Loneliness is arguably the curse of our generation. Indeed, it was just over a year ago that the Australian Red Cross released the results of a survey that found up 5.6 million Australians were suffering from loneliness. 7 per cent of Australians feel lonely all the time, 16 per cent feel lonely quite often, and 32 per cent feel lonely sometimes.
Loneliness is increasingly being recognised as a serious health concern. Its effects on society and the individual are being taken ever more seriously, so much so that the United Kingdom even appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
Quite simply, loneliness affects your mental health as well as your physical health — and even your life expectancy.
Staying in touch in a digitally connected world
In a strange twist, the internet and social media has made us more connected than ever. Facebook last quarter reported an unbelievable 2.27 billion active monthly users. So why does it feel like we are more alone than ever?
There are many factors that contribute to this. Age is certainly one of them. We are more likely to make new friends up until our mid-twenties. After that, we do so less often — and this trend accelerates as we get older.
Family life is another obvious one. For all the joys of starting a family, having children can dramatically affect all aspects of daily life. The enormous responsibilities of parenthood mean it is almost inevitable that you’ll get less time to socialise.
Work also plays a large part. As you go from your twenties to your thirties, career is more likely to be a major part of your life. You may be focussing more time and energy on work and less on socialising. Indeed, as you get older, it gets harder to be your best at work the next day if you haven’t had enough sleep because you went out.
Moving interstate, overseas, or even just to another part of town will also affect who is in your social network.
The common theme is that growing responsibilities and major changes have an effect on your ability to socialise.
The art of reconnecting with friends
The good news is that it doesn’t have to stay that way. You can reconnect with friends and you have many options at your disposal.
Social media is often criticised for its many harms, but used properly it can be a great way to bring people together. Of course, social media is just one of many ways to reconnect. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Start a group chat or email
Yes, group chat is still social media. However, it can be fantastically useful for actively staying in touch and organising events (as compared to being something just to pass the time).
A good group messaging system (there are loads of them out there with varying strengths, from WhatsApp to Snapchat to Facebook) may be suitable. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to connect and it has the added benefit of allowing everyone to be a bit less formal. This can be important when talking to people who may not have heard from each other for some time.
Plan an annual event
You don’t have to announce a birth or marriage just to see people. Getting together because you are friends is as good a reason as any to organise a social catch-up.
Consider a backyard barbeque, dinner, high tea (if you fancy something different) or pub reunion with old mates. The more relaxed the setting, the more relaxed all of you will be.
Share big news before you post it on social media
The usual way to announce important news these days is to share it on social media. While it’s a great way to get the word out, it’s also possible for the big news to get mixed up with all those memes and cat photos.
By letting certain people know beforehand, whether it’s by phone (always a great excuse to start a conversation) or writing to them directly, you make it clear that they matter to you. They will almost certainly appreciate it.
Send a care package
Nothing makes someone notice and remember you like a helping hand during a time of need. If an old friend is feeling down, ill, or isolated, consider brightening their day with a care package.
It doesn’t have to be an expensive hamper — it can be as simple as their favourite snack (just make sure it meets packaging and state quarantine regulations) or personal care products. For the finishing touch, write a letter to really show them that they matter. And talking of letters…
Before the mass adoption first of reliable telephone services and then email, letter-writing was a normal part of everyday life. While it’s true that this was driven by the fact that letters were the most widely available form of communication, there was nonetheless an art to writing them.
That’s now getting lost. The main reason, of course, is that it takes time and effort to write a letter, where other, more convenient forms of communication would do.
However, for this very same reason, sending someone a letter is also a great way to really grab their attention. A ‘regular’ letter is a rare thing these days so writing one by hand or printing it on special paper shows someone once again that they matter to you. It’s an unforgettable way to reach out and convey a heartfelt message to a friend.
Don’t put it off and do make it a habit
What’s the most important thing about reaching out to old friends? Actually doing it.
If you’re wondering how or when you should reconnect with someone then you’ve probably been thinking about it for a while. Maybe you saw a post on social media? Perhaps you were reminded about them after you spotted their name while going through your phone contact list? Or you might just have been thinking that it’s been a long time since you saw or spoke to someone in particular?
Whatever the reason, you’re not going to reconnect until one of you reaches out to the other. So what’s holding you back? The person you get in touch with will very likely be delighted that you made the effort, and will be glad that it was you who got in touch.
And after you’ve caught up?
Make a habit of staying in touch with more friends. Consider even setting aside a weekly period of ‘friend time’ when you spend time writing or calling people. Just make sure that, once you’ve made the time, you stick to it.
Your life will be fuller and richer for it, and so will the lives of your friends.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.