Master the Tricky Art of Making New Friends as an Adult
About a year ago, I found myself alone in a very quiet house. Both my daughters were off in college, and I was working remotely, staring at a computer screen all day long. I missed the back-and-forth of being around female friends, so I did something that was way out of my comfort zone—I joined a Bollywood-style dance team.
I'd been taking Masala Bhangra classes for a few years in person, and then on Zoom when the pandemic hit. It was a fun workout, but after the cooldown, I’d just grab my bag and rush home (or log off my laptop) without talking to any of the other students.
So, when the teacher asked me to join a group of 20 dancers who would learn a routine over two months and perform it at festivals around town, I debated it for a few days but then closed my eyes and jumped. Soon, I was meeting up before rehearsals to go over the moves with my fellow dancers, or going out for drinks and nachos after. By our last performance, I'd made several new friends.
The Rise of Loneliness
I'm far from the only empty nester/remote worker who has been feeling the pangs of being alone. In fact, we're currently experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, says Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends. “We’ve been getting lonelier since the 1950s, and it’s gotten really bad since 2012, with the rise of the smartphone,” she says. “And of course the pandemic made it even worse.”
As Franco points out, loneliness is particularly challenging for adults, who don’t have the same opportunities as children, or even young adults, to mix naturally with people who are open to forming new bonds. “As children, friendship happens more organically because we have the ingredients that sociologists consider essential for connection: repeated, unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability,” she explains.
How to Make Friends as an Adult
To make friends as an adult, you have to both initiate and put in a good effort, Franco says. Here are five research-proven ways to grow your posse.
1. Turn Your Virtual Interactions into Real-Life Connections
It’s easy to blame social media for the lack of real human interactions, but Franco says that apps like FaceTime and Instagram can also be tools for making deeper connections—if you use them wisely. “Research tells us that people who use social media to facilitate in-person connection are less lonely, whereas those who use it to replace in-person are more lonely,” Franco says.
So, instead of just scrolling through your social feed clicking an occasional thumbs-up or heart, look for posts that interest you and reach out. For example, when I posted on Facebook that my dance group would be performing at a street festival, I immediately got a direct message from a woman I'd gone to high school with but hadn’t seen in decades. Debbie, who had recently divorced and was looking to rekindle old friendships, came to my show, and we grabbed dinner afterward.
2. Reach Out to People from Your Past
One of the reasons Debbie felt comfortable reaching out to me is that, despite not having spoken in more than 20 years, we had a foundation to build on. This can be especially helpful for people who've gone through a breakup and are feeling particularly vulnerable starting over, Franco says.
“Research finds that when we text someone to reconnect, they appreciate it more than we assume they do,” she points out, adding that when we rekindle a friendship from the past, it moves forward faster than starting a friendship from scratch. As Debbie and I reconnected over dinner, we shared stories and memories from our childhood before we moved on to deeper conversations about where our lives are now.
3. Take a Deep Dive into Your Hobbies and Interests
Yes, the obvious advice is to find people who share your interests, whether it’s biking, pickleball, or Jane Austen. But the most effective way to do this is to commit to it on an ongoing basis: Instead of seeing the new French film, sign up for an eight-week class on New Wave cinema.
Here’s why: “When we interact with people over time, we have what is called the exposure effect,” Franco says. “The mere fact of being exposed to someone multiple times contributes to our liking them.”
When Randi Parker quit her teaching job after 30 years and moved to a new town where she didn’t know a single person, she discovered that a crafting class was her entry. “I took a 3D printing workshop and discovered one of my neighbors was also into home crafting, and we soon started working on some projects together,” she says.
4. Seek Out Other “Transitioners”
“Your ability to connect with other people isn’t just about what you do, it’s about finding people who are currently open to making new connections,” Franco says. She points out that people who are also going through life transitions (newly single, newly without kids in the house, newly retired) may be particularly receptive to your friendship overtures. She suggests looking for Facebook groups or Meetups for people in these demographics.
5. Hit the Garage Sales
After living in Northern California for decades, Denise Wolf and her husband bought a house in Eugene, Oregon. She needed to stock up on both new furniture and new friends, and found both at the same place. “I discovered that when you go to a garage sale, the owners are just stuck in their yard all day, and they're happy to talk to you!” Wolf says. Conversation comes naturally, she says, since every item up for sale has a story.
Franco calls this a more “advanced” move, but it can pay off big. “It can feel intimidating to strike up a conversation with a stranger at, say, a coffee shop—but according to research, people are much more open to this than you would think.”
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