As you age, do you find the process of making friends easier or harder? For many, making friends gets tougher as we grow older, for a variety of reasons. We may not be as mobile as we once were, or we may be impeded by health concerns. Common impairments like hearing loss have been shown to trigger a growing sense of isolation. On top of all that, getting to know new people might be harder now that we’re living life on our own after the loss of a spouse.
Whatever the reason, and despite the difficulties, making friends as we age is important for our emotional and our physical health. Some news outlets have begun to label our isolation-oriented culture as “a loneliness epidemic,” and statistics seem to bear that out. The website Consumer Affairs reports that 60 percent of senior men and 71 percent of senior women say they are lonelier now than before the COVID pandemic. Precise numbers are hard to quantify but research has shown over 40 percent of adults over 60 describe themselves as lonely.
So, that raises the question: can seniors learn strategies for building meaningful connections and expanding their social circle by making new friends? This recent US News article written by reporter Karin Vandraiss says yes, and the payoff is worth the effort. Let’s take a look.
Making Friends as an Adult Isn’t as Easy as it Used to Be
Vandraiss begins her article with the recognition that adulthood can be a difficult time to make new friends, for a variety of practical and emotional reasons. “Unlike being in school or college, where you were surrounded by peers of similar ages and interests, finding friends and maintaining those connections as an adult isn’t as easy as it used to be,” she writes.
And this isn’t simply an interpersonal issue, either. The lack of connection among American adults has seen a sharp decline over many years, and the impacts—loneliness and isolation, among others—constitute a genuine public health crisis, according to a 2023 report from the U.S. Surgeon General’s office.
Vandraiss writes, “Loneliness and social isolation can lead to higher rates of mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, as well an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. While making friends as an adult may seem easier said than done, it’s entirely possible – and beneficial for both our physical and mental well-being. But it might require more intentional effort and strategy.”
Making Friends Requires an Intentional Strategy
When it comes to friendship, quantity does sometimes matter over quality. According to research, people with six or more friends tend to be healthier, overall.
But Vandraiss recognizes that, for many adults, trying to establish and maintain six close friendships might seem like an impossible task. “Developing and maintaining platonic relationships often take a backseat to family, romantic relationships and work rather than equal priority,” she writes. “In a 2021 report from the Survey Center of American Life, nearly 70 percent of Americans said they have situational friendships where they only see a friend in a specific context, like work or a shared activity.”
For this article, Vandraiss called upon the wisdom of relationship expert and author, Kat Vellos, who recommends taking the time to consider a few questions before diving into the friendship pool. These questions were taken verbatim from Vandraiss’s article:
- Clarify what friendship means to you. How would you define friendship, and how would you describe the kinds of friends you hope to add to your life?
- Clarify the type of friendships you’re hoping to add to your life. Are you looking for activity partners, professional colleagues, someone to go partying with or a heart-to-heart best friend?
- Accept that it’s not going to happen overnight. You’ll probably need to meet a lot of people to find the few that you’ll want to make a deeper commitment to.
And above all, research shows that your greatest asset to making friends is a positive attitude. Vandraiss explains, “People who expect acceptance naturally behave more warmly, which makes others more likely to accept them. On the other hand, those who expect rejection tend to be less approachable, which can lead to lower likelihood of acceptance.”
Making Friends Means Going Where the People Are
If you’re genuinely not sure where to start looking for friendships, Vellos suggests beginning with your interests and hobbies. “Go where the kind of people you want to meet are already gathered,” she says.
While one-off events can be a good place to start, you’re more likely to make a strong connection with a group of people who meet regularly (“think taking a class rather than just attending a lecture,” Vandraiss writes). This habitual contact also draws on the “mere exposure effect”, which Vandraiss describes as our inclination to prefer things—and people—we are familiar with.
She provides the following ideas for where to meet new people:
- Interest clubs. If you like to read, you might join a book club or start your own. If you’re looking for parent friends, join a parenting group in your area or attend story time at your local library.
- A gym or group workout class. Pairing exercise with socializing isn’t for everyone, but the gym can be a natural place to form friendships. Be open to conversation with other regulars (start with a smile or wave if that feels more comfortable) or try a group workout class, which offers a more consistent way to make connections.
