There’s little doubt about the importance of friendships. In fact, a strong social circle can help us maintain good health and even help us live longer.
But research has actually found that people’s friendship networks have shrunk over the last 35 years. Our connectedness has decreased — and with the rise of social media, people are spending more time online and less connecting in person. So how, as adults, do we make new friends?
Adults have fewer chances to make friends
If you spend any time watching kids, chances are you’ll have seen moments when — on a playground or at the pool — they easily struck up a conversation with other kids and began playing. For some, it’s hard to imagine as an adult sitting down at a table with a complete stranger and engaging in conversation.
Psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, says part of the challenge is that, as adults, we don’t have the same opportunities to strike up friendships.
“For friendships to develop, you really need three essential things – proximity, a setting where people are likely to let their guard down, and spontaneous interaction. In our teenage and college years, we have a lot of opportunities for that kind of interaction,” she explains. “But in our 30s, 40s, 50s and older we have more commitments and don’t necessarily have the space.”
We can also feel tentative in initiating friendships, and with a spouse, children and work colleagues, we may even feel our emotional needs are being met. But, Mirgain points out that it’s important to keep expanding our support circles and make friendships a priority. Friends move away, we change jobs and in the busy-ness of life we can struggle to foster those close connections.
It’s true: friendships take work
“There’s no question it takes a lot of work,” comments Mirgain. “If we only have so much time, we’re more likely to go to those we already have connections with. We may be so busy with family activities or our careers that friendships become ones that work with the convenience of our schedules.”
Mirgain also notes that the nature our friendships may change with age. In our early 20s we might see our friends multiple times per week. As we age and our obligations increase, it might be once a month or once every few months. We may also have friends based on activities — the friend you go to exercise class with, the friend you attend book club with, the soccer mom you watch the game with. The key though is that it really is about the quality of the relationship, not the quantity of friends.
“As humans, we’re social creatures who need that sense of belonging, being a part of the community. It is an aspect of our make-up,” says Mirgain. “Since we typically choose our friendships, they provide a unique opportunity to foster each other’s growth and make each other a better person.”
How you can make new friends
One way to cultivate new friendships is to seek out places where you have an interest in going – join a club or organization, go to church, volunteer for a local group. And when you do, try to reach out to others.
“It requires a bit of bravery. But by putting yourself out there, you may discover an amazing friendship you haven’t even anticipated,” says Mirgain.
For Mirgain, that happened during swim class. She and one of the other participants struck up a conversation and by the end of class had exchanged phone numbers. Over time, according to Mirgain, the other participant became one of her closest friends.
Connecting around a shared interest helps open the door to getting together in the future. Perhaps it’s an art exhibit or visiting the local botanical garden.
The important thing is to reach out and express interest by saying something like, “It would be nice to get together sometime.” And, it’s important not to take it personally if they are too busy or not interested in getting together again.
Work, social media and more
While the workplace also creates an opportunity to engage with others, it can also present some challenges. If you move or change jobs, the common experiences or interests you shared may no longer be there. The same is true for parents who connect over a child’s sport or activity. When the child stops playing, there may no longer be that shared interest.
Social networking can be another way to engage with others. But Mirgain notes, the health benefits of friendships come from being together face to face. It’s also important to remember that the experiences presented in social media can be a carefully cultivated image of someone’s life.
“Social media has some wonderful benefits but it can’t replace the direct connection of friends,” says Mirgain. “It’s critical to keep making time together a priority. To be seen, heard, known and appreciated unconditionally are some of the gifts of friendships.”