Our society tends to place an emphasis on romantic relationships. We think that just finding that right person will make us happy and fulfilled. But research shows that friends are actually even more important to our psychological welfare. Friends bring more happiness into our lives than virtually anything else.
Friendships have a huge impact on your mental health and happiness. Good friends relieve stress, provide comfort and joy, and prevent loneliness and isolation. Developing close friendships can also have a powerful impact on your physical health. Lack of social connection may pose as much of a risk as smoking, drinking too much, or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Friends are even tied to longevity. One Swedish study found that, along with physical activity, maintaining a rich network of friends can add significant years to your life.
But close friendships don’t just happen. Many of us struggle to meet people and develop quality connections. Whatever your age or circumstances, though, it’s never too late to make new friends, reconnect with old ones, and greatly improve your social life, emotional health, and overall well-being.
The benefits of friendships
While developing and maintaining friendships takes time and effort, healthy friendships can:
Improve your mood. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
Help you to reach your goals. Whether you’re trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor to depression.
Support you through tough times. Even if it’s just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenges in life.
Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Knowing there are people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and serve as a buffer against depression, disability, hardship and loss.
Boost your self-worth. Friendship is a two-way street, and the “give” side of the give-and-take contributes to your own sense of self-worth. Being there for your friends makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life.
What to look for in a friend
A friend is someone you trust and with whom you share a deep level of understanding and communication. A good friend will:
- Show a genuine interest in what’s going on in your life, what you have to say, and how you think and feel.
- Accept you for who you are.
- Listen to you attentively without judging you, telling you how to think or feel, or trying to change the subject.
- Feel comfortable sharing things about themselves with you.
As friendship works both ways, a friend is also someone you feel comfortable supporting and accepting, and someone with whom you share a bond of trust and loyalty.
Focus on the way a friendship feels, not what it looks like
The most important quality in a friendship is the way the relationship makes you feel—not how it looks on paper, how alike you seem on the surface, or what others think. Ask yourself:
- Do I feel better after spending time with this person?
- Am I myself around this person?
- Do I feel secure, or do I feel like I have to watch what I say and do?
- Is the person supportive and am I treated with respect?
- Is this a person I can trust?
The bottom line: if the friendship feels good, it is good. But if a person tries to control you, criticizes you, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted drama or negative influences into your life, it’s time to re-evaluate the friendship. A good friend does not require you to compromise your values, always agree with them, or disregard your own needs.
Tips for being more friendly and social (even if you’re shy)
If you are introverted or shy, it can feel uncomfortable to put yourself out there socially. But you don’t have to be naturally outgoing or the life of the party to make new friends.
Focus on others, not yourself. The key to connecting to other people is by showing interest in them. When you’re truly interested in someone else’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and opinions, it shows—and they’ll like you for it. You’ll make far more friends by showing your interest rather than trying to get people interested in you. If you’re not genuinely curious about the other person, then stop trying to connect.
Pay attention. Switch off your smartphone, avoid other distractions, and make an effort to truly listen to the other person. By paying close attention to what they say, do, and how they interact, you’ll quickly get to know them. Small efforts go a long way, such as remembering someone’s preferences, the stories they’ve told you, and what’s going on in their life.
Friendship takes two, so it’s important to evaluate whether the other person is looking for new friends.
- Do they ask you questions about you, as if they’d like to get to know you better?
- Do they tell you things about themselves beyond surface small talk?
- Do they give you their full attention when you see them?
- Does the other person seem interested in exchanging contact information or making specific plans to get together?
If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, the person may not be the best candidate for friendship now, even if they genuinely like you. There are many possible reasons why not, so don’t take it personally!
How to make new friends: Where to start
We tend to make friends with people we cross paths with regularly: people we go to school with, work with, or live close to. The more we see someone, the more likely a friendship is to develop. So, look at the places you frequent as you start your search for potential friends.
Another big factor in friendship is common interests. We tend to be drawn to people who are similar, with a shared hobby, cultural background, career path, or kids the same age. Think about activities you enjoy or the causes you care about. Where can you meet people who share the same interests?
Meeting new people
When looking to meet new people, try to open yourself up to new experiences. Not everything you try will lead to success but you can always learn from the experience and hopefully have some fun.
Volunteering can be a great way to help others while also meeting new people. Volunteering also gives you the opportunity to regularly practice and develop your social skills.
Take a class or join a club to meet people with common interests, such as a book group, dinner club, or sports team. Websites such as Meetup.com can help you find local groups (or start your own) and connect with others who share similar interests.
Connect with your alumni association. Many colleges have alumni associations that meet regularly. You already have the college experience in common; bringing up old times makes for an easy conversation starter. Some associations also sponsor community service events or workshops where you can meet more people.
Walk a dog. Dog owners often stop and chat while their dogs sniff or play with each other. If dog ownership isn’t right for you, volunteer to walk dogs from a shelter or a local rescue group.
