Let’s talk about memes for a second. I promise, this will all make sense, so stick with me.
For all that folks make oddly big deals out of memes, “meme magic” and and the like, I’ve found that they’re an interesting source of insight. I mean, part of why I got my ADHD diagnosis was because friends would share random “ADHD life is like…” memes and I realized that they were entirely too relatable. By a similar token, I’ve found that memes can be a reliable – and surprisingly accurate – way of reading the general mood of your community.
You likely have seen this to one degree or another; you see your friends and follows sharing memes and image macros that all fit a particular theme. The details or the specific formats may change, but they all address a similar topic or mood that clearly strike a chord amongst the community. In a real way, these serve as a form of… call it “safe” vulnerability. People are sharing their feelings about something that’s affecting them, but behind a sort of veil of irony that makes it acceptable. You may not want to talk about your frustrations with your family or your complex feelings about your mental health with your friends, but you can reveal your true feelings in a two-panel Office gag as a way of opening up instead. And, in the process, you’ll often discover that you’re not alone.
Now, I bring all this up because of how often I see variations of this go around on my social networks:
We’ve been living in an epidemic of loneliness for decades now; in fact, it’s something that many of my coaching clients complain about. Many, many people feel lost, isolated and alone, with few (if any) people they could turn to. However, the pandemic has taken that sense of isolation and turned it up to 11. Lockdowns, quarantines and the fear of catching or spreading COVID meant that almost all of us were cut off from our social circles for a year or longer. While the lockdowns ended and vaccines and treatments helped many feel more comfortable coming back to the world, we all looked around and realized how much our social connections had suffered.
That’s not hyperbole. A 2021 survey from the Survey Center on American Life revealed that 47% of Americans lost touch with many of their friends, while nearly 10% lost touch with almost all of them. That alone is significant. However, the survey also revealed that the number of Americans who report having no close friends quadrupled – from 3% in 1991 to 12% in 2021. That’s a horrible thing to realize… and worse, we often don’t know what to do about it.
It sounds odd to discuss a decline in close friendships as a crisis, but the label fits. Social isolation and chronic loneliness is as dangerous to our health as smoking. However, we can’t make up the difference just by throwing warm bodies at the problem. As it turns out, “ambivalent” friendships are bad for your health too. The loneliness crisis is about having close friends, people you can rely on and turn to for support.
This is why the answer isn’t just about making more friends, it’s about building strong friendships. Quantity may have a quality of its own, but the quality of our friendships is far more important than overall numbers. So let’s talk about how to build stronger, more intimate and fulfilling relationships with your friends.