Let’s Be Friends: How to make lasting connections that lift you up
Making friends as an adult may seem daunting, but there are plenty of ways to go about it, and it's surprisingly beneficial to your health
If you feel that making friends as an adult isn’t easy, you’re right. “As kids, we have recess and gym class. We can let our guard down,” says Marisa G. Franco, a Washington, D.C.–based professor and the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help Us Make and Keep Friends.
According to sociologists, these repeated, unplanned interactions and opportunities for vulnerability are necessary for creating the bonds of friendship. Given today’s work-from-home reality, those options are fewer than ever. “And even those of us who see our colleagues every day aren’t letting our guard down,” adds Franco.
Friends are for adults too
Loneliness can affect overall wellbeing just as much as smoking or drinking
A 2021 survey by the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank, found that the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has quadrupled since 1990, going from three percent to 12 percent. “We’ve never been more disconnected,” says Canadian psychologist and author Jody Carrington. “And the greatest predictor for overall well-being isn’t how much you drink or smoke, or what you eat. It’s social engagement.”
Research by Brigham Young University psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad has shown that loneliness is a major threat to longevity, on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. People who are lonely or socially isolated have a higher risk of impaired immune function, depression, dementia and cardiac death.
"People who are lonely or socially isolated have a higher risk of impaired immune function, depression, dementia and cardiac death"
On the flip side, healthy friendships can help us age better, cope better with stress, and live happier, longer lives. Plus, happiness is contagious—it spreads through your social network. Harvard researchers found that when an individual becomes happy, their friends who live in a one-mile radius have a 25 percent higher change of getting a boost in happiness, too.
The researchers concluded, “People’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation; for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends.” Here are eight tips from relationship experts on making and deepening friendships.
Don’t rely only on luck
“Friendships don’t just happen,” says Shasta Nelson, a San Francisco–based expert on healthy relationships and the author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness. And if they do, they might not be sustainable. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that the belief that friendships were based on external or uncontrollable factors—luck, basically—predicted greater loneliness five years later.
Studies show that people often underestimate how much they're liked. All you have to do is reach out, and you might be surprised by the response
In a 2022 study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that recipients of an unexpected communication—a short note or a small gift—appreciated the gesture a lot more than the sender thought they would. Not only that, we often underestimate how much people like us. If we assume we’re going to be liked, we’re more likable—warmer, friendlier and more open.
Make a list
Write down the names of three to five people you already know but would like to be closer to, suggests Nelson. Send them a text message, an invitation for coffee, a shared photo or memory, or an article that made you think of them.
Have multiple friends
Having multiple friends ensures you get more of what you need- no single person can be everything for you
Don’t limit yourself to one close friend. “Nobody gives to you in all the ways you need,” says Nelson. Indeed, a 2020 study of middle-aged women at Northern Illinois University found that those with three to five close friends had higher levels of overall satisfaction with life.
Awkwardness isn’t a good reason to back out of a new relationship. “It’s just a normal part of getting to know someone,” says Nelson. For example, when we go to the gym and start to sweat, she says, “We don’t panic and think, ‘This must be bad for me.’”
"Recent research from the Kellogg School of Management shows we tend to overestimate how awkward a first meeting will be"
Recent research from the Kellogg School of Management shows we tend to overestimate how awkward a first meeting will be. Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, England, who researches the effects of talking to strangers, puts it in perspective: “The other person doesn’t want an awkward conversation either.”
Put the time in
Repeated activity such as regularly volunteering is a great way to put the time in to build friendships
Making a close friend takes time—often more than 200 hours of time together over several weeks, according to an oft-cited University of Kansas study in 2018.
"Making a close friend takes time—often more than 200 hours of time together over several weeks"
Both the quantity and the time frame are key. “That’s why we tell people to take a class or volunteer,” says Nelson. Repeated activities come with a built-in get-to-know-you schedule.
Vulnerability is a cornerstone of any healthy relationship. “That’s when we feel seen and known,” says Nelson. To start diving deeper, she suggests asking “highlight-lowlight” questions, like what the best and most stressful part of someone’s week was. “It acknowledges that it’s okay if not everything’s great,” she says.
“After the pandemic, many of us forgot how to socialize,” says Franco. “Social skills are like muscles—we can work them.” In a 2022 study by Sandstrom, participants had to talk to strangers every day for a week. “By the end, people were less worried about being rejected and more confident they could keep the conversation going,” says Sandstrom.
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