Elizabeth Segran is the author of “The Rocket Years, How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life.”
Yvette Sei, a Brandeis University senior, thought she had a week to evacuate her dorm, as part of her school’s efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus. But then, she got an email saying the move-out date had been brought forward: She’d only have three days to leave the Boston-area college and head back home to Los Angeles. “My priorities became very clear,” she says. “I didn’t even bother trying to pack up my stuff. I decided to give most of it away and spend every last moment with my friends.”
Sei doesn’t feel like she was able to properly say goodbye, a process that she believes would help her transition her friendships from college into adulthood. She’s making plans to fly back to Brandeis in June to meet up with her friends and wrap up this phase of their friendship together, but it’s unclear whether this will happen given that social distancing measures may be in place for a long time. In the meantime, she is spending a lot of time on FaceTime. “I called a friend recently to ask for a recipe, and ended up spending an hour talking to her mom,” she says. “I guess I’m deepening my relationships with her and her family in new ways.”
Sei’s impulse to connect right now is a good one. She seems to instinctively understand that the time between our late teens and early 20s is a critical period in which we build the network of friendships that will last your entire life. In my research, I have explored a wide range of sociology and psychology research about how our relationships evolve over time. Studies show that your circle of friends tends to be at its largest at the age of 25, when you have, on average, 20 close friends. It’s important to have such a large network when you’re young because it’s common normal for your social circle to shrink as you get older. By 40, you will likely have about eight close friends. For people in their teens and 20s, the current period of social distancing threatens to disrupt the normal patterns of establishing lifelong social networks.
From high school until the early part of your career, your life is full of more friends than at any other stage of your life, since you have links to people from your childhood, college and work. While some of these people will eventually fall out of your life, others will become intimate friends that will support you in the decades to come. Sociologists are only just beginning to fully understand how important friendships are to a person’s well-being. People who have friends — both close and more distant ones — have been shown to have better physical and mental health, as well as longer lives. Meanwhile, loneliness carries the same mortality risks as obesity and chain-smoking. In more pragmatic terms, your social network will be valuable as you search for jobs and move up the career ladder.
It’s now clear that this unprecedented period of social distancing will last more than just a few weeks. Experts believe that we will remain in this situation for at least two months, but possibly much longer, if the United States is unable to curb the spread of coronavirus. It’s now becoming clear that this pandemic will shape the future of the world in profound ways, including setting off a global recession. Young people might be concerned about how coronavirus might impact your careers, but it’s important to realize that this period of isolation could also have a negative impact on your friendships. The good news is that there are things you can do right now to deepen your existing relationships and even create new friends, even though you might be physically isolated from your community.
Ethan McCallister, a Harvard senior, has been using the HouseParty app a lot since he’s moved back home to Vermont after his own evacuation. The app alerts you when your friend is chatting with someone, and allows you to drop into that group. When he drops in, he sees some of his close friends, but he also encounters people he doesn’t know that well and others he’s never met before. For McCallister, it’s the digital equivalent of meeting people at one of the college parties he would have been attending if he were still at school.
There are other ways to befriend new people during this time of social distancing. You might start conversations with someone you happen to be connected with on social media because you met once at a party. If you’re working on a project of some kind, like a thesis or a new hobby, reach out to other people who might be interested in that topic and form an online community. Ask friends to invite their friends.
Remember, you don’t need to be best friends with everyone you meet. Sociologists say that even distant relationships (or “weak ties”) are good for you. They can make you feel connected to a wider community, which increases feelings of happiness and well-being. And relationships might be helpful in particular ways. A new acquaintance might have experience working in an industry you’re interested in and talk you through your career goals. You might introduce someone to your favorite author, which eventually becomes theirs. Friendships come in all forms, and they can all be beautiful.
If you’ve moved home, you may not be surrounded by lots of people your age. That’s okay. Some friendships in your life might be with people who are older or younger than you. You could put out a call to see whether any elderly neighbors in your area would like a young person to help them run to the store to buy groceries or pick up prescriptions. If they take you up on your offer, be sure to spend a few moments to chat with them when you drop off their shopping. (From a safe distance, of course.) You might love hearing fascinating stories from their past. Or perhaps chatting with you will be the highlight of their day.
After years of seeing your friends in person, it can be hard to transition into new forms of communication. When I left graduate school in California to move to Boston, I had to say goodbye to my two best friends who had also been my roommates. It was hard to shift from our comfortable late night chats in the living room to texts, phone calls and FaceTime conversations. Don’t let the awkwardness of this transition get in the way. The rhythms of your relationships will change. You’ll have to schedule time to talk, instead of expecting to bump into each other. You might find it weird to keep the conversation going, when in person you could fall into companionable silence. It’s important for you to push through these moments and settle into new patterns of relating to one another. You never know which one of these friendships could last you the rest of your life.