How to Make Friends As an Adult — and Why It's So Important for Your Health
Your squad can actually help you live longer — but the struggle to find them is real. Luckily, these tips on how to make friends as an adult will make the process easier.
#GirlGangs are priceless for empowerment and support, but the reality is that as adults, most of us struggle to find a co-captain, let alone a whole squad. In fact, a whopping 40 percent of Americans feel like they lack companionship or meaningful relationships and that they're isolated from others, according to a 2018 study from health insurer Cigna.
What's more, it's Generation Z and millennials who report feeling the loneliest right now, not the stereotypical older generation.
And feeling lonely is a big deal — having social support is about way more than just a shoulder to cry on, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and one of the foremost researchers in social relationships. "Loneliness gets a lot of attention for how it affects our emotions and quality of life, but we can't ignore the very strong effects it can also have on our physical health," says Holt-Lunstad.
How Friendship Impacts Your Health
Research shows that skimping on social connections can damage everything from sleep quality to cognitive function to actually increasing your chances of dying. Postmenopausal women with a strong social support system were significantly less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, reports a new study in Menopause. Perhaps most surprisingly, a 2015 meta-analysis from Holt-Lunstad's team found feeling lonely can be just as — if not more — influential on one's health and mortality risk as major killers like smoking, obesity, alcohol abuse, and exercise.
Why are relationships so crucial to our health? For one, the people around you influence your behaviors — everything from smoking to eating more vegetables. If your friends have healthy habits, you're more likely to have healthy habits, explains Holt-Lunstad. (Of course, the opposite is true too.) Social support also gives you a sense of meaning and purpose in your life, which can translate to better self-care and less risk-taking.
But relationships also change our physiology in a very real way: "When we're in the presence of others, particularly someone we are close with and trust, we have a different cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune response to things like stress," explains Holt-Lunstad. (Related: Just Thinking About Someone You Love Can Help You Deal with Stressful Situations)
Primally, there's security and survival in numbers, so being around others when you feel threatened or scared actually causes your body to trigger less of, say, a fight-or-flight response than if you feel alone. Repeated day in and day out, these altered responses add up — particularly when it comes to inflammation, which is linked to a number of chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression, she points out.
The vast majority of the research we have on the risks of loneliness are in older populations —but curbing those consequences starts much younger, says Holt-Lunstad. "Chronic illnesses don't develop overnight. It's the effect of constant exposure over time that has such a lasting effect-and the same holds true for social support."
Bottom line? "We need to consider being socially active to be just as important as being physically active to one's health," she says.
The Importance of Social Connection During the Coronavirus Pandemic
With the spread of COVID-19 across the globe, social isolation has only become more pervasive. Back in April, a survey of 1,228 adults found that nearly 31 percent of Americans always or often felt more lonely because of the coronavirus situation. What's more, 34 percent of millennials reported feeling this way, compared to just 20 percent of baby boomers. (Related: How to Deal with Loneliness If You're Self-Isolated During the Coronavirus Outbreak)
One potential reason why you're feeling more isolated? The pandemic has not only made it difficult to maintain meaningful intimacy (think: having a GNI with your bestie or traveling across the country to spend time with your long-distance BFF), but it's also brought daily interactions with acquaintances and co-workers (think: chatting by the coffee machine or saying hi to someone as you walk past their desk) to a halt, says Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., a psychologist and friendship expert. "I think ultimately, true intimacy is the deepest antidote that we have against loneliness," she says. "But those are also tiny interventions against loneliness. The fact that we don’t have them anymore can make it a lot easier for us to feel really lonely."
And when your social connections are completely disrupted, as they are during the pandemic, you might start feeling overall "blah." You're not in a good or bad mood, just numb, says Franco. Part of the reason behind this feeling of indifference is that social connection amplifies your feelings in either direction, a concept called the amplification effect, she says. In normal times, if you’re feeling angry about something and vent to your friend about it, you could end up feeling more enraged than before you tried to blow off steam, according to research. And if you're feeling extra cheerful and you share that joy with your BFFs, you're going to feel even happier, explains Franco. "But when we’re in solitude or when we’re lonely, our range of feelings and emotions starts to thin, and we’re sort of in this more monochrome place," she adds. (Doomscrolling doesn't help your mood, either.)
Your "blah" attitude can also be attributed to the fact that loneliness is linked to poor self-concept clarity, meaning you might start feeling out of touch with yourself when you're lacking social connection, says Franco. This, combined with being disconnected from your passions, may make you feel like an inauthentic version of yourself. "I think when we are experiencing our identity, experiencing our passions, it also brings us to life," she explains. "Because we don’t have access to that as much [during the pandemic], that sort of identity affirmation, we might feel more blah, kind of removed, kind of nebulous or foggy."
Why It's So Hard to Make Friends as an Adult
OK, so friends can be literal lifesavers — but that doesn't make them easy to come by, especially since your social circle starts to shrink after you're 25 years old, according to a 2016 study out of Finland and England.
