How To Make Friends In Your Thirties
Illustration by Ms Ana Yael
It was 5 November 2020 and, because I had nothing to do and nowhere to be, I decided to take a walk along the seafront near where I live. Covid had put a damper on any official fireworks celebrations, but there were still small groups gathered on the beach, letting off the odd rocket over the black water. As I made my way along the front, sporadic couples and families strolled along the promenade, laughter trailing after them.
My first instinct was to laugh at myself. Wandering around alone at night feeling lonely was such a cliché it was almost self-parody. I realised, however, that I didn’t feel amused, but embarrassed. Embarrassed to be walking around on my own when it seemed that everyone else was having fun with other people. Too self-conscious to continue my walk, I turned around, went home and passed the rest of the evening in the same way I’d spent many evenings recently, wishing I had something to do and someone to do it with.
The pandemic has intensified our experiences of isolation, but loneliness has long been a problem among men. We just don’t own up to it. According to the charity Campaign To End Loneliness, women report feeling lonely much more frequently than men. The reason we don't talk about it is the same reason why men are only just learning that it’s OK to talk about our feelings. In short, we think we have to stick to outdated gender roles and supposedly masculine values. Whatever we’re feeling, we have to bottle it all up.
Just as my first instinct was to laugh at myself, feeling lonely can feel silly and seem like it is not a genuine problem. But it is. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 18 per cent of men admitted not having a single close friend and more than a third said they didn’t have a best friend. I’m lucky to have made some really good friends in my 31 years and, although we make an effort to talk a lot, we very rarely see each other in person, spread out as we are across the country.
This problem was compounded when I left London and moved to the coast three years ago. My girlfriend at the time had been a student here and I was able to become close with some friends of hers who were still here. Then, last year we broke up. I moved into a flat on my own for the first time in my life. My loneliness intensified, even as I became aware a new sense of freedom beginning to emerge. It’s great being able to do exactly what you want all day, but in the evening, you’re still left alone endlessly scrolling through Instagram and developing a serious case of FOMO.
The situation wasn’t helped when, within the space of two months, my three closest friends left town and headed to London for work. Suddenly, I felt marooned by the sea with very few friends and no real idea of how to make more in my early thirties. Cut to Bonfire Night and me wandering around feeling sorry for myself.
“I remember walking through a busy city centre and being struck with the overwhelming feeling that I could be dead and nobody would know or care”
As the statistics show, I’m (ironically) not alone in feeling this way. A friend, Dr Joe Robson, opened up to me about feeling lonely when he moved from Glasgow, where he knew people, to Edinburgh, where he didn’t. For Robson, 31, seeing old friends on social media having fun, or struggling to have meaningful conversations with those around him, exacerbated his sense of loneliness. This led to some dark thoughts. “I remember walking through a busy city centre,” he says, “and being struck with the overwhelming feeling that I could be dead and nobody would know or care.”
Over the past six months a psychotherapist has been helping him understand his needs, desires and fears. “Often I can confound feelings of loneliness by adding feelings of guilt or worthlessness, feeling I don’t deserve any better,” he says. “I have been working hard and really starting to believe that when I do feel the pang of loneliness it’s because my needs are not being met, but I do deserve better. Reminding myself that there are people who like and love me and that they are probably struggling with similar things also helps.”
He’s found that it’s important to address the issues, even when he feels better. “I think talking about these things when you feel good can help,” he says. “When you feel lost and alone, it can be impossible to open up and ask someone to let you in. If you talk regularly with your friends, it can be easier to reach out when you need to.”
As Robson and I discovered, circumstances can play a huge role in why we feel lonely. We all lose touch with friends as we grow older and our commitments shift to family and career. During lockdown, what little social contact we did have was reduced even further. Ms Lou Campbell, a psychologist at Wellbeing Partners, suggests it might be time to think about fresh ways of addressing the issue.
“Start off by doing things that boost serotonin, a neurotransmitter that increases our feelings of contentment and connectedness,” she says. “Dog walking is a social, local activity and it’s easy to start up conversations with other people when you both have a dog in tow.”