- Sports leagues. Whether you’re into baseball, softball, flag football, volleyball, running or another sport, there’s most likely an adult sports league or club for you. Not only do they get you moving, but they also function as social clubs in which you can meet new people who share a love for the sport.
- Adult classes. As we get older, it’s important to stay curious and learn new skills and concepts to keep our brains sharp, but it’s also helpful for making friends. For example, you can join a cooking class at a local store, sign up for a woodworking class at a makerspace near you or audit an art history class at a college or university.
- Apps. Social networking apps aren’t just for dating. In fact, there are several apps available strictly for platonic relationships, including Meetup, Bumble BFF and Yubo.
- Volunteer work. Volunteering can not only connect you with people who share your interests, but can strengthen your ties to your community overall. Look for a cause that’s meaningful to you, whether it’s volunteering at a local animal shelter or helping seniors in your area.
- Spiritual groups. Most religious and spiritual groups meet regularly, providing ample opportunity to form connections over shared values. Attending events, joining smaller group meetings and volunteering are good ways to get to know potential new friends on a more personal level.
- Existing social network. If you’ve moved to a new area and are looking for a community, don’t be afraid to leverage your existing social network to make connections. If a friend, family member or a colleague knows someone in your area and thinks you two would hit it off, accept the setup.
And being passively open to whatever opportunities arise is just as important as proactively looking for friends. Vandraiss writes, “The same goes for saying ‘yes’ to activities and events, from joining a sports league to accepting an invitation to the block party down the street.”
“Meeting New People” vs “Making New Friends”
It may seem unimportant, but Vellos draws a strong distinction between meeting new people and actually making friends.
“Meeting people is the first step to figuring out who you’re drawn to and who’s drawn to you. As you invest in meeting new people, you’ll start to amass a larger collection of acquaintances,” she says. “But every person you meet won’t be the right fit for a long-term friendship. Making friends is about developing a closer, more reliable, and mutually beneficial platonic relationship.”
Time and patience are important ingredients, here. If you feel a mutual connection with someone, prioritize time together, but don’t force or rush the relationship. “If weeks or months pass between spending time together, you’re more likely to see the friendship fizzle out,” Vandraiss writes. “Research shows that it takes at least 90 hours to develop a friendship and closer to 200 hours to reach ‘close’ friendship.”
Making Friends – and Keeping Friendships Thriving
Making a new friend is half the battle. Maintaining that friendship to make sure that it sticks is the other half.
“It’s possible to go months without seeing a longtime friend and still feel close to them, but new friends require steady investment,” writes Aminatou Sow in the 2020 book “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close.”
Vellos agrees; “This is where the rubber meets the road.”
She recommends the following strategies for when you meet someone, have a positive mutual connection, and want to make sure the relationship thrives:
- Stay in touch regularly. Make it a habit of reaching out on a consistent basis. Did they mention an upcoming presentation at work or first date the last time you talked? If so, a casual check-in can go a long way in firming up a new friendship.
- Follow up with plans to hang out again. When you do get together, pick the date for next time you’ll see each other if possible. Comparing schedules is easier in person.
- Develop strong communication skills. It’s not just about dedicated actions. Vellos emphasizes that developing your communication and conflict resolution skills are also key to creating more resilient, longer-lasting friendships.
“If you don’t build the skills to keep your friendships going you create more work for yourself in the long term,” Vellos says. “Maintaining existing friendships might not be as ‘shiny’ as making brand new friends, but it’s where people find the deepest levels of fulfillment and belonging.”
The Bottom Line: As We Age, Making Friends Matters
It’s easy to think that all of this sounds like a lot of work. Vandraiss notes that meaningful adult friendships rarely develop organically, or at the snap of a finger. They take investment and commitment, communication and vulnerability, and time and patience.
“But,” she writes, to conclude, “the research is clear: It’s worth the time and effort to take platonic relationships off the back burner, whether it’s reconnecting with old friends or finding a new community. Social connection is beneficial not only to our individual health and well-being, but also improves the resilience of our larger communities.”
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(originally reported at https://health.usnews.com)