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Hey, Colleague: How do I make more non-work friends as an adult?

Hey, Colleague: Practical advice on careers and maintaining a work-life balance.
Studies show that loneliness is on the rise, partially fuelled by isolation caused by the pandemic.

Send questions about careers, productivity and work-life balance to [email protected]. Please include your name and location, or request to remain anonymous.

Hey, Colleague:

Now that I'm no longer in my 20s (shh, a woman never tells), how do I make friends? Since moving away from my hometown, I've lost track of people, and without a spouse or kids, I don't find myself meeting new people with similar lives. Plus, with the pandemic, I find I'm going out less, and even my work colleagues, I only see half the time through a screen. —anonymous

I'm sorry to hear that you are lonely and let me reassure you that you are not alone. Studies show that loneliness is on the rise. Humans are social creatures, and we need interaction to survive, and this pandemic creates isolation. It's not easy.

Loneliness is a health burden and is associated with immune system dysfunction, depression, anxiety, heart disease, substance abuse, domestic abuse, morbidity and suicide.

But don't worry. You are acknowledging your loneliness means you are ready to do something about it. Loneliness is stigmatized and can cause us to feel ashamed, but it's important to start these conversations. The one good thing that came out of the pandemic is the recognized necessity to start being more transparent and talking about mental health.

Loneliness in individuals is characterized by more robust functional communication in the brain's default network, which is involved in reminiscing, future planning, imagining and thinking about others. The up-regulation of these neural circuits fills the social void they crave. They are more likely to imagine social situations, recall memories of the past and hope for the future to overcome their loneliness.

Knowledge is motivation, and understanding how loneliness manifests itself in your brain will help you overcome it.

How to cope with loneliness during the pandemic

Be accountable. Are you sick of being lonely? The first step is to put yourself out there. If you are not trying to talk to people in person, use dating apps or join Facebook groups with like-minded individuals. Even a simple conversation with the cashier can increase your feelings of connectedness—and what if that cashier was lonely and that short, seemingly meaningless conversation sparked happiness in them? You never know. 

Nurture and optimize your well-being. Taking care of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health should be your priority. Make sure you are getting daily sunlight exposure, exercising (even if it's only a 30-minute walk after your meals), eating wholesome and nutritious foods and, most importantly, prioritizing sleep. It's also vital to incorporate stress-relieving strategies such as meditation, breathwork and cold exposure into your routine, which will increase your overall resilience and adaptability. Stress is a silent killer that can cause inflammation in our bodies over time. Health is wealth, and you have nothing without it. Fitness changed my life by giving me confidence, limitless energy, and momentum to do bigger things. It could do the same for you, which will also help take your mind off the loneliness.

Focus on yourself. There is never a better time than now to do your inner work and focus on your personal growth. Take advantage of this time when you have zero distractions to distract you from taking a course, learning a new skill, reading new books, and doing what you think will take you to the next level. Masterclass, Coursera, distance learning, blogs—you have a world of education at your fingertips. What if you meet someone next year? It's nice to have people around you, but those are also distractions. Don't waste this time you have to yourself.

Enjoy yourself. You don't need to force yourself to be productive all the time. Take time to relax. Go for a run. Watch movies. Read a book. Play video games. Paint. Go to the spa. Do your nails. Whatever you do, please don't feel bad about it.

Get outside. I am a huge proponent of sunlight and recognize the importance of honouring our circadian rhythm. We are programmed to be in the light while awake, and in the dark at sunset. Go outside as much as you can during the day, even if it is cold out. Sunlight will trigger the release of feel-good chemicals—increasing your mood, lowering blood pressure and boosting vitamin D, which is crucial to our well-being. The benefits of sunlight are infinite and you are not living your best life if you are stuck inside all the time. We are all creatures of Mother Earth and we thrive best in our natural environment.

Foster authentic connections. The pandemic exposed the need to end a long-term relationship I was in. Most of my friends are married with children and it wasn't easy being in isolation. Needless to say, I was suffering from loneliness myself even though I was meeting new people. I need to have real, authentic, and genuine connections. You can be with people and still feel "lonely," hence the importance of fostering meaningful connections. Connections are forged through being open, consistent, saying yes, and showing genuine interest in people. Like anything worthwhile in life, it takes effort but doesn't give up. How bad do you want it?

Talk to your friends, and ask them for help. You will know who your real friends are because they will set time aside from their busy lives to be there for you as much as they can.

Check up on your friends. Many people who 'look' OK may not be. Your friends could be suffering from loneliness too, so it's important to reach out to them—especially during holidays. Maybe you will find someone close to you to connect with during these challenging times. It's time to remove the stigma and shame against mental health and loneliness and focus on the well-being of your inner circle. We all need each other to thrive for us to succeed.

Love yourself first, and everything will fall into place. I usually always have people around me, but I was not used to being alone during the pandemic. I spent months hustling, working on my businesses, riding my bike and having fun. I was doing anything I could to stay distracted while not giving myself time to rest and focus on what I truly wanted for my future. However, I remained mindful, accepted the situation and gave myself time because transitions are hard. I practiced my daily habits but didn't force change. I knew that my mindset would shift one day, and I would be ready. When that day came, I found clarity in my goals and met a partner I've been manifesting since I was little. What are the odds of that? That, my friend, is called the laws of attraction. Like energy attracts, and you always meet people at your level.

So, are you ready to take control of your life? By admitting that you are at least partially responsible for your loneliness, focusing on yourself, spending time fostering meaningful connections, being mindful of the well-being of people around you, and loving yourself—everything can fall into place. 

Be kind to yourself, practice all these things consistently and give yourself time to adapt. Surrender to the process and be patient—change doesn't happen overnight. You are strengthening neural circuits into your brain, eventually leading to new ways of thinking and living.

Kate Pn writes about mastering a healthy work-life balance by focusing on productivity hacking. Write to her at [email protected].