If you don’t own a dog but could do with some canine companionship, Campbell recommends the BorrowMyDoggy app. Or, now that lockdown restrictions have eased, you might consider looking for people with shared interests. Meetup.com is a great way of finding local events, whether you’re into weightlifting or Warhammer. “Most people go along to these activities on their own, so you won’t be the only one on your tod,” says Campbell.
Our new work-from-home lives can also be a contributing factor to feelings of isolation. As a freelance journalist and author, I’m still searching for a way to spend all day at home alone without occasionally feeling overwhelmed with anxiety or loneliness. Mr Steve Watson is an author who goes by the pen name SJ Watson. Now, at 50, he says he finally feels like he has built a life in which solitude is largely a benefit. “It helps that my job is solitary,” he says. “I like my own company, plus I’m an only child and therefore used to being alone.”
But even introverts feel lonely. “Most of the time I’m fine, but occasionally it will hit me, usually when something throws me off course – a health issue, perhaps, some reminder of mortality, or even just a Friday night when I’m the only one without plans – and I will feel intensely, profoundly lonely. Then I wonder whether I’m kidding myself, pretending my life of solitude is something I’ve chosen, when really it’s just that’s how things have ended up.”
Jamie, 27, found that his loneliness was exacerbated when he became a live-in carer for his father, who had suffered an unexpected illness. “My loneliness, and that of our family, was born out of these circumstances,” he says. “Our newfound responsibilities meant we could no longer interact with society as a normal household would. It felt as if the rest of the world had left us behind.”
Jamie says the pandemic was, ironically, an improvement. With everyone forced to socialise remotely, his family were no longer the odd ones out. I can relate. When everyone was forced to work from home, I also felt strangely comforted. I was no longer the only one stuck on my own all day.
Jamie says he’s learnt to cope with his loneliness through distraction. “Lonely time doesn’t have to be wasted time,” he says. “Embrace it and make use of it. Hobbies, interests, education. Try new things. Seek out online communities for your passions.”
Robson has taken a similar approach, throwing himself into his hobbies of running and playing music. By doing this, he hopes to give himself a sense of purpose and happiness so his self-worth isn’t defined by his interactions with others and less pressure is thereby placed on every encounter to be an interesting and engaging one.
Even the briefest encounter can be a help. Campbell suggests making use of “social snacking”, short transactional interactions with others.“Start saying hello to shopkeepers, bus drivers, baristas,” she says. “This can give you a hit of serotonin and boost confidence, so take note of how you feel after you’ve said a quick hello to a relative stranger.”
“I’ve learnt to ask for help when I need it. I used to find it very hard to say, ‘I’m lonely, are you busy?”
For all of us, talking about how we feel has been key. We are all human. We’re meant to crave social contact and miss it when we don’t have it. And we’re meant to pick up the phone and call someone when we’re missing that.
“I’ve learnt to ask for help when I need it,” says Watson. “I used to find it very hard to say, ‘I’m lonely, are you busy?’ Now it’s getting easier. Loneliness is never something you should be ashamed of.”
What I’ve done to feel better is harder to put my finger on. I keep in regular contact with my friends over the phone and – god help us – my family are still enamoured with the Zoom quiz, which has become a bi-weekly thing and actually quite nice. I also have a new partner and have become friends with many of their friends, too.
Reaching out to make new friends or starting a new relationship are kind of the same thing. Both can be fraught with anxiety and you might not know where to start with either, especially during Covid. But, as a friend said, “You aren’t living the life you want because you aren’t taking chances.” They were right. In order to feel less lonely, I had to put myself out there and ignore all my social anxieties in the process.
Robson agrees that the key to making friends in your thirties (or at any age) is not to overthink it. “I’m always terrified of coming across as the guy who speaks too much, or of sharing my passion and my personality and them not finding it interesting at all,” he says. “I learnt to take a risk and have found that often people are more interested than you’d think and it might spark something in themselves to share.”
Overcoming your loneliness takes work. If you aren’t prepared to put yourself out there, you can’t expect suddenly to find a new group of friends. “If you have a chance to see someone or do something, take it,” says Robson. “Your thirties are especially busy with families and careers eating into your free time, but if you accept more invites out, even with people you don’t really know, you might just have a really good time.”