“Dating minus the sex” is probably the best way to make friends
I saw a comment recently (I can’t remember where) that said: “I sometimes think the greatest miracle Jesus ever performed was having 12 friends in his 30s.”
My problems with these threads is none of the answers are great. Some responses to stop drinking or otherwise not dull the pain with drugs are fair and reasonable answers. But they also lean heavily on technology to fix what broke things to begin with, like, “I dunno, maybe try Meetup?”
Most people have no understanding of the problem they’re even trying to solve because of several factors:
- Research is clear that most adults just about everywhere go through this sense of loneliness. It bottoms out around 46-48 years old. So in all likelihood: it will get worse before it gets worse.
- There is a newfound sense of media pressure to talk about loneliness. That’s fine, but it does cause the problem to echo in people’s minds.
- Our jobs are frequently soft, shifty, and unnervingly unclear. What even is my goal this month? If you’re a woodworker: make a cabinet and admire your cabinet. If you’re a salesman and you make a sale, you just have to make a bunch more next month and … admire a spreadsheet?
- We’re addicted to the idea some app or service can somehow fix this problem like it “fixes” everything else in our lives.
- People, mostly white men, increasingly suffer from “Deaths of Despair”.
In the aforementioned book, Deaths of Despair, the authors write, “The American economy has shifted away from serving ordinary people and toward serving businesses, their managers, and their owners.”
I think that observation is justifiably true. Most of our work is setup to please “someone else”. You can argue that’s how capitalism is supposed to work, but for a great many people whether they feel attached to their work or not, it makes for a drab life.
A sidebar on what makes a drab life
Before we get much further I should address: Yes, life today is amazing. We have flying chairs in the sky and robot vacuums. But just because we’re not dying from polio does not mean life is somehow automatically perfect. For one thing, living longer brings emotional problems. And like most innovations that “free up” our time, we now have emotional challenges to address that seem larger among all our remaining problems.
Once you engineer out the problems of food, clothing, and shelter, as we reasonably have for the most number of people ever living in human history, that frees people up to start thinking, “What’s next?”
And for most people, our work completely consumes our lives. That makes for a drab life. “What do you do?” is the default question we ask people instead of anything like, “Who are you?” Even asked the latter, most might reply with their vocation, trade, or profession. We’ve allowed our sense of self to atrophy to the point where work is all we have.
The inability to see the scope of the problem is a problem
There is a malaise that impacts people in their early to middle-life. This notion you should be doing something you’re not, or “giving back”, or “making an impact” sets people up to think about specific actions to take.
And with most of our needs today we turn to technology. If you want to have find a spouse, eat, watch something, hear something, read something, or have sex with something your phone can deliver all of that to you. Often to your door in under an hour!
But your phone can’t give you deep, meaningful relationships. Too many people want to treat friends like anything else they can filter and sort. “Find me something I can do within twenty minutes of me for 1-3 hours that’s under $50” is not a recipe for success.
We already know this. Anyone looking to get married and have kids could start on Tinder but would never go into it thinking there’s no effort involved once you setup the account. It’s going to cost money, time, and attention to setup dates, pay for transportation and the other person, and so on. And, with luck and work, those costs will become investments.
People do not do this with friendships. Instead, we try to find friends the same way most people would look for a dog to adopt. In fact, most people might actually spend more time thinking about a dog than other people.
Reddit threads of people looking for something to do with friends or a way to develop a friend group overlook the time and effort required in almost every circumstance.
You should, instead, approach friendships like dates:
- Make an effort to invite people over, to cook for them, or visit some place.
- Do the work to think up ideas, organize events, or attend functions.
- Pay attention to the details of a person’s life, like their favorite things, games, activities, birthdays, and so on.
- Do not treat people merely as text threads. No one gets married to someone purely by texting. To make it work, you’re going to have to make the effort to get together, be around each other, and talk like real, interesting people. The same goes for friendships.
Naturally, like dating, you will have to drop some people from your life. Sometimes you won’t be a match. People will change or arguments will spill over into other complex emotions that cause people to drift apart.
Likewise, some activities are better than others for facilitating friendships. When you’re dating, seeing a movie in a theater is an option. That’s a fine thing to do but it’s largely a solo activity. You can’t talk, so maybe don’t do that early on.
