“Can you believe we’ve been doing this regularly for 11 months?!” my friend Emma smiled over FaceTime as she cooked her breakfast.
She was right: myself and three close friends from college had begun a weekly Sunday morning call at the start of the pandemic—and had rarely missed a day. Our chats were wonderful, covering everything from heartbreak and uncertainty to new movies and recipes. The talks shifted–at the beginning, consumed by fear and frustration; in the middle, preoccupied with the sourdough craze; and now, exploring what the present and future hold.
I realize that without the pandemic, this weekly call probably would not have happened.
As horrible and cruel as this virus has been, it forced all of us to slow down. It forced us to truly sit with empty time (and hey, lots of boredom and loneliness) and carve out an hour for a phone call. And, I hope it has forced us to recognize how deeply important friendship is in times of distress.
In the months that my friends and I talked, two romantic relationships came to an end, one new job was begun, and a house move was made. We heard more about each other’s lives than we had in years because we were talking to each other every week. None of this every-couple-of-months-let’s-catch up-bologna. No—every week there was a new update, a job story, and a lively discussion.
It’s bizarre to think about, but the pandemic caused that. As horrific as the events of this past year and a half have been, I find comfort in the fact that friendship has sustained so many of us.
We’ve known for a long time that friendship is important for mental health. Psychology has shown us that having friends to support us through hard times can make seemingly unimaginable difficulties feel tolerable. Friendship actually acts as a buffer to stress and is deeply ingrained in our neurobiology. Friends promote a sense of belonging, boost self-esteem, encourage healthy behavior, and lower the risk of long-term health problems.
In sum, friends are awesome. They improve our lives. Amidst the pandemic, this could not be more true.
Dozens of articles over the past year and a half have promoted ways for us to find connection during so much isolation. The New York Times published an article back in April of 2020 about how the “humble phone call” was making a comeback. Over 800 million wireless calls were being made every day—many, I’m sure, to friends—which is nearly double than before the pandemic started. My friend Aliza told me that the first week of lockdown she called every friend she could think of. To fill the time, to provide support, to laugh, to cry. My sister started a weekly Zoom call with her friends where they shared silly PowerPoint presentations. My mom chatted with friends she hasn’t caught up with in years. We all were, and still are, seeking connection.
Again, the pandemic did that. I’m guessing most of us never thought super deeply about the group FaceTime we arranged to fill our lockdown Friday nights, but maybe now we can.
Maybe now we can recognize (cherish, even, I dare say) the fact that friendships are critical in times of unprecedented adversity and that it was the pandemic that pushed us to connect. I can look back and cherish those dozens of Sunday mornings spent with my girlfriends, laughing about the Emmys or crying about a breakup. I can acknowledge that I needed them—we needed each other—to discuss the craziness of the world, the vaccines, the variants. And, I can recognize it was the pandemic that pushed us to take more time to catch up with one another.
Maybe you will, too. In fact, I think your phone is ringing.
Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.