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Making friends when we were young can seem so straightforward, especially in hindsight. Between play dates, school, camp, and extracurricular activities, we were regularly surrounded by our peers and friendships often seemed to form naturally.
But what happens as we age and life becomes increasingly complicated and busy? Once we leave school, launch our careers, and begin to invest more in our romantic relationships and families, friendships can sometimes take a backseat to other priorities and stressors.
There are those who seem to have this balance “figured out”. But the truth is that making and keeping friends as an adult can be really challenging. That said, while friendships might feel more complicated, they remain no less important.
Why are friendships so important in adulthood?
Just like they do in childhood and adolescence, having good friends in adulthood allows us to live happier and healthier lives. Because friendships are voluntary, and friends choose to connect with and support each other on an ongoing basis, they are a powerful source of validation that help us feel valued and loved. Our friends help us celebrate milestones and achievements and cope with stressful events, transitions, or conflicts. They shield us from symptoms of anxiety and depression and protect us from feeling lonely, which just so happens to be one of the most detrimental experiences for our well-being. Recent research even suggests that our friends become more important than family for our emotional and physical health as we age.
The paradox is that although our friends help us cope with life’s ups and downs, the busyness and structure of adulthood does not always allow us to make new friends or invest in the friendships we already have. And because changes in friendship networks are common (expected, even) as we age, we might find ourselves in a new city or stage of life where we struggle to make new friends.
For many, the thoughts and feelings associated with making friends as an adult can be anxiety producing or, at the very least, confusing. It’s likely been a while since we’ve had to “put ourselves out there”. We might feel out of practice and unsure of where we can meet other like-minded people or how we should approach someone we’d like to get to know. Unlike childhood, there isn’t necessarily a structure in place to facilitate friendship-making, nor are there clear-cut rules for how to go about meeting new people. Although this kind of flexibility can be overwhelming, it allows each of us to approach friendship-making in a way that feels most comfortable and gives us the best chance of finding people with whom we really connect.
Where can you meet new friends?
A good place to start is to use your existing social network. Approach the people you enjoy spending time with (e.g., friends, family, co-workers) and see if you they can introduce you to anyone new. People are often far more willing to set us up or connect us with others than we anticipate.
If you’ve exhausted your network, it’s time to step outside of your comfort zone. The best way to do this is to participate in activities that are inherently social, like a cooking class, book club, or running group. Whatever you do, make sure it’s something you genuinely enjoy, since the root of friendship is often an underlying similarity. Going into a situation with a goal other than meeting new people or friends (whether it’s your desire to learn a new language or improve your endurance) also takes the pressure off having to approach someone, which in a roundabout way can make it more likely that you will! Here are several ideas to help you find activities:
- Sign up for an activity or class related to your life stage (e.g., parenthood, retirement). Going through a meaningful, challenging, or exciting transition with someone can facilitate the closeness and intimacy that exist in friendships.
- Attend neighborhood activities and events. These are often advertised in local newspapers and shops or online. This can be helpful when you are looking to make friends, since living near each other can make it easier to maintain your friendship long term.
- Volunteering is another way to meet people while giving back to your community or a cause you are passionate about.
- Online resources can also help you expand your social circle. Meetup is a useful website that allows you to sign up for local events catering to a wide variety of interests, including hiking, dance, and photography. There are even groups specifically created for those looking to make new friends.
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How can you build a friendship?
The best way to approach making friends is to remember that it is a process. Start small, by greeting a familiar face and build from there. A thoughtful compliment, pointed question, or offer to help can make it easier to approach someone you’d like to get to know better.
It’s really common to assume (or hope) that friendships just happen or develop automatically, but that isn’t always the case. While it’s true that certain people “click” and there’s even some support for friendship at first sight (“friendship chemistry”), all relationships, including friendships, take time, effort, and follow-up. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to successfully making friends as an adult, but thinking about the expectations we have of our friends can help guide your behavior.
- Make time for shared experiences. As much as possible, it helps to say “yes” to offers or invites. Repeated interactions are so important, especially in the early stages of a friendship. Put yourself out there, much in the same way you would when it comes to dating, and suggest getting together in a different context (e.g., outside of class or work). If you aren’t comfortable asking someone to spend time with you one-on-one, make it a group outing and invite others along.
- Gradually share little pieces of important or personal information. This process of self-disclosure is how we build intimacy and trust in our relationships. That said, when pursuing a new friendship, you don’t want to go overboard and spill your deepest, darkest, secrets right away. Start small by sharing stories or insight into your thoughts and feelings and make sure to show an interest in the other person.
- From there, it helps to stay true to your word and follow through on any promises made. If you say you will call or offer to arrange plans, make sure to do so. Being reliable and consistent with the small stuff will help you build trust so that it’s there when it counts.
- Finally, make sure you’re both putting equal effort into your friendship. Good friendships are characterized by reciprocity and equality. Although close friends don’t always keep an explicit score count and things tend to balance out over time, it helps to look for and establish that balance early on. We only have so much to give. And making sure you’re getting what you’re putting into your friendships will help you invest in those that really matter.
A few final tips…
If you’ve tried to seek out new opportunities and are still having trouble, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Pay attention to how you interpret rejection. If you automatically assume others will not like you, you’ll likely end up feeling down and will be less inclined to put yourself out there in the future. Instead, try coming up with alternative interpretations – Is it possible they had another reason for turning down your invitation?
- Don’t shy away from help, whether that means finding information and tips from books or blogs or seeking individual or group therapy to feel more comfortable approaching others and asserting yourself.
- Above all, be kind to and patient with yourself. This process is difficult for so many people. And it takes time to develop trust and intimacy in all relationships. Success should not be defined by the number of new friends you make, but rather by the meaningful interactions you have, the quality of the friendships you form, and your willingness to put yourself out there. Even though it can be daunting, it is so worth it and it’s never too late to make new friends— So go ahead and set up your very own play date!