Going to the gym is a fine way to meet people, except people on Reddit and elsewhere seem to leave off the details of what kind of gym. A Planet Fitness isn’t going to cut it because almost no one there is interested in talking to other people. Women are likely terrified of men talking to them, and almost everyone has headphones in anyway. Instead, you need group fitness classes where there’s a shared sense of work or activity, like Orange Theory or CrossFit.
Pursue ideas outside of work
Again, you must not allow work to be your life. Your coworkers do not make for excellent friendships. You must “design your days” so you can stop working at a reasonable time and also afford to reduce your consumption to go do other things. To be clear: this is very easy to say and do for some people and not at all for others who struggle to pay their bills. But as much as possible you should try to recognize when you’re paying for things because you think you need to, not because it’s actually doing anything for you. This can enable you to work fewer hours. And yes, working fewer hours is a radical notion in 2022. But ideas are always the most interesting at the extremes.
You must be relentless about designing your day so you can design your life. To achieve depth of friendships and meaningful non-work activities, you can’t let yourself get up, go to work, eat out 2-3 times a day, come home, crash on the couch, and watch TV until you fall asleep.
I don’t care who you are or what you think about anything else I’ve written in this post, this much I am sure of: screen time and a life of incessant convenience will never make you feel good.
Netflix binges, eating overpriced food or junk food, and drinking alcohol alone or in excess will ruin your day. And if you do that every day, you will ruin your week. And every week that goes by ruins a month until it ruins your life.
You can be a more interesting person who cooks and cooks well. You can save money and eat better. You can spend more time reading, crafting, building something, or learning a new skill like painting or an instrument. Even if you only have the desire to sit at a desk, you could learn a new programming language, design tool, or creative process to produce rather than consume. Just be careful to recognize starting a new podcast or YouTube channel will not bring you friendships. Likes and follows are a simulacrum of human experience.
You will, however, need these real-word skills, talents, hobbies, and non-work activities to become a more interesting person. Like dating, you’d never think to impress someone by being slovenly or uninteresting.
Friendship ideas worth pursuing
It will take a very long time to go from “Hi, nice to meet you” to, “Hey, wanna come over to my place for a BBQ?” You should be prepared for that and start investing into that system now.
- Volunteer at places that do things you like. This might be an animal shelter or a museum. There you will likely meet other volunteers and locals. Dedicate at least a year to this in order to get to know the staff, other volunteers, and regulars.
- If it strikes your fancy, consider a church or religious group. Commit to going for at least six to nine months.
- Commit to a class-based gym, hiking group, bike group, or other fitness cohort for at least six months. Go at least three times a week if possible. You will meet people naturally who obviously share something of a similar interest as you. You will begin to commiserate about that nutty thing you did the other day or your new PR or whatever. Be aware, again, some are better than other. Yoga classes are not always ideal because it’s often a quiet, solo activity.
- Consider a service club and commit to going at least once a week for a year. Some groups near you might not sound like your jam, like Rotary or Kiwanis, but you will meet people and they will connect you to people. Do not expect for everyone there to be your best friend. But you only need one person to really make a lasting connection, not all fifty or a hundred or however many members they have.
- Lean on your existing friend group. Most likely you have people near you that you know from work or school or other activities you’ve done in the past. Message them on Facebook and ask for their number. A text thread is closer to people than Messenger because phone numbers are more personal to people. Make an effort to talk and chat. Heck, just writing a long email or a written letter is good for you and them. I do this and while almost no one takes the time to respond (and that makes me kinda sad), I trust that getting something in the mail that isn’t a bill or a credit card offer helps them. After a while, invite them to lunch or some activity. Remember, if this is important to you then you’ll need to do the work. Yes, you are just hoping they will return the effort.
- You can do some things digitally or in a pinch, like Zoom-based dinners or FaceTime with friends to chat. Those are better than texts and texts are better than social media messages/DMs. We are a nation of people constantly in the presence of others but not in their company. So strive to make an effort to meet and make it consistent.
- Kids are not an excuse. People often think they can’t do something because one, the other, or both parties have kids. If both parties have kids, great, let them play together. Heck, you can do the same with dogs. If one party doesn’t have kids and the other does, you may just have to get over that hump and consider spending time with them. You might like doing new things with them like fishing or bouldering or dominoes.
It’s important to remember two things in all of this:
- Sometimes this will not work out, people will be flaky or unreliable, and you may have to cut your losses and move on to someone else.
- You will likely have to do the work to start this process. Everyone else is sitting around in the same situation as you, trying to suck out some emotional wellbeing from a device or screen void of anything to give.