Making friends when we were young seemed so straightforward, especially in hindsight. Between playdates, 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 busy and complex? Once we leave school, launch our careers, and begin to invest more in our romantic relationships and families, friendships can sometimes take a back seat. There are those who seem to have this balance figured out. But the truth is that for most people, making and keeping friends as an adult can be really challenging. That said, while friendships might be more complicated, they remain no less important.
Why are friendships so important in adulthood?
Just as in childhood and adolescence, having good friends in adulthood allows us to live happier, 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 helps 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 as we age, our friends become more important than family for our emotional and physical health.
The paradox is that although our friends help us cope with life’s ups and downs, the busy 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 — 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 unsure of where we can meet other like-minded people or how we should approach someone we’d like to get to know. Unlike in childhood, there likely isn’t 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 the 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 people you enjoy spending time with — friends, family, co-workers — and see if they can introduce you to anyone new. People are often far more willing to 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 making 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!
How can you build a friendship?
Remember that it is a process: Start small by greeting a familiar face and build from there. A thoughtful compliment, pointed question, or an offer to help can make it easier to approach someone you’d like to get to know better.
It’s common to assume that friendships just happen or develop automatically, but that isn’t always the case. While certain people do “click,” and there’s even some support for friendship at first sight, or “friendship chemistry," all relationships require time, effort, and follow-up. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to making friends as an adult, but thinking about the expectations we have of our friends can help guide your behavior.
If you’ve tried to seek out new opportunities and are still having trouble, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Campbell, K., Holderness, N., & Riggs, M. (2015). Friendship chemistry: An examination of underlying factors. The Social science journal, 52, 239-247.
Carmichael, C. L., Reis, H. T., & Duberstein, P. R. (2015). In your 20s it’s quantity, in your 30s it’s quality: The prognostic value of social activity across 30 years of adulthood. Psychology and aging, 30, 95.
Chopik, W. J. (2017). Associations among relational values, support, health, and well‐being across the adult lifespan. Personal relationships, 24, 408-422.
Demarais, A., & White, V. (2007). First impressions: What you don't know about how others see you. Bantam.
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual review of sociology, 415-444.