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Loneliness Awareness Week: How to make friends at any age and in any situation

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Loneliness is a growing problem in British society Credit: By Lucy Truman for the Daily Telegraph

It can be hard to connect with others in today’s fragmented world. For Loneliness Awareness Week, we explain how to do it whether you’re a new parent or a retiree...

Last year, the editor of Elle magazine, Farrah Storr, admitted that despite being a successful, happily married woman in her late 30s, she had few friends.

The article she wrote for The Telegraph provoked a huge response; it seems that she was not alone in her aloneness. In fact, it’s a mark of modern life that many of us, of all ages, have hundreds of Facebook friends but don’t have someone to go for a drink with on a Friday night. Our screens might be full of smiling faces, but our lives are more isolated than ever. We find it increasingly difficult to make new friends and keep existing ones.

According to a recent study by the Red Cross, more than nine million adults in the UK suffer from loneliness and the problem is so serious that Theresa May appointed a minister to tackle the problem.

“We’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic and we need to address it,” says Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure. “We have set up our lives in a way that isn’t always conducive to connection: we’re more likely to live away from our families and traditional support networks, we’re losing public spaces like libraries and parks where people used to gather or meet, we’re letting work seep into our private lives and we’re busier than ever.”

Loneliness can affect people of any age Credit:  Westend6/Getty Images Contributor

Yet most of us are embarrassed to admit that our lives do not look like a TV commercial, with friends constantly popping over to laugh and share snacks. ­Nobody wants to admit to being a Billy No Mates. 

Mark Vernon, author of The Philosophy of Friendship, says: “We can feel a lot of embarrassment around not having friends. Lovers and family relationships are fraught, but friends are supposed to happen without any thoughts – yet that’s not the case.” 

Vernon believes we have lost the art of friendship: “We have disappeared into our private lives and are constantly looking for gizmos to distract us – which means we are in a hinterland of not quite feeling on our own, but also not having real relationships.”

Clinical psychologist and author Linda Blair agrees that our loneliness is a symptom of the technological era. “I have nothing against technology, but it is a source of information, not connection,” she says. “The emotional part of the brain needs other humans to feel calm but it’s their touch, scent and voice that has this effect, not looking at a picture of them.”

Without this soothing contact, we suffer both physically and emotionally. In fact, loneliness is now deemed to be worse for the body than obesity, increasing our chance of dying early by 25 per cent. Having good friends, on the other hand, has been shown to boost the immune system and our ability to deal with chronic pain. It also makes us happier, with studies showing that when somebody claims to have five or more friends they are 60 per cent more likely to say that they are very happy. 

So how do you make more friends when, as a grown-up, it’s not as easy as walking up to someone in the playground? “Shared experiences are the best way to make a friend, so join a book club or volunteer,” says Blair. 

“You have to make yourself get out of the house, even when you don’t want to.”

She also warns that we should keep expectations low: “You might not gain a new best friend, but finding friends for different interests in your life, at different stages, is valuable.”

And she argues there’s no such thing as being too busy to meet people. “Look at what you are busy doing and if it’s watching six hours of Netflix a week, it’s time to prioritise friendship.” 

Vernon agrees that making new friends takes work, but says it is worth it. “We are social animals who are not meant to be alone. Connection makes us feel more human; friendships are fundamental to being human.”

Here’s our guide to making friends in a variety of situations, at any age. What are you waiting for?

Friendship has been associated with health benefits Credit:  Getty Creative/ Thomas Barwick

How to make friends...

...after you've retired

Linda Blair says: “People don’t realise the social life they had with the office will go, as will the structure of their day. Make sure you plan something to get up for every morning, then build in opportunities for social connection, such as charity work or a hobby.” For Bridget Reed, 75, from Huddersfield, taking up classes at the University of the Third Age, a network of learning groups aimed at retirees, became what got her out of the house each day. 

Reed worked as a hospice nurse until retiring at 60. “I had lots of friends who were younger than me, and who hadn’t retired, so I knew I had to go out there and do my own thing. I’d always loved dancing so I signed up to dance classes at the University of the Third Age. I tried ballet and belly dancing.

People of similar ages often have similar interests Credit: TASS/Artyom Geodakyan

“I didn’t know anyone, and it was daunting but you have to grit your teeth and get on with it. At my 70th birthday there were 100 people there, and half of them I’d met since I retired. My advice would be don’t be afraid to do something new, nobody is testing you. I’m not very good at dancing, but I love it and I love the friends I’ve made. The good thing about getting older is you don’t mind about making a fool of yourself so much.” 

Writer Angela Neustatter, also in her 70s, has another bit of advice: “As you get older stop imagining, if you do, that younger people are not interested in you and instead find mutual points of interest. Also, listen. Everybody likes somebody who listens to them.” 

