How to Make Friends as an Adult—and Keep Them
Everyone needs reliable friends in their inner circle. If you're in need of new pals, follow this expert advice for making—and keeping—friends as an adult.
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If you feel that making friends as an adult isn’t as easy as it used to be, you’re right.
“As kids, we have recess and gym class. We can let our guard down,” says Marisa G. Franco, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland and author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends.
According to sociologists, repeated, unplanned interactions and opportunities to let ourselves be vulnerable are necessary for creating bonds that turn into friendship. For many of us, today’s work-from-home reality makes those options fewer than ever. A 2021 survey by the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank, found that the percentage of Americans who say they have no close friends has quadrupled since 1990, to 12%.
“We’ve never been more disconnected,” says Jody Carrington, a psychologist and author of Feeling Seen: Reconnecting in a Disconnected World. “And the greatest predictor for overall well-being isn’t how much you drink or smoke, or what you eat. It’s social engagement.”
Why is it important to have friends as an adult?
Research by Brigham Young University psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad has shown that loneliness is a major threat to longevity, on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. People who are lonely or socially isolated have a higher risk of impaired immune function, depression, dementia and cardiac death.
On the flip side, healthy friendships can help us age better, cope with stress and live happier, longer lives. Plus, happiness is contagious. A Harvard study found that when a person gets happy, their friends who live within a one-mile radius have a 25% higher chance of feeling happier too. Researchers concluded, “People’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation; for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends.”
Here are tips from relationship experts for making and deepening friendships.
RD.com, Vicky Lam for Reader's Digest
“Friendships don’t just happen,” says Shasta Nelson, a San Francisco–based expert on healthy relationships and the author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness. And if they do, they might not be sustainable. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that the belief that friendships were based on external or uncontrollable factors—luck, basically—predicted greater loneliness five years later.
In a 2022 study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that recipients of an unexpected communication, such as a short note or a small gift, appreciated the gesture a lot more than the sender thought they would. Not surprising, a positive attitude can help us make friends. But not just in the obvious way. We often underestimate how much people like us. If we assume we’re going to be liked, we become more likable—warmer, friendlier and more open.
Make a list
Write down the names of three to five people you know but would like to be closer to, suggests Nelson. Then reach out to each of them: Send a text message, an invitation to meet for a cup of coffee, a shared photo or memory, or an article that made you think of them. See if a small gesture might spark a deeper connection.
Don’t limit yourself to one close friend. “Nobody gives to you in all the ways you need,” says Nelson. Just a few good buddies can make all the difference. A 2020 Northern Illinois University study of middle-aged women found that those with three to five close friends had higher levels of overall satisfaction with life.
Awkwardness isn’t a good reason to back out of a new relationship. “It’s just a normal part of getting to know someone,” says Nelson. For example, when we go to the gym and start to sweat, she says, “we don’t panic and think, ‘This must be bad for me.’ ” Recent research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University shows we tend to overestimate how awkward a first meeting will be.
Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, England, who researches the effects of talking to strangers, puts it in perspective: “The other person doesn’t want an awkward conversation either.”
Put the time in
Making a close friend takes time—often more than 200 hours of time together over several weeks, according to an oft-cited University of Kansas study from 2018. “That’s why we tell people to take a class or volunteer,” says Nelson. Repeated activities come with a built-in get-to-know-you schedule.
Vulnerability is a cornerstone of any healthy relationship. “It acknowledges that it’s OK if not everything’s great,” says Nelson. “That’s when we feel seen and known.” To start diving deeper, she suggests asking “highlight-lowlight” questions, like “What was the best part of your week?” and then “What was the most stressful?”
“After the pandemic, many of us forgot how to socialize,” says Franco. “Social skills are like muscles—we can work them.” In a 2022 study by Sandstrom, participants were required to talk to strangers every day for a week. And what do you know? By the end, people were less worried about being rejected and more confident they could keep the conversation going.