The friendship problem
Why friendships have started to feel strikingly similar to admin
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s going on with my friendships, or to be more specific, my lack thereof. I’m not quite sure when it happened, but I’ve felt the presence of friendship dwindle in my life in the past couple years.
One reasonable diagnosis of the problem is that it’s entirely down to my own life choices: At 30, I moved to a smaller place away from London, where I made most of my friends in my 20s. I am in a long term partnership and I have a toddler, which means I am strictly beholden to a bedtime routine for the maintenance of our collective sanity. Despite charading as a bubbly extrovert for years, I realized during the pandemic that I’m actually an introvert. I stopped going to an office and the after-work drinks that perpetuate many urban millennial friendships. That sort of thing.
It would be easy, correct even, to solve this friendship riddle by blaming all of the above and move on with my life. Join some workout classes and friend-finding apps. Go to mom groups. Make an effort with new people etc.
But beyond the fact that I have done all that and then some, I think something else is going on here. A lot of people I speak to — people who live in cities, and haven’t moved away from their networks, people who don’t stay indoors after 6pm – are not happy with the state of their social lives.
My sister, who lives in San Francisco, says that despite knowing many people who live nearby and share her particular life stage, she can barely get someone to commit to something as casual as a walk with a coffee later in the week. Another friend said having dinner with friends in south London midweek — a 60 minute commute — ends up being more of an energy drain than a nourishing social interaction. She craves more of the kind of friends that can pop over for an hour on a Sunday afternoon without planning weeks in advance. So do I.
And yet it seems normal now that plans are made far in advance — scheduled around myriad travel and wedding weekends and kids and work commitments — and then canceled right before. Someone doesn’t follow up, or cancels and then never proposes an alternative plan. Similarly, promising new adult friendships never seem to blossom into the kind of quotidian check-ins and week-to-week ephemera that the friendship of our younger years is based on. Life-long friends make new life choices, drift apart. The friendship fizzles into WhatsApp volleys back and forth, and then someone doesn’t answer the last message, and then it’s a year before you ever talk again.
Friendship starts to feel strikingly similar to admin. Sound familiar?
Much has been written about the struggle to make friends once you enter your 30s and beyond, so in some sense this is all nothing new. But for a long time, I’ve detected a level of avoidance, a pathological burnout among many people I know, and in myself — something that suggests a deeper cause is at the core of this. I know I can’t be the only one craving a kind of social connection and nourishment that the seven messaging apps on my phone don’t provide.
I want to be clear here that the point I am making is not Millennials Killed Friendship. Nor am I calling out any particular friends of mine; I am as guilty of this as anyone. But I am trying to figure out the matrix of factors that leads to a situation where in theory, I have friends — actually loads of them if you look at my phone — but in practice — in the kind of relational, low-stakes, intimate way I crave — there’s a lot to be desired.
I’ve been thinking about this for months, and then one day I heard the eminently quotable Esther Perel address it on a podcast (interview starts at about the 50:00 mark). I’m going to quote her heavily, because I hope the words will stay with you as they did me.
“Modern loneliness masks itself as hyper connectivity. And so people have easily 1000 virtual friends, but no one they can ask to feed their cat. That loneliness, which is really a depletion of the social capital, is extremely powerful. […]
One question I keep asking that I had no idea was going to be so pertinent: When you grew up, did you play freely on the street? … And the majority of the people learned to play freely on the street. They learned social negotiation. They learned unscripted, un-choreographed, unmonitored interaction with people. They fought, they made rules, they made peace, they made friends, they broke up, they made friends again. They developed social muscles. And the majority of these very same people’s children do not play freely on the street. And I think that an adult needs to play freely on the street as well.
For us as adults, that means talking to people in the queue with you, talking to people on the subway, talking to people when you create any kind of group. Book club, movie club, sports club. You stay in the practice of experimentation, doubt, of the paradox of people: You need people very much but the very people that you need are the ones that can reject you.
We do not have the practice at the moment. Everything about predictive technologies is basically giving us a form of assisted living. You get it all served in uncomplicated, lack of friction, no obstacles and you no longer know how to deal with people. Because people are complex systems. Relationships, friendships are complex systems. They often demand that they hold two sides of an equation. And not that you solve little problems with technical solutions. And that is intrinsic to modern loneliness.”
