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How to Make and Keep New Friends as an Adult

You've got a friend in me.

Key points

  • It can be difficult to make friends as an adult, but remembering the concepts of proximity, similarity, and repetition can help.
  • To find friends, we need to know what we seek, the contexts within which we can find that, show up often and de-contextualise the friendship.
  • It is also important to consider the values and qualities we bring as friends ourselves.
Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash

These are the places I have made friends as an adult; in college, through former partners, spiritual groups, book clubs, family members of friends, and work. The common denominators with all of these?

Proximity, Similarity, and Repetition.

Proximity—being close to someone, geographically. This is why we make friends so easily with neighbours or people in the same residential hall at university as us. Proximity makes it easy to access people, which leads to…

Repetition—seeing people over and over again, usually across a range of settings. The mere exposure effect often kicks in (i.e., we start to like things more when we have greater exposure to them) and we develop a liking for people. Also, pragmatically, it is helpful to know how someone behaves across a number of months and settings before deciding whether you like them enough to befriend them.

Finally, similarity — we like people who are like us. We are likely to encounter people like us at work and school/university/hobby classes, which is why these are exemplary places to meet people.

People often talk about the difficulties of forming friendships as adults. The common lament: “It’s so much easier as a child.” I suspect that it is only easier as a child because we are thrust into situations with other children daily and friendships are stage-managed or created by necessity (you need to find someone to sit with in school), not choice. We have a lot more choice and agency as an adult, but this also means that we need to carefully consider the people we like and make efforts to find them.

It is often easier to make friends as we age, perhaps because we often become much less scared of rejection and shrug it off when someone doesn’t want to befriend us. This allows us to extend ourselves and seek people out without the worry about rejection that underlies so much of what we do. Equally, self-knowledge usually increases with age, which means we can form better-quality friendships with people really suited to us, instead of falling into friendships by chance and sticking around out of habit.

I acknowledge that the typical trajectories of life may reduce availability to new friendships (i.e., career progression, parenthood) but people still form friendships at work, at children’s schools, and in parenting groups all the time. Self-defeating ideas of “no one wants to be friends” and not extending yourself are more likely to be the culprit, than the utter unavailability of adult humans who want to be friends.

The four steps to making and keeping adult friendships

Know what you value

You need to know what general values you hold, what you like to do, and what you like in a friend to try and find one. Otherwise, it is like turning up at a department store to buy something, with no idea of what that is. You will end up frazzled and buy everything, or nothing. Think about the people you have enjoyed spending time with thus far. What qualities did they have in common? What qualities are you drawn to in partners or colleagues? Is there anyone you especially admire? Why?

Find people who share in what you value

You need to place yourself in situations where you might meet people like you, whether that is at work in the lunchroom. Identify where you might find people who are likely to be aligned with you in some key ways (e.g., as a psychologist and book lover, I tend to seek out friends at work or through book-club type events) and find a couple of activities that you can regularly place yourself in. Repetition is key so we can meet people and then build on our knowledge of them (and let them get to know us). I always recommend that people attend one class a few times instead of attending ten meetup groups only one time each.

Extend yourself and de-contextualise the friendship

To form sustainable friendships, we sometimes need to take them out of the initial context within which we formed them. It is fine to have work friends or gym buddies, but we also want a range of friends who cross over different areas of our lives. After getting to know someone a little, it is helpful to ease the friendship into a different context. A simple approach can work wonders: “Hey, want to go for a walk and get a coffee?” Keep it simple (i.e., a coffee or drink, not a spa weekend) and don’t load too much expectation onto it—you are only initially asking someone if they want to spend 30 minutes with you, not if they want to be your best friend for life.

Be the friend you want

I cannot emphasise this enough. We spend a lot of time worrying about finding friends or partners and often forget the importance of being a person we would want to befriend. This is key to both making and then maintaining friendships because making a friend is only half the task. Be consistent, call when you say you will, show up at events. Share, enough—don’t withhold out of fear or conversely, hog the conversational field. Be kind. Be honest. Be present. Be in it for the long haul. These are all key things we need from friends and are crucial to attracting and keeping friends.

Friends are crucial, regardless of the stage of life. They bring fun, connection, closeness, support, and laughter. Good friends significantly increase our levels of well-being, and can even help us live longer. We choose them, they are purely elective relationships and are the only people we spend time with, simply because we want to. What an amazing and powerful thing it is, to choose another, and to be chosen, day after day.

References

Stevens, N. (1997). Friendship as a key to well-being: A course for women over 55 years old. Tijdschrift voor gerontologie en geriatrie, 28(1), 18–26.

Sias, P. M., & Bartoo, H. (2007). Friendship, social support, and health. In Low-cost approaches to promote physical and mental health (pp. 455–472). Springer, New York, NY.

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