It’s become a cliché to say that humans are wired for connection, but, like many hyper-used phrases, that’s because it’s true. The new phenom dubbed the ‘friendship recession’, shows that as truisms go, this one is supremely important. The benefits of strong social ties aren’t limited to a dose of feel-good fizz when you spend time with people you love – holding such links is tightly wound up with your big picture wellbeing. One review of existing studies, for example, found that strong ‘social relationships’ matter more than being a healthy weight and are comparable with quitting smoking, when it comes to longevity.
At first glance, this reality has straightforward ramifications. An instinct to find a community, after all, hopefully leads to being in one.
What is the ‘friendship recession’?
In our often harshly fragmented culture, though, meeting this fundamental need fully is often hard. One manifestation of this is what has been termed the ‘friendship recession.’ A phrase coined by researchers in the US last year, it refers to the first slow then sudden creep of people self-reporting that they have no close friends. Now, more experts are examining this transformation.
‘The number of adults who say they have no friends is rising, a trend that started in around 2003,’ Chartered Psychologist and author of the forthcoming Unprocessed, Kimberley Wilson, wrote on Instagram this week.
Here, she cited recent research from the US – that which first used the ‘friendship recession’ phrasing – showing that 15% of American men and 10% of women reported having ‘no friends.’ This spike looks sinister when contrasted with 1990’s data, in which 3% of men and 2% of women expressed the same sentiment.
It would be easy to assume that these numbers would be higher in America, in all of its spatial vastness and abundance of cities to which young people can head to carve out a life. But similar numbers are mirrored in the UK data. One 2021 report found that around 20% of those aged 18-34 in this country said they have either one or no close friends. Again, this represents a punchy acceleration: triple the number who said the same in 2012.
In her post, Wilson lists a number of factors that could have caused friendships to evaporate over recent decades.
These include an increase in people moving towns or countries in search of work, leaving them unable to access long-standing friendships with ease, a dicey urban rental market in which people are forced to move frequently and so are hampered from forming rich connections with people locally, and the spiralling cost-of-living often necessitating working for longer hours or taking on side gigs, leaving little time for nourishing friendships.
Why friendship matters
Intuitively, this feels like a pernicious problem. From a health point of view, though, why does it actually matter to hold the belief that you have friends you can rely on? ‘Humans need a sense of community and social support,’ Health Psychologist Dr Sula Windgassen (@the_health_psychologist_) tells WH.
‘Now, that doesn’t need to mean that we’re surrounded by lots of people all of the time.’ (Indeed, there is a limit to how many deep friendships you can sustain – work from the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has found that five ‘shoulder-to-cry-on friends’ is the limit; one 2020 study found that three close friends is enough to feel fulfilled.)
‘But the sense that we do have people we can rely on is important for both our mental and physical health. Social support, for example, is one of the biggest buffers against the effects of stress, which, unmitigated, can have an impact on our immune system.’
To illustrate the latter point she references one study, in which researchers found that a stressed group of participants took nine days longer to heal from a small wound than a non-stressed group.
And sure, some people prefer to primarily tap into a romantic partner or family members when it comes to sharing secrets, asking for advice or letting loose on a Friday night. But A) not everyone has such relationships and B) you don’t need a PhD in psychology to know that there are versions of yourself that can be expressed with friends which don’t configure in quite the same way with someone you share blood or a bed with.
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Your brain on friendship
In fact, for women, female friendship can in some ways supersede romantic attachment. Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist and the author of Why We Love: The New Science Behind Our Closest Relationships, previously told WH about a study she worked on as a student at the University of Oxford. In it, she compared the benefits of a romantic relationship with those of a best friendship. ‘What we found with women is that we’re more emotionally intimate with our female best friends than we are with our lovers,’ she says.
Deeply tangled intimacy is not the only benefit of nourishing friendship. ‘When you interact with your friends, you get a wonderful flood of neurochemistry, including dopamine and beta-endorphins,’ Dr Machin explains.
The former is your body’s reward chemical, and you’ll be familiar with its sweet rush from inhaling the scent of a barista-brewed flat white or watching a convoy of little red hearts stack up when you post a cute pic to Instagram. The latter is your body’s natural opiate. As such, it can make you feel euphoric, warm, content and deeply bonded – in fact, addicted – to a friend.
So, what happened?
This friendship recession, then, is no small problem. And, if you feel that it’s biting at your social life, it’s not something that should be viewed through the prism of personal failure. Besides the structural factors mentioned by Wilson – such as an increase in people being transient and the need to spend more time making money – there are other insidious issues at play.
‘We live in a capitalist system where the emphasis is on the individual to better themselves and focus on their own achievements,’ Dr Windgassen details.‘This can be siloing.’ She references years of austerity cuts to structures that engender a greater sense of community: things like Sure Start centres for new parents or community events (hands up if your local council fireworks display was cancelled this 5 November, due to money issues.) This, she says, erodes a feeling of belonging to a wider network; of looking beyond the people you might live with or are related to for support.
Blend in a pandemic, one in which the physical avoidance of other people was not just a moral imperative but a legal compulsion, and you can see how this is one bonfire that’s had petrol poured all over it.
‘Suddenly, our dynamic with friends that we might see every now and again for a drink shifted, and we were in a situation where we’re told we shouldn’t see anybody apart from people that we live with. Even when the rules became less strict, it was still a case of seeing people in small groups.’
Again, this had the potential to nudge us away from an expansive understanding of our support network, one which includes friends, into a super tight one made up of a handful of people – perhaps solely immediate family. (During those shake-y months of waiting for a vaccine, this was dubbed ‘friendship fade.’)
So, what now? Know that while there are certainly factors outside of your control, there are also abundant ways to try and re-galvanise friendships that have cooled, and to invest in creating fresh ones. If you’re feeling a pang for friendship, try the expert advice below, and know that you’re doing something incredibly beneficial for your mind and body.
How to strengthen your friendships, or make new ones
- Think about your approach
In her post, Wilson emphasises the importance of how you frame your efforts. Try to remind yourself, she says, that the world is a big place, full of people, and though it might take time and include a few misses, you will find your tribe.
- Reach out to an old friend
If a friendship has lapsed but was meaningful to you, Wilson suggests sliding into the other person’s messages and seeing if they’re free to hang. This can feel hard – the fear of outright rejection, or silence, is real – but Dr Windgassen stresses it’s important to try to remember that a lack of reply is probably something to do with the person’s wider context, like how busy they are, than anything super personal.
- Try a new activity
‘Friendships,’ Wilson writes, ‘develop from repeated encounters over time.’ Is there an activity you might enjoy, that you could take on as a regular outing? Joining a volunteering group, heading to a yoga class or signing up for a running team could all be places to begin.
- Know that friendship takes time
Saying that, don’t be disheartened if you try the above and the weeks zip by without polite chatter upgrading to getting lunch. ‘These things do take time, and we don’t have to rush to that endpoint of being firm, fast friends,’ says Dr Windgassen. ‘The initial part of the process, such as the joy of being around people as you learn a new skill, is really helpful in and of itself.’