Friendships are, by their very nature, made of friction. To know what is going on in someone’s day-to-day life, to make plans with them, and then reschedule those plans when someone inevitably gets sick, and then bring over Calpol or soup or an extra laptop charger. To water their plants while they’re away, to ask them to take your kids when you’re feeling sad, or for help getting rid of mice in your house. To show up for the walk you planned even when you’re a vulnerable anxious mess — this is all friction.
And friction is not just interrupting your day or life to help out a friend, but also admitting you need the kind of help you cannot pay for or order yourself. To pierce through your veil of seamless productivity and having-it-together to say: I need something from you, can you help me?
Myself and people my age have been trained under the illusion that we can effectively eliminate any and all friction from our lives. We can work from home, Amazon prime everything we need, swipe through a limitless array of mediocre dates, text our therapist, and have a person go to the grocery store for us when we don’t feel like it, all while consuming an endless stream of entertainment options that we’ll scarcely remember the name of two weeks in the future.
All of this creates a kind of “social atrophy” as Perel calls it. We are so burned out by our data-heavy, screen-based, supposedly friction-free lives that we no longer have the time or energy to engage in the kind of small, unfabulous, mundane, place-based friendships or acquaintance-ships that have nourished and sustained humans for literal centuries.
Add in the pandemic, which I think has accelerated this, and we’ve lost entire categories of social interaction that used to foster friendships, especially low key ones. Our lives are bereft of ways to see people in the low-effort, regular, and repeating ways our brains were designed to connect through.
At the same time, I sense many of the people in my age/income cohort are collectively reaching the upper limits of the lifestyle we all invested so heavily in during our 20s. I know I certainly have. The career mindedness, the self optimization, the adventures, the travel, the trying to survive in desirable places to live which become comically expensive to do so — all of it has left us very tired.
Despite the tremendous privilege involved in living that lifestyle, it usually means living in places far away from where we grew up, or in a series of new places where we’re effectively starting all over. Those of us who have kids are realizing how insane it is for two income-earning adults to attempt to raise a child without the unpaid, accessible help of family or community close by. People outside the constraints of modern western capitalism have typically not done this because — I’m just going to say it — it’s not really possible to do it without losing your mind.
And let’s not forget, as we all bumble along, burned out, isolated, and drowning in the demands of whatever life or career stage we’re at, we’re also expected to constantly consume and metabolize horrific world events in the background. This over-reliance on tech for every aspect of our lives “opens us up to new vectors of anxiety,” as this great post byput it, with “[our nervous systems] now plugged into a neurotic and hypersensitive globe-spanning information system that’s constantly pushing unnecessary things into your consciousness.”
So is it really any wonder that we might not be inclined to text our friend back about that plan four Thursdays from now, in between consuming images of genocide presented without any context or verifiable information, while trying to order dinner on our phone, and answer a Slack message after hours?
I feel like I say this all the time, but it bears repeating: Our brains were simply not designed to operate this way. The oft-cited Dunbar’s number — that our brains have a cognitive upper limit of about 150 relationships we can actively maintain — can easily be maxed out by a morning Instagram scroll and answering your email and WhatsApps.
And there, I think, lies the crux of the friendship problem: We are so burned out by the process of staying afloat in a globalized, connected world that we simply don’t have the energy for the kinds of in-person, easy interactions that might actually give us some energy and lifeforce back.
One of things I try to do in this newsletter is connect the many seemingly isolated problems of the current moment with the broader meta crisis of our time. And I think this one has huge implications, far beyond the idea of friendship or loneliness. Aswrote recently, the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for climate change is live in an area with a high degree of social trust.
We’ve come through 75 years where having neighbors was essentially optional: if you had a credit card, you could get everything you needed to survive dropped off at your front door. But the next 75 years aren’t going to be like that; we’re going to need to return to the basic human experience of relying on the people around you. We’re going to need to rediscover that we’re a social species, which for Americans will be hard.
Becoming a parent and engaging in the grueling work of caring for another human has brought me to the visceral realization that what this world is lacking — what we actually need most — is each other. It sounds hippie-ish and obvious, but as McKibben hints at, it’s going to become ever more serious and tangible. We are relational creatures designed to live with the physical, practical support and fellowship of other people, be it family, friends, built villages and communities, and chosen families.
