How to make friends in Chicago and combat loneliness

People sitting by the lakefront.
Groups gather by Lake Michigan on March 3. (Abigail Ali/MEDILL)

By Abigail Ali
Medill Reports

The U.S. Surgeon General’s report on a “loneliness epidemic” last spring sparked discussion across social media platforms on how learned loneliness and a lack of third spaces has made making friends feel impossible. 

Learned loneliness is an acceptance of limited social interactions as normal, and third spaces are places people can go that are not work or home. Individuals can combat learned loneliness by finding new ways to socialize and build communities. Event-based social groups are a great way to do just that. Here are some ways to build a community in Chicago.  

Finding the right group 

One of the easiest ways to make friends is to find a group based on a hobby you enjoy, said Amy Harenberg, 27, founder of Chi Book Club. That might include joining a fitness group, a book club or taking cooking classes. 

“Surround yourself with people who like to do the same things that you do,” Harenberg said. “Find yourself in areas where the people that you would want to be friends with hang out and you guys can create a friendship.”

Social media makes the process of finding groups easy. Users on platforms like Instagram and Facebook can find groups near them by searching for things that interest them and their city, for example “running Chicago”  or “ Chicago travel.”  

Megan Weimer, 27, a food blogger, said she uses the Geneva app and Instagram to find events to attend. Geneva is a group chat-based app that helps people find other individuals to do things with. Users can create or join group chats and organize events all within the app. The platform is used by well-known groups like Chicago Girls Who Walk, but anyone can start their own group or host an event. 

“Meeting people where the common goal is to make friends, it makes you feel a little better, especially as an introvert,” Weimer said. 

Go on dates

Dates don’t have to just be about finding a partner. They’re also great ways to interact with new people and start friendships. 

For example, Hot Potato Hearts, an inclusive speed-dating group based in Chicago, emphasizes building friendships and romantic relationships by having participants mingle with people of different sexualities and gender identities, creating a list after each event of all the people they enjoyed romantically and platonically. 

“The friend list is always three times as long as the romantic list,” said Katie Conway, 32, founder of Hot Potato Hearts. “I think the number one misconception is you have to be ready to fall in love (to date).”


Making friends can also look like finding ways to make your community better. Volunteer groups are a great way to support a cause while making connections with like-minded people. Trash People is a nonprofit focused on building community through helping the environment. They host neighborhood clean-up events regularly in Logan Square, Lakeview, Ukrainian Village and McKinley Park. 

Penny Gibbons, 36, founder of Trash People, said keeping the events hyper-local makes it more likely that people will meet the same people several times, increasing the likelihood they’ll connect. Cullyn Doerfler, 29, co-leader of Trash People of Lakeview, said the group helped her get to know people in the area while she was pregnant.

“It encouraged me to get out and meet people in my area,” Doerfler said. “And now that I’ve had the baby, I am still connected with a lot of these people who I would never have met otherwise.”

Can’t find the perfect group? Make one 

If the group you’re looking for does not exist, you can always create one. Many social groups begin with an open invitation to the community for people to join them doing the activities they enjoy doing. Gibbons said she created Trash People because she wanted friends who cared about their community. 

“I thought the type of person that I would like to meet is probably up for picking up trash with total strangers on a Saturday morning,” Gibbons said.

Similarly, Conway said she started Hot Potato Hearts to create the kind of inclusive and casual speed-dating events she was looking for after the COVID-19 lockdown. 

“It really just came from the fact that I wanted to meet new people, but wasn’t comfortable just going to a bar and talking to a stranger because they might not be vaccinated and they might hate gay people,” Conway said. “I saw a need for a space I wanted, and so I made it.”

Abigail Ali is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Instagram and X at @abbymorganali