There are advantages to friendships made later in life, says Neustatter: “My friendships are calmer and more sure-footed as I have got older because I am not competing for work, lovers or top-dog status. One of the things I like to do is happy-hour cocktails and a good chat about the meaning of life. And my friends are male and female.” 

For women over 50, the Red Hat Society (redhatsociety.com) encourages members to dress up in red hats and purple dresses for their meet-ups, while gransnet.com is a great source of discussion and ideas for get-togethers. The Jolly Dollies (thejollydollies.co.uk) is for widows who want to meet up locally.

...after a divorce

“This is hard one,” says Blair. “People in your social circle feel awkward and that they have to take sides, which means that you can lose friends. It’s a time when you’re forming a new type of identity, so now more than ever you have to find new interests.” 

For many people, getting involved in a local gym or boot camp can help. Not only do you meet new people, but the endorphins help your mood. For others, it’s a time of contemplation. When Rose Rouse, 65, split from her partner and the father of her son, she started dancing and studied poetry. She then found herself in Skyros on a self-development holiday, which led to her doing years of group therapy courses such as the Hoffman Process and Path of Love. 

Divorce can result in a loss of friends Credit:  Rubberball/Mike Kemp/ Getty Images Contributor

“After my relationship ended, I started a journey of getting to know myself and in the process I made some wonderful friends, particularly women. For years I’d been too busy with my pursuit of men to really trust women, but when I joined women’s circles that changed. I met women who led very different lives to me but who were so kind.” 

“Then a friendship with a local woman who had a hot tub led to a new venture. Every month a few of us would gather in the hot tub and talk about life and getting older. 

“We would talk and laugh and we realised that we were fed up of the ‘forever young’ culture and set up an online magazine called Advantages of Age. We have a Facebook group and organise events for people over 50.”   

...when your friends start a family

“It’s a big change when your friends start families and you haven’t. It can be hard to find the right time to meet up,” says Linda Blair.

Craig Holliday, 37, an operations manager for a water company in Chelmsford, has experienced this. “It gets to the stage where going out on a Friday night has to be planned six months ahead, so you have to get out there and make things happen.”

For Holliday, that meant joining a local hockey club and also going on holiday with strangers. “I was interested in travelling but a lot of my friends are now married with kids. Travelling with them was off the agenda but I didn’t want to miss out. When I was younger I didn’t have the money to travel much – I didn’t do the traditional gap year – so now I’m determined to make the most of my annual leave.” 

Craig Holliday met like-minded travellers via the Flash Pack Credit: Handout

Holliday saw an ad for the Flash Pack (flashpack.com), a travel company that organises high-end backpacking adventures for solo travellers. “I had done some charity treks to Nepal and Ethiopia, so I wasn’t put off by going away with strangers. I saw they were doing a trip to Peru and I’d always wanted to go to there, so I signed up. 

“The company set up a WhatsApp group so we were messaging before the trip, which broke the ice. We got on so well, it wasn’t weird at all. A month after we came home we had a reunion in a Peruvian restaurant and we went on holiday last month to Spain and Portugal.” 

Other ideas for those in a similar situation include making friends with people who are younger than you (Leaver recommends friendship apps such as Hey Vina, Bumble on BFF mode or Huggle on a friendship setting) or volunteering. See ncvo.org.uk for local opportunities. Funzing has a great array of talks and events that people go to on their own.

...when you work from home

Almost a third of the workforce now works from home and almost half will do so by 2020. While the flexibility and freedom from the commute can be appealing, it can lead to isolation. 

Geoff Fraser, 55, from Wiltshire, works from home and got divorced two years ago. “I was suddenly spending a lot of time on my own,” he says. “Social media was a saving grace. Twitter at lunchtime became my water-cooler chat and also my company when I couldn’t sleep. 

“I believe that social media isn’t so different from real life. People sneer and say ‘online friends aren’t the same as real friends’ but I disagree. You can tell a lot from social media, in fact. In real life you meet people over a pint and then you find out their deeper beliefs, on social media you know their point of view before you meet them.

Work in the same coffee shop regularly and you'll get to know other locals Credit: Digital Vision/PeopleImages

“I went to ‘tweet-ups’ and met people in real life. I now know people all over the country, we talk on the phone and one of my Twitter friends even threw me a birthday party this year. If you can date online, why can’t you make friends online, too?”

Kate Leaver also works from home. Her advice is: “Be very diligent about booking in coffee dates: where you could email someone, suggest a face-to-face meeting to get to know them properly and get your fix of human contact. Schedule in at least one in-person meeting each week, or join a freelancer group or a book or wine club; something that meets monthly so it’s always in the diary.”  

Other ways to make new friends when you are remote working include working at the same café regularly, so that you can make friends with the staff and other customers, renting a desk at a co-working space, or attending industry events where you can chat to other people in your field. Remember, these friends don’t have to be your best friends, but having people to chat to during the day can lift the spirits. 

