Make lasting friendships
In my early years at school, I remember being asked by another five-year-old girl, ‘Will you be my best friend?’ I was delighted; she was popular and fun.
It was the way things worked at that age: explicit, clear cut, contracted. We probably fell out and made up a million times during the course of that week alone, but it started out with good intentions.
If I asked that same question to a 45-year-old woman I'd just met at a networking event, she’d no doubt give me a quizzical look and back away slowly. She and I know that that isn’t how we adults make friends.
Clearly, being a so-called social species doesn’t automatically make us good at being social or building relationships. In fact, research suggests that between one-third and half of people frequently feel lonely, with the highest levels in young people aged 18-25.
The psychological concept of loneliness is complex. For some, it’s an unmet need for companionship ('I just want to feel close to someone'); for others, it’s the perceived discrepancy between the number or quality of their desired and actual social connections ('Everyone else is more popular!').
Feeling lonely also has negative physical impacts, such as increased likelihood of anxiety, heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. To make matters even worse, feeling lonely is itself isolating; only the healthiest and most confident people reach out when they feel low or upset.
The pandemic has also had an impact, increasing the likelihood of loneliness by shrinking any social life you might have had. While there are some who might now be back to their old, sociable ways, most people are still being cautious.
What can we adults do to decrease our sense of isolation?
Real friends matter
Stop comparing your relationships to those you see on TV, social media or in the idealised image in your mind. Remember that you have your own unique code for healthy social biomes.
Refocus on the relationships you do have that you want to nourish. Spend more time, or have deeper and honest conversations, with those where there's mutual love and respect.
Observe your values
What are your values? Find online and local groups of people who share the same interests. Whenever I moved around the UK for training work placements, I’d always find the nearest salsa class; this helped build my social connections as well as keep me fit.
Find others with similar interests and remember that friendships take time to flourish. We humans are a social but sceptical species; it can take time to build up trust.
If you’ve changed jobs in the past year, or have suffered isolation from working remotely, you might need to be brave and proactively engage with your colleagues.
Nobody likes to feel like they have to make the first move; it’s a vulnerable position that our ego tries to avoid. But, if you recall the last time someone reached out to you, did you think them desperate or courageous? If people are nice, they will respond with kindness. If they do not, well, you know you’re not missing out on much after all.
Focus on others
If you’re looking to enhance your wellbeing and extend your life by several years, then volunteering is perfect for you. There’s decades of research on how doing something good for others increases your own level of wellbeing and gives you that endorphin rush known as the ‘helper's high’.
Find a cause or charity whose values are aligned with your own. You’re also likely to meet people with a similar outlook.
Embrace your quirks
Your opinion of yourself is the only one that counts. I know this phrase has been posted a thousand times on social media, but it’s true.
When you’re low in self-confidence, you automatically assume that others see these ‘flaws’ and judge you just as harshly. They don’t, by the way; they’re just as busy focusing on their own flaws and insecurities.
Try to embrace your quirks rather than trying to deny them to fit someone else’s idea of who you should be. Remind yourself of all the qualities you have that you value in others.
You can't please all
The reality is that not everyone will like you – and that’s okay. But if you can be comfortable in your skin, and confident of who you are and what you stand for, like-minded people will be more likely to gravitate towards you. And, with a calm confidence, you’ll be a better judge of their character, too.
Author: Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach. She will be speaking about compassion at ACCA’s annual virtual conference Accounting for the Future on 23–25 November
This article was first published in Accounting and Business magazine October 2021