When you were a kid it was a lot easier. In college you almost had to be trying not to make friends. But then you're an adult. You get busy with work. Your friends get busy with work. People get married. Have kids. And pretty soon being "close" means a text message twice a year.
You're not alone … Or, actually, the whole point of this is you really may be alone. But you're not alone in being alone. These days we're all alone together. In 1985 most people said they had three close friends. In 2004 the most common number was zero.
In a survey given in 1985, people were asked to list their friends in response to the question "Over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?" The most common number of friends listed was three; 59 percent of respondents listed three or more friends fitting this description. The same survey was given again in 2004. This time the most common number of friends was zero. And only 37 percent of respondents listed three or more friends. Back in 1985, only 10 percent indicated that they had zero confidants. In 2004, this number skyrocketed to 25 percent. One out of every four of us is walking around with no one to share our lives with. [Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect]
Friends are important. Nobody would dispute that. But I doubt you know how very important they are.
So let's see just how critical friends can be — and the scientifically backed ways to get more of them in your life.
Loneliness is a killer
When people are dying, what do they regret the most? Coming in at #4 is: "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends."
And neglecting your friends can make those deathbed regrets come a lot sooner than you'd like. When I spoke to Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, she told me:
Julianne Holt-Lunstad did a meta-analysis of social support and health outcomes and found that not having enough friends or having a weak social circle is the same risk factor as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Maybe your grandparents lived to 100 and you take good care of yourself. You're healthy. But if you want those years to be full of smiles, you need to invest in friendship. Seventy percent of your happiness comes from relationships.
Contrary to the belief that happiness is hard to explain, or that it depends on having great wealth, researchers have identified the core factors in a happy life. The primary components are number of friends, closeness of friends, closeness of family, and relationships with co-workers and neighbors. Together these features explain about 70 percent of personal happiness. – Murray and Peacock 1996 [The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People]
The Grant Study at Harvard has followed a group of men for their entire lives. The guy who led the study for a few decades, George Vaillant, was asked, "What have you learned from the Grant Study men?" Vaillant's response?
That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.
So friendships are really really really important. But maybe you're not worried. Maybe you have lots of friends. Guess what?
In seven years, half of your close friends won't be close to you anymore.
A study by a Dutch sociologist who tracked about a thousand people of all ages found that on average, we lose half of our close network members every seven years. To think that half of the people currently on your "most dialed" list will fade out of your life in less than a decade is frightening indeed. [Friendfluence]
Ouch. Scared yet? I am.
(To learn an FBI behavior expert's tips for getting people to like you, click here.)
So what do we do? (No, going back to college is not the answer.) How do we make new friends as adults?
1. The new starts with the old
The first step to making new friends is … don't. Instead, reconnect with old friends:
These findings suggest that dormant relationships — often overlooked or underutilized — can be a valuable source of knowledge and social capital.
Doing this is easy, it's not scary, they're people you already have history with, and it doesn't take a lot of time or work to get to know them. Go to Facebook or LinkedIn for ideas and then send some texts. Boom. You already have more friends.
If you're going to be strategic, who should you prioritize? You probably met a disproportionate number of your friends through just a handful of people. Those are your "superconnectors."
Rekindle those relationships. And then ask them if there's anyone you should meet. Next time you get together, see if that new person can come along. Not. Hard. At. All.
(To learn how to deal with a narcissist, click here.)
But maybe this feels a little awkward. Maybe your friendship muscles have atrophied. Maybe you weren't great at making friends in the first place. So what really makes people "click"?
2. Listen, seek similarity, and celebrate
Clicking with people is a lot less about you and a lot more about focusing on them. Don't be interesting. Be interested. And what are the best ways to do that?
Studies show being likable can be as easy as listening to people and asking them to tell you more.
And mountains of research show similarity is critical. So when they mention something you have in common, point it out.
Finally, celebrate the positive. When someone talks about the good things in their life, be enthusiastic and encouraging.
The surprising finding is that the closest, most intimate, and most trusting relationships appear to be distinguished not by how the partners respond to each other's disappointments, losses, and reversals but how they react to good news. [The Myths of Happiness]
(To learn more about how to be someone people love to talk to, click here.)
