When she moved from Adelaide, Australia, to Melbourne, Jessie Wright imagined herself exploring a new hometown, meeting new people. Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
When Melbourne finally emerged from one of the longest lockdowns worldwide, she found only unfamiliar surroundings. She had broken up with her boyfriend of five years and was isolated in a city she’d barely explored.
“Coming out of two years of lockdown and a breakup, I realized I didn’t have a support network here or even a routine to return to,” she told Newsweek. “I knew I needed to do something about it, but it’s hard to go out and make new friends when you’re not feeling your best.
“This year, I decided to take action and make it happen. I was listening to [former monk-turned-life coach] Jay Shetty’s podcast on making New Year’s resolutions and sticking to them. He explained how crucial it is to have an action plan.”
Wright found the idea of New Year’s resolutions a useful tool to accomplish a goal. But the target she set herself for 2023 was much bigger than anything she’d done previously.
“My goal was to make some new friends in the city, and a dinner with someone new every Thursday was my action plan to make it happen,” she explained. “I would be so lucky to have new friends to go on coffee dates with or to have dinner with. So, Thursday is now dinner day.
“I always love to have a focus or a goal for the new year, but I’ve never committed to any resolution in this way before—or shared one publicly.”
Wright shared a video on her TikTok account (@jssirite) on February 18, outlining her plan to go on 52 friendship dates throughout 2023. She explained the “struggle to make new friends” in a video that generated over 214,000 views. Wright then continued posting about her quest for more friendships.
The videos continued to go viral, with a video posted on March 19 even surpassing 2.1 million views. The growing attention helped drum up more interest in Wright’s weekly dinner dates and led many people to send messages to her saying they’d be happy to enjoy her company for the evening.
“I’ve received thousands of lovely offers already, it’s crazy. So, I go through my messages on Instagram and TikTok and respond.
“I am currently booking a month in advance as it feels weird to message someone asking to plan a few months in advance. It wouldn’t feel authentic, and it would almost be counterproductive to what I’m hoping to do, which is make real friendships.
“So, I sit down a month out and reach out to four new dinner guests at a time.”
‘Making Friends Was Essential to my Mental Health’
Some of the dinner dates have been with people that Wright followed on social media for a time but had never met in person, and others have been complete strangers she connected with after going viral.
Blind dates can often go awry and lead to memorable experiences for all the wrong reasons, but Wright told Newsweek that she’s loved every friendship date she’s been on so far. She’s kept in touch with many of them and subsequently gone out for lunch, coffee or walks with the women too.
While the idea to go on a dinner date with 52 new people throughout the year is a fun concept, there is a deeper meaning behind why Wright wanted to do this for herself.
“I was going through a really hard time before,” she said. “I knew making friends and building a support network here was essential to my mental health. Admitting that you’re lonely or would like to make new friends is a really hard thing to do.
“Sometimes, the only comfort you have in that loneliness is the fact that no one knows about it. Sharing my experience in the way that I have can seem counterintuitive, but it’s the only way to break the cycle.
“If you have a support network around you then you are so lucky. It’s so important to your mental health and enjoyment of life.”
How Loneliness Affects Mental Health
In the post-pandemic era, with lockdowns and safety restrictions lifted, nearly half of Americans are still socializing less than in pre-pandemic times.
According to a survey of 2,000 eligible voters in the U.S. conducted for Newsweek in January by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, 42 percent said they are “less sociable” than they were in 2019, while 37 percent said their friends are less sociable now.
A project conducted by Harvard University, called Making Caring Common conducted in October 2020, found that 36 percent of Americans felt serious loneliness as a result of the pandemic. While loneliness affects people of all ages, the project revealed that 61 percent of people aged 18 to 25 years old felt incredibly lonely at some point during the lockdowns.
Loneliness can be debilitating and pose serious problems to a person’s mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that social isolation and increased loneliness have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, addiction, suicide and dementia.
National board-certified counselor and therapist, Juliet Lam Kuehnle regularly offers consultations and advice for dealing with mental health and wellbeing.
She told Newsweek: “As humans, we’re wired to connect with others, so isolation and loneliness truly impact us cognitively, emotionally and physically. When we’re lonely we might experience lower energy and concentration, brain fog, loss of confidence, helplessness and irritability.
“Vulnerability is a risk that is absolutely necessary in order to forge connection. Putting yourself out there is imperative, so start with things that feel accessible to you, but also be willing to consider something out of your comfort zone.”
Kuehnle suggested going to a coffee shop, workout class or dog park to ideally see the same people repeatedly, which can create connections gradually. She also suggested using online groups and websites to find likeminded people who share similar interests and hobbies.
When asked what she thought about Wright’s way of making 52 new friends this year, Kuehnle said: “I haven’t heard of someone creating such an intentional plan like this, but I love it.
“I like the structure and the accountability that is built in. I so admire this person’s commitment to her values, as she wants connection so she’s going after it.”
‘They Are the Highlight of my Week’
Wright now looks forward to her dinner dates every Thursday evening, which she might have never done if it hadn’t been for the breakup and moving to a new city.
“I didn’t have a support network here that I was expecting to have, so I needed to build it from scratch,” Wright said. “It’s something that I look forward to every week and I’ve had the best time connecting with all my dates.
“They are the highlight of my week. I love planning where we’re going, what to wear, and then meeting someone new each week.
“Everyone who is doing this is so selfless and they’re such good people. I can’t believe how lucky I have been to meet so many incredible women who I would genuinely love to be friends with through this.”
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