Attend art gallery openings, book readings, lectures, music recitals, or other community events where you can meet people with similar interests. Check with your library or local paper for events near you.
Behave like someone new to the area. Even if you’ve lived in the same place all your life, take the time to re-explore your neighborhood attractions. New arrivals to any town or city tend to visit these places first—and they’re often keen to meet new people and establish friendships, too.
Cheer on your team. Going to a bar alone can seem intimidating, but if you support a sports team, find out where other fans go to watch the games. You automatically have a shared interest—your team—which makes it natural to start up a conversation.
Turning acquaintances into friends
We all have acquaintances in our life—people we exchange small talk with as we go about our day or trade jokes or insights with online. While these relationships can fulfill you in their own right, with some effort, you can turn a casual acquaintance into a true friend.
The first step is to open up a little about yourself. Friendships are characterized by intimacy. True friends know about each other’s values, struggles, goals, and interests. So, try sharing something a little bit more personal than you would normally. You don’t have to reveal your most closely-held secret, just something a little more revealing than talking about the weather or something you watched on TV and see how the other person responds. Do they seem interested? Do they reciprocate by disclosing something about themselves?
Other tips for strengthening an acquaintance into a friend:
Invite a casual acquaintance out for a drink or to a movie. Lots of other people feel just as uncomfortable about reaching out and making new friends as you do. Be the one to break the ice. Take the first step and reach out to a neighbor or work colleague, for example—they will thank you later.
Carpool to work. Many companies offer carpool programs. If your employer doesn’t, simply ask a colleague if they’d like to share rides. Spending regular time together is a great way to get to know others better and offers the opportunity for uninterrupted and deeper conversation.
Track down old friends via social media. It’s easy to lose track of friends when you move or change jobs, for example. Make the effort to reconnect and then turn your “online” friends into “real-world” friends by meeting up for coffee instead of chatting on Facebook or Twitter.
Overcoming obstacles to making friends
Is something stopping you from building the friendships you’d like to have? Here are some common obstacles—and how you can overcome them.
If you’re too busy…
Developing and maintaining friendships takes time and effort, but even with a packed schedule, you can find ways to make the time for friends.
Put it on your calendar. Schedule time for your friends just as you would for errands. Make it automatic with a weekly or monthly standing appointment. Or simply make sure that you never leave a get-together without setting the next date.
Mix business and pleasure. Figure out a way to combine your socializing with activities that you have to do anyway. These could include going to the gym, getting a pedicure, or shopping. Errands create an opportunity to spend time together while still being productive.
Group it. If you truly don’t have time for multiple one-on-one sessions with friends, set up a group get-together. It’s a good way to introduce your friends to each other. Of course, you’ll need to consider if everyone’s compatible first.
If you’re afraid of rejection…
Making new friends means putting yourself out there, and that can be scary. It’s especially intimidating if you’re someone who’s been betrayed, traumatized, or abused in the past, or someone with an insecure attachment bond. But by working with the right therapist, you can explore ways to build trust in existing and future friendships.
For more general insecurities or a fear of rejection, it helps to evaluate your attitude. Do you feel as if any rejection will haunt you forever or prove that you’re unlikeable or destined to be friendless? These fears get in the way of making satisfying connections and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody likes to be rejected, but there are healthy ways to handle it:
- Just because someone isn’t interested in talking or hanging out doesn’t automatically mean they’re rejecting you as a person. They may be busy, distracted, or have other things going on.
- If someone does reject you, that doesn’t mean that you’re worthless or unlovable. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they misread you or misinterpreted what you said. Or maybe they’re just not a nice person!
- You’re not going to like everyone you meet, and vice versa. Like dating, building a solid network of friends can be a numbers game. If you’re in the habit of regularly exchanging a few words with strangers you meet, rejections are less likely to hurt. There’s always the next person. Focus on the long-term goal of making quality connections, rather than getting hung up on the ones that didn’t pan out.
- Keep rejection in perspective. It never feels good, but it’s rarely as bad as you imagine. It’s unlikely that others are sitting around talking about it. Instead of beating yourself up, give yourself credit for trying and see what you can learn from the experience.
For better friendships, be a better friend yourself
Making a new friend is just the beginning of the journey. Friendships take time to form and even more time to deepen, so you need to nurture that new connection.
Be the friend that you would like to have. Treat your friend just as you want them to treat you. Be reliable, thoughtful, trustworthy, and willing to share yourself and your time.
Be a good listener. Be prepared to listen to and support friends just as you want them to listen to and support you.
Give your friend space. Don’t be too clingy or needy. Everyone needs space to be alone or spend time with other people as well.
Don’t set too many rules and expectations. Instead, allow your friendship to evolve naturally. You’re both unique individuals so your friendship probably won’t develop exactly as you expect.
Be forgiving. No one is perfect and every friend will make mistakes. No friendship develops smoothly so when there’s a bump in the road, try to find a way to overcome the problem and move on. It will often deepen the bond between you.