Alright, your superconnectors are making introductions and you're clicking. But how do you get close to these new people? We've all met people we thought were cool … but just didn't know how to take it to the next level and go from acquaintance to friend. It's simple, but not necessarily easy.
3. Be vulnerable
Open up a bit. Don't go full TMI, but make yourself a little bit vulnerable. Nobody becomes besties by only discussing the weather.
Close friends are what leads to personal discussions. But personal discussions are also what leads to close friends.
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable helps the other person to trust you, precisely because you are putting yourself at emotional, psychological, or physical risk. Other people tend to react by being more open and vulnerable themselves. The fact that both of you are letting down your guard helps to lay the groundwork for a faster, closer personal connection. [Click]
Close friends have a good "if-then profile" of each other. Once you have an idea of "if" someone was in situation X, "then" they would display behavior Y, that means you're really starting to understand them. And this leads to good friendships:
People who had more knowledge of their friend's if-then profile of triggers had better relationships. They had less conflict with the friend and less frustration with the relationship. [Click]
How many close friends do you need? If we go by the science, you want to aim for at least five.
National surveys find that when someone claims to have five or more friends with whom they can discuss important problems, they are 60 percent more likely to say that they are 'very happy.' [Finding Flow]
(To learn the lazy way to an awesome life, click here.)
So you have new friends. Awesome. Now how do you not screw this up?
4. Don't be a stranger
First and foremost: make the time. What's the most common thing friends fight about? Time commitments.
Daniel Hruschka reviewed studies on the causes of conflict in friendship and found that the most common friendship fights boil down to time commitments. Spending time with someone is a sure indicator that you value him; no one likes to feel undervalued. [Friendfluence]
You need to keep in touch. (Remember, not keeping in touch is how you got into this problem in the first place.)
If you want to stay close friends with someone, how often do you need to check in? Research says at least every two weeks.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
So even if you need to set a reminder on your calendar, check in every two weeks. But, actually, there's a better way to make sure you don't forget.
5. Start a group
Denmark has the happiest people in the world. (I'm guessing Hamlet was an exception.) Why are Danes so happy? One reason is that 92 percent of them are members of some kind of social group.
The sociologist Ruut Veenhoven and his team have collected happiness data from 91 countries, representing two-thirds of the world's population. He has concluded that Denmark is home to the happiest people in the world, with Switzerland close behind … Interestingly enough, one of the more detailed points of the research found that 92 percent of the people in Denmark are members of some sort of group, ranging from sports to cultural interests. To avoid loneliness, we must seek active social lives, maintain friendships, and enjoy stable relationships. [Engineering Happiness]
And what's the best way to make sure you're in a group? Start one. That makes it a lot easier to stay in touch and a lot easier to manage those big five friendships with 20 percent of the effort.
A weekly lunch. A monthly sewing circle. A quarterly movie night. Whatever works. Friends bring friends and suddenly it's not so hard to meet cool new people. And who does everyone have to thank for this? You.
And make the effort to keep that group solid for everyone. Many studies show older people are happier. What's one of the reasons? They prune the jerks out of their social circles:
Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods — for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down.
(To learn the six rituals ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)
Alright, popular kid, we've learned a lot. Let's round it up and find out how to keep your new friendships alive over the long haul.
Here’s how to make friends as an adult:
- The new starts with the old: Touch base with old friends and leverage your superconnectors.
- Listen, seek similarity, and celebrate: Don't be interesting. Be interested.
- Be vulnerable: Open up a bit. Form an "if-then" profile.
- Don't be a stranger: Check in every two weeks, minimum.
- Start a group: Things that are habits get done. So start a group habit.
Reach out to your good friends and tell them how much they mean to you. It's just not something we’re accustomed to doing. It'll make you feel great, it'll make them feel great, and it will strengthen the bond between you. Be more giving to the friends you already have. People in romantic relationships always celebrate anniversaries, yet you might have a friend for 15 years and you've probably never gone out to dinner and raised a glass to that. We need to cherish our friendships more.
Okay, you're done reading. Time to start doing. Reach out to a friend right now. Send them this post and let 'em know you want to get together.
Listen to what they've been up to. Celebrate their good news. Offer to help them out with something.
After all, that's what friends are for.
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