One minute you’re on the playground and everyone around you is a potential friend and tag partner. The next thing you know, socializing and making friends is at the bottom of your to-do list. And with a full time job, kids and keeping other areas of your life afloat – it’s probably been a hot minute since you last made a new friend.
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It’s easy to say you don’t have time for friends or claim that new friends aren’t important to you, but the truth is – it’s pretty darn important. Why? Because friendship is good for us.
According to psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, building and maintaining friendship is an important pillar of our health. Sure there’s water, food and shelter, but relationships and companionship come in pretty close after that.
“The number one predictor of happiness is close relationships with family and friends,” says Dr. Bea. “Happiness is never going to be a thing. Often time people think it’s a house, a job, or a car, but people and relationships are what matters in the end.”
Just as making friends was important when you were little, so is making friends as an adult. There’s research that points to the importance of making friends later in life and how it affects you physically and mentally as you age.
But where and how do you actually make new friends as an adult?
“You’re going to find varying social comfort levels between people,” says Dr. Bea. “Some people meet others easily and are very open, and then there are some people who are socially anxious and shy. Making friends requires risk from both types of people.”
How you’ve recovered from rejection in the past may dictate how easily you make friends and connections in the present. Are you guarded? Or are you willing to be a bit more vulnerable so someone can get to know you?
Dr. Bea shares some insight about new friendship:
Shared interest is huge. Common interest is a big deal in friendship. You bond with people who like the same things as you or who are going through similar things. If you like biking, find a biking group. If you like running, find a running buddy. Join a book club, go to a musician group, get involved with church or attend a mom meet-up. If you feel passive at these events, set a goal to have three conversations with three different people before you leave. And resist the urge to go once and be done. It’s hard to wait for friends to fall into your lap, but friendship is an activity. It requires exercise and effort.
Don’t be too aggressive. When you’re 6-years-old everyone is a potential friend. Then you grow up and start to see that not everyone has your best interest at heart. People can get suspicious if you come off too strong when you first meet. Instead, try easing into the friendship and making sure you’re both comfortable. After a few friendly conversations, suggest meeting up for coffee, lunch or a quick run. Some experts believe that it takes 10 to 15 conversations before you start associating friendship with someone.
Be an exceptional listener and show interest. Most people feel awkward when they meet someone for the first time, but if you’re a good listener and ask the right questions, feeling uncomfortable is unnecessary. Ask open ended questions and be willing to reach out to others. Use phrases like “Tell me more about.” And “Help me understand.”
Celebrate. When you first meet someone, inquire about something good that happened to them. Cheer and praise is a great way to make connections because it stands out to people and makes them feel good. Did your new friend mention they lost weight? Or maybe they recently got a promotion or ran a marathon. Celebrate with them and they will begin to associate feeling good around you.
Consider location. Friendship can take time to develop, but the more often you see someone or hang out, the quicker the relationship tends to form. This is one reason why college students or coworkers tend to form relationships more quickly – because they spend a large chunk of time together. Consider your neighborhood or gym when looking for opportunities to meet new people. Try to tap into areas you visit frequently.
Use friendship apps and social media wisely. Every friendship is different, but most require some sort of physical presence. Social media and apps can give you the illusion of having friends without ever stepping outside. There’s nothing wrong with using these tools to get the ball rolling, but remember there’s no real obligation to one another online. Sometimes, people take greater risks with virtual friendships because they feel anonymous, but rarely are these online relationships substitutes for the people you encounter in real life.
Evaluate your circle. You’re going to have varying levels of closeness in your circle. Active check-ins depend on the nature of the person and the friendship you have with them. There are some friends who only talk a couple times a year and both are happy and satisfied with the relationship. And then there are other friendships that require more frequent check-ins and spending more time together. Remember that friendship can vary by time and commitment level.
Explore old friendships. If you’re at the point in your life where you’re actively looking for friendship, one of the best ways to connect with someone is through old friendship. This group could include classic friends from childhood, high school, college or even old coworkers. Since you have a history with these people (and granted you’re still on good terms with them), this friend group is one of the most fertile areas for potential friendship to grow.
“Some people are socially anxious and hate small talk, but small talk is a necessary part of meeting someone for the first time,” says Dr. Bea. “It’s like dipping your toe in water. Rarely do you jump right in before testing the water.”
For those who are a bit shy, Dr. Bea suggests starting small. The more things you are willing to try and the more you’re willing to be uncomfortable, the sooner you’re going to find something that works. Develop a strategy to challenge your anxious behavior. It might feel a little risky at first, but remember that friendship and connection takes effort and exercise.
“There’s very little risk in talking to just about anyone,” says Dr. Bea. “One thing people can try is speaking to strangers a bit more commonly. You can talk to almost anyone in an elevator.”
If someone is walking by and you notice something about them that jumps out to you, offer a compliment. Or set a daily goal to greet at least five people you wouldn’t normally.
Run experiments and start to formulate ways to talk to people and make connections, says Dr. Bea. Speak to the grocery clerk and use their name. Compliment someone’s tattoo and ask the story behind it. Smile and say hello to someone in the hallway. People like praising comments and like to be noticed.
So that person you keep seeing at the gym wearing your favorite band shirt – mention you’re also a fan. Then the next time you see them, smile and say hello again.
Overtime you’ll start to build confidence by putting yourself out there. As you get more comfortable using these strategies, start to use it in areas you are more frequently – like the gym, in the cafeteria, at the dog park or taking a walk in your neighborhood.