I’d been through the process of making new friends before. And while it hadn’t been easy, I’d learned to put myself ‘out there’, and I knew I could do it again. Still, it’s been tough, and I spent last winter here feeling lonely and isolated. I turned to my usual tool kit: researching ideas, reflecting on what’s worked for me in the past, and asking a few trusted people for advice. Here are the best insights I’ve come across to date – I hope they’re helpful for you too. Note: If you’re experiencing chronic loneliness or a condition such as anxiety or depression, it’s important to seek support from a qualified professional. Start with your mindset Years ago, I was on my way to a birthday party at a bar and found myself browsing a department store instead – stalling for time. I only knew the host, and not well, so my game plan was to make a short appearance before going home to read a book. Eventually I made it to the bar and of course it was fine. I ordered a drink, chatted to a few friendly people, stayed for an acceptable time, then started to plan my exit. But just as I was about to leave, a woman sitting nearby turned to me and struck up a conversation. Long story short, she’s become a close and cherished friend of mine – and I nearly missed the opportunity to meet her. The mindset I’d had when I walked into that party was that making friends was hard work and an occasional, lucky event. But not everyone looks at it that way. It turns out that mindset is one of the keys to making new friends and is surprisingly simple to change. Have you heard of mental reframing? It’s been making headlines since a study by Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks found participants could successfully relabel their anxiety as excitement in high-pressure situations, like giving a presentation. It works because anxiety and excitement create similar sensations in our body: an elevated heart rate, heightened awareness, a surge of adrenalin. Dr Wood Brooks concluded that those who relabelled their anxiety as excitement genuinely felt more excited and performed better than others in the study. How does this apply to making new friends? If meeting people makes you anxious, try relabelling your feelings as excitement. And, borrowing this idea, we can experiment with di erent types of mental reframing and keep what works for us. For example, a reframe I find helpful is focusing on the possibilities that social situations present – I might learn something helpful, meet someone interesting or if I simply share a moment of connection with someone, it’s a win. Take bold action One of my oldest friends, Rachel, has an overflowing social life. She’s lived in several countries over the past decade (pre-pandemic) and has made close friends every time. I’ve always admired this about her and put it down to her personality – she’s outgoing, down-toearth and optimistic. Yet after talking to her recently, I learned it’s also about her bold, deliberate approach. One night after moving to a new town, she and her family were having dinner at a local bistro and she noticed a woman at the next table had a child the same age as hers. She struck up a conversation, and after chatting for a while, suggested a play date. And just like that she made a lasting friendship. As she told me this story, I was certain I’d never have the confidence to put myself out there in that way. And then just two days later, inspired by her story, I struck up a conversation with a fellow mum at a café and asked for her number. It was nervewracking, a little awkward and strangely elating. In an article in Psychology Today, psychologist Marisa Franco urges people who are new to a town or city to be bold and proactive. “Don’t assume friendships happen organically – go out there and make them happen,” she says. She also suggests being strategic about who you reach out to. “Transitioners are people who are new to an environment, and research finds that other ‘transitioners’ are particularly open to spending time with new friends.” Acting boldly can take many forms, but according to psychologist David Burkus, some environments are better than others. He suggests you’re more likely to make new, diverse connections when the setting gives you a reason to get to know the person next to you – such as taking a class or joining a club. There’s just one more step to taking bold action: take the next bold action. Once you’ve built up the courage to invite someone out for a co ee, it’s important to keep up the momentum to turn the connection into a friendship. Invest your energy wisely When you’re in the market for new friends, it can be tempting to pursue every connection that comes your way – even those you sense aren’t meant to be. I’ve been there myself and invested a lot of time and energy into friendships that simply weren’t the right fit. In an article in The Guardian, clinical psychologist and friendship expert Dr Miriam Kirmayer explains that “It is the quality, not quantity, of our relationships that fulfils our need for connectedness.” She adds: “When we equate aloneness to loneliness, we act in ways that further our feelings of disconnection. We hold on to relationships that are imbalanced, draining or unhealthy… And we insert ourselves into... situations that make us feel uncomfortable, unsafe and unheard.” So while taking bold action is vital to meeting people, it’s equally important to step back gracefully when you realise a potential friendship isn’t right for you – or if it becomes clear the other person isn’t as invested. We each have limited time and energy, and as Dr Kirmayer concludes, holding on to unhealthy relationships – or ones that aren’t right for us – can make us feel more alone. Letting go can be challenging, but doing so opens the door for new possibilities. If you’re experiencing loneliness right now, know that countless others are too. Create the space in your life for fulfilling friendships, and trust that with the right mindset and a little boldness, you can build a life brimming with connection.