If you’re suffering from the “friendship recession,” you’re not alone

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If you’re suffering from the “friendship recession,” you’re not alone

January 3, 2024 -

A lonely man sits by a window with his elbows on a table, his head downcast, his hands folded in front of his forehead, an illustration of the loneliness caused by the friendship recession. By pathdoc/stock.adobe.com

A lonely man sits by a window with his elbows on a table, his head downcast, his hands folded in front of his forehead, an illustration of the loneliness caused by the friendship recession. By pathdoc/stock.adobe.com

A lonely man sits by a window with his elbows on a table, his head downcast, his hands folded in front of his forehead, an illustration of the loneliness caused by the friendship recession. By pathdoc/stock.adobe.com

God designed us for relationships, and he made that clear virtually from the beginning. After he created Adam, he said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18 NIV).

Yet in a country where political rivals embrace different realities, people focus so much on themselves, and computers seem to be taking over, Americans find themselves increasingly alone.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called it an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” Pollster Daniel Cox described it as a “friendship recession.”

“Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support,” he wrote in summarizing research by the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute.

Cox, the director of the center, highlighted those trends in the American Perspectives Survey in May 2021. The survey also revealed that 59 percent of Americans said they had a best friend, compared to 75 percent in 1990, and 12 percent said they had no close friends, up from 3 percent in 1990.

The hardest sentence any human can utter

The decline is even more pronounced among men, and research suggests that men don’t invest as much time in nurturing friendships.

“Not only do men have smaller friendship circles, they report being less emotionally connected to the friends they do have,” Cox wrote in National Review.

Friendship, by its very nature, is hard to measure, and people often feel a sense of shame that makes them reluctant to admit that they lack friends.

“Actually saying, ‘I need a friend,’ is maybe one of the hardest sentences that any human being can utter,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard Reeves told the website Big Think.

It would be easy to blame the friendship recession on the aftereffects of the pandemic, but the American Perspectives Survey indicated that would be misleading. Although roughly half of Americans said they had lost touch with a friend during the pandemic, nearly as many had made a new friend.

The survey revealed other forces at work.

Why we lack friends

In our increasingly mobile society, people are less likely to put down the roots needed to build long-term relationships. It takes time to make friends and nurture friendships, and Americans spend more time with their families—a good thing—and at work than previous generations.

Cox also cited the decline in community organizations like houses of worship, veterans groups, and social clubs where people make friends.

“When you lose that kind of structure previously provided by formal organizations, it becomes a lot harder to build a community all on your own,” he told the Deseret News.

A Public Religion Research Institute survey in 2022 showed that Americans tend to form friendships with people who vote, worship, and look like them.

“If you wonder why we have groups in this country who just don’t understand each other, this is it,” Natalie Jackson, the institute’s director of research, said. “There’s no mixing.”

Tech connects us yet separates us

Cox noted that the workplace has become the most common place where people make friends, yet people work from home more often since the pandemic. That means less personal contact with coworkers.

Digital tools like Zoom tend to foster connection more than intimacy.

“The online world may help keep friendships alive, but much online communication is shallow, casual and transient,” University of Texas professor Steven Mintz wrote for Inside Higher Ed. “Online communication has expanded social circles, but friendships are not measured by numbers but by their depth and intensity.”

Research has also shown that we spend less time with friends than we did in the past. The 2021 American Time Use Survey found we spend less than three hours a week with friends, down from less than seven in 2013.

“The time we used to spend with friends, we’re now spending with our phones,” psychologist Marisa Franco told WBUR radio in Boston.

Interestingly, new developments in artificial intelligence have led some industry representatives to tout the potential benefits of “friendships” with chatbots.

“Friendship is not a flower”

Yet they are no substitute for the real thing, created by God to meet humanity’s unique needs. Over time, certain characteristics of successful friendships have become apparent.

“Across human history, there’s always been a tribal size, I think, to friendship groups, which is somewhere in the teens, say between twelve and fifteen,” Reeves said.

In that group, each person ideally would have three or four close friends.

If you think that sounds like Jesus’ circle of friends, you would be right. He had twelve disciples —he called them “friends” (John 15:15)—and Peter, James, and John were his closest friends.

He shared with them some of his most private moments. He took them up a mountain, where they witnessed his transfiguration, and to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed before his crucifixion.

Jesus, of course, had other friends. For example, he was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:19 NIV).

But the Bible indicates that we, like Jesus, should be selective about our closest friends. Proverbs 18:24 says, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

That’s commitment—an essential quality in close friendships.

Friendship is not a flower that just blooms all on its own,” Reeves said. “It’s more like a woodworking project that you have to carve out and continue to work on.”

Jesus focused on others in his friendships, and so should we, even though it bucks the popular trend in our “Follow your heart” and “You do you” society.

When we give of ourselves, we make some of our closest friends.

Jesus, of course, set the standard for selfless giving—he gave his life for his friends.

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