I spent the first decade of my adulthood amassing a network of talented, connected friends all over the world, people who I could summon with a smartphone. Beyond that, I believed I needed to rely on no one but myself. So realizing all of this has been an identity-based shift for me, but it’s one I’m very grateful parenthood has given me. We’re in the process of figuring out how to re-orient our family’s life around this idea, and making those changes feels scary but good. As we do that, I’ve been comforted and energized by this idea — which I first heard in this interview with the novelist Zadie Smith — that caretaking is a kind of liberation.
It’s liberation from the idea that we can self-optimize ourselves to the point of not needing anyone else. That if we work hard enough to survive in a competitive economy, we’ll be able to buy, order, or summon anything we might need within 24 hours, and that is somehow progress. That instead of asking for help and support from the people and friends we know — they’re too burned out, don’t want to bother them, they live too far away — we should invest heavily in self care to inoculate ourselves from needing to ask anything of anyone.
These are all ideas that capitalism loves — more people living in their own atomized fiefdoms means selling more stuff and services and meal kits to keep up with the relentless pace of life — but are fundamentally antithetical to the ways that humans are designed to flourish.
It’s certainly no coincidence that my childhood was defined by “playing on the street,” as Perel called it, which is perhaps why I miss the adult version so much. I think we have to choose to go into situations where we don’t know how they might pan out. Be willing to talk or engage with people who don’t share the carefully calibrated views that we broadcast online. In addition to making the effort with friends — new, old, promising acquaintances — and asking for the kind of help and support we need, as well as providing it in return. These are all muscles we need to rebuild.
But in order for this all not to feel like yet more admin, it’s crucial to remember we are not machines. We need to make changes to regain the capacity to show up for these kinds of interactions and relationships. I know if I want to be available for more of the kind of recurring, place-based relationships where I can give and receive support, that means I have to be less available for other things. Mostly, the shiny things inside my phone that loudly insist someone else, somewhere else, is doing or saying or something I should know about.
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Things I enjoyed reading
With the benefit of hindsight, were extended lockdowns really effective? Considering the trauma they caused, it’s wild that we have barely grappled with this as a society. [NY Mag]
“God was a bunch of drunks together in a room.” [NYT Opinion]
I love the idea of have a go-to list of activities to turn to when your dim spirit needs a recharge. [Fromlovely La Vie en Watercolor Substack]
I’m completely obsessed with this story of a man who downsized / cleared out his family home without sending anything to landfill. [NY Mag]
“Whenever the urge to be ‘proactive about anti-aging’ hits me, I remind myself that aging is another word for living.” On the existential ache of botox. [Guardian]
“When cities can no longer provide the very basic conditions for humans to thrive, isn’t it time to question the narrative of unstoppable urbanisation?” Excited to follownew Substack about the creative periphery. [Cityquitters]
How can universities continue to be crucibles of free speech and plurality in a time when political discourse among students is more uncivil than ever, and increasingly violent? [NYT Opinion]
Things I enjoyed listening to
On the exhausting cycle of emotional reactivity on social media — and how to break free of it. [This Jungian Life]
If you are a recovering hyper-functioning perfectionist, this is a balm. [We Can Do Hard Things]
Call me a doomer, but I found this discussion on the collapse of civilization oddly hopeful. [Wild]
Dr. Becky Kennedy on Armchair Expert is a reminder that parenting is the ultimate exercise in personal development. [Armchair Expert]
Who should I interview for this newsletter?
Every time I send this newsletter I forget to say that I’m open to suggestions for who I should interview for the Q&A series. I try to seek out people who are responding bravely and sanely to the chaotic world we live in, and who help give us a playbook or practical steps for how to live now. You can browse past interviews here — I’m actually really proud of them! Please reply to this email if you have any suggestions.
“People can grow up with the outward appearance of normality in an environment largely stripped of plants and animals, in the same way that passable looking monkeys can be raised in laboratory cages and cattle fattened in feeding bins. Asked if they were happy, these people would probably say yes. Yet something vitally important would be missing, not merely the knowledge and pleasure that can be imagined and might have been, but a wide array of experiences that the human brain is peculiarly equipped to receive.” —E.O. Wilson
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