...when you move to a new area

Seven years ago Anne Thorne, 61, made a dream come true by moving from Chingford to Cornwall. “I worked in the city and I wasn’t happy. All my life I’d had this pull to move to Cornwall but I didn’t know a soul when I arrived. In the local paper I saw an ad for the local choir, so I joined that and found a local walking group on meetup.com.” 

She says it took courage to get out and meet people, but it was worth it. “Three months after I started my new life there was a knock on the door telling me that my son, Toby, 23, had killed himself. Two weeks later my 80-year-old dad was diagnosed with a tumour and four months later he died. I was in Cornwall starting what was meant to be my dream life, but now I’d lost my only son and was an orphan. 

Find people who share interests such as pub quizzes Credit: Julian Andrews

“In those months, my walking group was the best therapy. I didn’t tell people straight away but, slowly, I did, and they were wonderful. When I opened up they too shared their dark times. Over time, the walking group and the choir became my family. I know that if I was sick someone would drop in food to me. I was struggling with some DIY the other day and a woman from the choir sent her husband over straight away.” 

Thorne says that the benefit of joining a regular group is that you don’t have to make plans to meet because you know that every Wednesday people will be there. They’ll be like-minded because you share an interest, which is why sites such as meetup.com, which arrange meetings around shared hobbies, are so great. If you can’t find a group that’s doing something you love – you can create one yourself. In cities you have dozens of groups gathering to chat in Japanese or do pub quizzes. When you move to a new area, try the old-fashioned method of knocking on your neighbours’ doors to introduce yourself. 

...when you stop drinking

Like it or not, British social life largely revolves around drinking – so how do you make friends if you don’t drink? Dawn Comolly, 43, creator of soberfish.co.uk, from Poole, Dorset, says: “The best thing I ever did was give up drinking but it changed my social life. 

“My best friend went white as a sheet when I told her because we were drinking buddies. I had to back away from my social life and for a while I became a hermit. I didn’t know where I belonged. Then I heard about Club Soda, a Facebook group for people who want to give up or reduce their drinking. I went to a meet-up, and as soon as I got there I thought ‘Oh, this is where I’m supposed to be.’ There were 20 of us and it felt so nice to sit at the table and for alcohol not to be the main feature. 

Dawn Comolly, centre, organises meet-ups for non-drinkers Credit: Jay Williams

“I’m not always that great in social situations, but we had a common denominator so there were no awkward moments.”

Since then Comolly has been organising her own sober meet-ups and has started walking and going to a local boot camp, where she’s lost 3.5st. “Now, I’m actually more sociable than I was,” she says. “I used to go out on a Friday night and be on the sofa for the rest of the weekend; now I have so much energy. And I have still kept my old friends, we just meet for breakfast and lunch instead.” 

Having fun is not dependent on what’s in your glass

Catherine Grey, author of The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, recommends developing new hobbies to do with others, such as immersive theatre, art exhibitions or even trampoline classes. She also found Facebook groups such as Club Soda and Soberistas helpful. “Thousands of Britons are seeking sober friends, so it’s easy to start chatting. 

“A quarter of Britons are now teetotal; it’s a movement that will explode over the next few years. I used to think that alcohol was the glue that new friendships needed, but I’ve since discovered that alcohol is irrelevant in bonding with people, and that having fun is not dependent on what’s in your glass.”

...when you become a parent

“It can be lonely being a new mum,” says Elle Judge, 31, from Stoke Newington. “I was the first in my group of friends to have a baby, so I didn’t know other parents. I’d had a hectic life working in the music industry before I’d had my baby, Harrison. Suddenly I couldn’t socialise the way I used to, and it felt very isolating.” 

Judge then heard about the Peanut app, which is described as Tinder for new mums. “You pick categories that describe you – so ‘afternoon drinker’, ‘caffeine addict’ or ‘fashion lover’, etc – it means you have something in common. I was apprehensive at first – it was like going on a date. I worried that they might not like me or that I would say something weird, but luckily parents have something in common, which is the love of talking about their children. I now have a group of six friends who I meet several times a week. These women are the best things that have ever happened to me. 

Elle Judge and friends in Clissold Park, north London Credit: Rii Schroer

“It’s wonderful to have people you can talk to about how scary it is to keep these little humans alive and ask, ‘Is it bad that their poo is this colour? Or that I had wine this afternoon?’” 

Judge says that she has also learned the importance of being honest about the difficulties of motherhood. “I had post-natal depression and was scared of admitting it, but once I did and one of the others said, ‘Me too,’ I felt so much better. It was a support network.” 

But what about when the kids are a bit older? For some, the school gate is intimidating. “You don’t have to join the gang,” says Blair. “It’s enough to just find one or two mothers who look interesting. See if your children can meet up for a play date and you can chat.”