There are endless reasons why it's so much more difficult to forge real connections past college. For one, there's less of a cultural expectation that our social circles should be increasing as we get older, compared to when we're young, Holt-Lunstad says, so we may be less open to and inclined to make new friends.
Plus, most adults are attracted to people like themselves — with shared religious beliefs, race or ethnicity, income, education level, political views, life stages — which limits our options more than when we're teenagers and don't identify with such rigid parameters, suggests a series of national surveys from research house Barna Group.
Moving for jobs and family, which takes us away from our established social networks, is one part of the equation. But we also may be prioritizing career success above social relationships, Holt-Lunstad points out. "There's evidence to suggest the majority of Americans are no longer participating in social groups like clubs or religious and community organizations. When asked why, the number one response for people under 65 was that they were too busy," she offers.
And that brings us to a core truth in combating loneliness: To make new friends, you have to put in real time and effort — including powering through rejection and initial awkwardness and anxiety. In fact, a 2018 study from the University of Kansas suggests it takes a whopping 50 hours of time together to move from acquaintance to casual friend, and another 40 to transition to being real friends. So let's get started on how to make friends as an adult.
How to Make Friends as an Adult
Luckily, you don't need a whole squad to combat unwanted solitude. Holt-Lunstad points out that loneliness is defined as the discrepancy between your actual level of social connection and your desired level of it. That means if you feel supported with just two close friends, your health is safe.
But if you crave more connections, here are a few ways women have found friendship outside of the things you've probably already looked into, like Meetups and volunteering.
1. Reconnect with old friends and acquaintances.
During the pandemic, it can feel super challenging to meet new people without pushing social distancing and other health precautions to the side. But making friends as an adult doesn't have to require taking an indoor fitness class or breaking the ice with a stranger at a crowded bar. "It’s not a matter of meeting new people as much as it is activating and cultivating with people that are already in your life and you haven’t had the time and space to really connect," says Franco.
To make friends as an adult, reach out to old friends you've fallen out of touch with but wish you hadn't, coworkers at previous jobs whom you've met up with a few times, or acquaintances with whom you've never tried to develop a flourishing friendship, she says. "According to the research, when you interact with someone that you were once connected with, you have more trust when you reconnect," she explains. "The friendship is already kind of supercharged, and it’s easier to develop once you already have a pre-existing relationship."
2. Hit up the people you routinely see in your daily life.
If you've exhausted your list of friends from your past and still want to make friends as an adult, Franco recommends finding the strangers or casual acquaintances who are already in your life, such as neighbors, work colleagues, your coffee shop's barista, or the people you see at the farmers' market every week, and turning them into friends. For example, when Franco moved into a new apartment building in March, she ran into her neighbors in the hallway, struck up a conversation with them, and exchanged contact info. After a while, Franco invited them to a picnic, which turned into a weekly event and sparked a friendship. If you have a colleague you like, tell them you'd like to get to know them more and ask if they'd want to do a virtual coffee date. Or ask the person who's always buying the same scone as you at the farmers' market to grab drinks in the park sometime.
Trying to turn people you're already physically close to or see frequently into friends tends to have a big pay-off. "Research finds it's a lot easier to create connections with these people, the reason being something called the mere exposure effect, which is basically the idea that the more we’re exposed to people, the more familiar they are, the more we like them," explains Franco. "The more we can see someone's face, the more likely we are to want to be their friend."
3. Say yes to friend-of-friend or friend-of-family dates.
You're used to asking around for networking connections and potential romantic partners, so why not look to your family and friends for friend recommendations? Not only will taking this step to make friends as an adult connect you with people outside your immediate bubble, but it also has a built-in vetting process, says Dr. Franco.
And for some people, saying "yes" to a meet-up with a stranger was worth it. When Julia Malacoff, a 29-year-old writer and trainer, moved to Amsterdam two years ago, she forced herself to say yes to being set up by anyone who knew someone in her new city. "At first, it was weird to be set up on a 'blind date' with the potential outcome of becoming friends," she says. But, she thought, worst-case scenario, we don't mesh and it's a little awkward for the amount of time it takes to drink a coffee. And best case: We do click and now I have a new friend. Both situations happened, but it was always worth investing the time to find out.
And best-case scenarios happen more than you think, agrees Lauren Finney, a 34-year-old who met most of her best friends via friend blind dates when she first moved to Nashville. "You find out pretty quickly if you have common interests, and then it's like any relationship-you ease into it," she says. "I'd then invite them to an event, which turned into dinner, which turned into texting all the time."
4. Use social media for good.
Social media is great at its namesake — connecting us with people we might not be face-to-face with. That includes the folks we follow online but don't know — be it fitness instructors, local bartenders, or influencers, all of whom (it's easy to forget) are real people looking for real connections, too. Sliding into the DMs of someone you constantly retweet on Twitter, joining apps like Bumble BFF, or attending virtual meet-ups are all easy ways to branch out and make friends as an adult, says Franco. (Related: Joining an Online Support Group Could Help You Finally Meet Your Goals)
When food and fitness writer Locke Hughes moves to Park City, UT, last summer, she started writing for local magazines and posting more about adventures in her new town on social media. One day she got a DM from a girl on Instagram: "Hey! I see you're new to Park City like me, and we both like exercising, adventuring, and eating :) Would love to get drinks sometime if you're up for it." "Yes, it felt a little like dating, but I found that's actually the best way to make friends as an adult — you want to make sure you're interested in the same thing and that the feeling is mutual," says Hughes. She met up with the girl and they became fast friends. What's more, it actually happened again — "I've now made two good friends who I originally connected with over social media," she says.
5. Forgo your solo workout in favor of group classes — and go consistently.
When Maressa Sylvie moved to LA, she made a point to go to the same yoga and spin classes week after week, and to always introduce herself to and chat with at least the instructor. When you see the same faces, it becomes easier to make offhanded conversation about the small stuff you have in common — comedy, ice cream, art, or wanting to try happy hour at the new spot in the neighborhood. "Eventually, one of us would suggest checking out that thing and we'd make plans," she says. It's a more organic lead into the "blind date" and less awkward because you already have a connection. Now, Sylvie says a lot of her current friends were made via fitness-all because she introduced herself and showed up. (See: The Major Benefits to Taking Workout Classes vs. Exercising Alone)
For Erin Kelly, 55, the breakthrough came when her regular Pilates class suddenly turned into a partner workout. "We were stuck with each other and both made a joke while awkwardly holding each other's feet, which helped break the ice," she shares. "She knew I was new, so we kept talking after class — small things lead to conversation, like me asking about her maple leaf mittens because I'm Canadian, and it turns out she's a Canadaphile. She invited me to grab a coffee, where we discovered we shared Democratic politics in a Republican part of the state, and she invited me to a Planned Parenthood fundraiser. Ten years later, we're still friends."
6. Be out and about — and available.
Married to a man in the Air Force, Kristy Alpert is no stranger to moving and having to make new friends-but that doesn't make it any easier every time she has to do it. When she relocated with her husband to Little Rock, AR, she took a pretty simple approach to making friends as an adult: Be seen.
"I started gardening in my front yard for a few hours," she says. Her neighbors started stopping by, sometimes just to compliment how good her yard was looking. With such a no-pressure situation, some would make more small talk, which led to a genuine friendship. She also started going on walks regularly around the neighborhood and on the trails near her home, saying hi to everyone that passed and stopping those she recognized as neighbors for quick chit-chat. "Now, we all know each other well and have regular BBQs in the cul-de-sac," she says. "There was a significant amount of me putting myself out there, but literally being 'out there' in my neighborhood was the key to meeting new people."
For urbanites, it's the same — except hanging in your front yard means at the corner bar or restaurant to make friends as an adult. Sarah Sheppard, who lives in Michigan, says she made a friend when she was catching up on some editing work over a cocktail at an uncrowded bar late one night. "This young woman sat next to me. The conversation started slowly, but after a while, we hit it off and decided to swap info," she explains. "The lesson I've learned in meeting friends: It's not about the first encounter; it's about the follow-up."
How to Boost the Odds You Connect
TBH, you're not going to become Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins-level friends with everyone you meet. But there are a few strategies you can use to turn that casual acquaintance into someone with whom you feel deeply connected.
1. Show that you're interested in their life.
Simply put, people like when others like them and are terrified of rejection. Showing someone that you value them, they're impressive to you, or you like things about them — in an authentic, non-sleazy way — helps foster connection, says Franco. "Genuine compliments and affirmation of the person in front of you, according to research, is one of the biggest predictors of who becomes friends," she explains. So go ahead and tell your coffee date how amazing it is that they backpacked the Appalachian trail or that they tell the best jokes — as long as you truly mean it.
2. Be vulnerable.
It's not exactly easy to tell a co-worker or total stranger that you've had a tough time dealing with the pandemic or the upcoming election on a first friend date, and you might feel like you're going to be a burden. But as it turns out, the opposite is true. "People feel like you are conveying you trust them and you are conveying that you like them when you are willing to be vulnerable with them," says Franco. (Related: Kristen Bell Is "Memorizing" These Tips for Healthy Communication)
Along with being vulnerable, it's important to be welcoming of the other person's vulnerability in order to make friends as an adult. Ask them deep, interesting questions that allow them to share something about themselves, not just their weekend plans. And if they do open up about their current struggles, make sure they know they're heard.
3. Meet up consistently.
Grabbing coffee with the person you like once every other month isn't going to make your friendship stick. "I think that's why people really struggle moving from the 'I’m getting to know you stage' to 'we’re actually friends,'" says Franco. "If you’re not hanging out regularly, it’s very hard to maintain the relationship."
In fact, the more that you can set up a regular time to hang out, the deeper the relationship will become, says Franco. So schedule a time that works for both of you to meet for a latte, a picnic, or whatever your chosen activity may be once a week, and watch your friendship blossom.