Making friends is never easy, but it somehow gets even tougher as we age.
“It’s hard to make friends as an adult because most people are already set in their ways — you have your friends, you have your routines, and it’s hard to deviate from that,” Dr. Holly Schiff, PsyD., licensed clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut, told TODAY. "You may also have a tougher time trusting others and been burned by friendship experiences in the past, making it hard to put yourself out there again."
Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC, owner and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles, California, points to a 2020 study conducted by social science researchers at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus that found “the main reason their participants had difficulty making friends was due to lack of trust, followed closely by lack of time.”
First things first: Be a good friend to yourself
No matter what's holding you back, one thing's for sure: Friendship is vitally important to your overall health and wellbeing. “Healthy friendships offer us love, stability, connectedness, and security. Each of us needs to experience these heart-knit bonds,” Dr. Melanie Ross Mills, M.A., Ph.D., author of “The Friendship Bond,” told TODAY. In fact, research shows that “friendships can help us find purpose and meaning, stay healthy and live longer.”
You're ready to overcome your fears and build your network, but now what? Read these expert-backed tips on how to make — and keep — friends as an adult, then recite a few positive affirmations to give you the confidence you need to put yourself out there.
Strike up a conversation with five new people a day
Wayne Gretzky said it best: "You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take." So, if you interact with dozens of new people and only one or two shake out into an acquaintance or ultimately a friendship, that’s all that matters. If you feel more comfortable connecting with people at a distance, try directly messaging someone in your virtual workout class or reach out to a neighbor who made an impression at a recent meeting.
“Most good things in life do not happen in a vacuum. We have to reach out and show an interest in wanting to get to know someone,” Ross Mills said. She suggests approaching each day with the mindset that those who cross our path are potential friendships, "beginning with coffee at Starbucks, ending with meeting a new friend in line at the cafeteria."
Create new experiences
Yes, it can be a little overwhelming doing this, but you’ll reap the benefits. “Put yourself in unfamiliar situations where you can meet new people,” said Harouni Lurie. “This could be virtual or physical, like going to a new class or networking event. Additionally, you could consider creating your own opportunities to meet new people.”
Another one of Harouni Lurie's recommendation: Host an event and ask your friends to invite their friends. Have your friends do the same, so they can make new connections too.
Connect with old friends from the past
Life happens. If you've fallen out of touch with people who used to be a part of your life, take initiative and reach out. “Initiate conversation by sharing a cherished memory or funny time you shared. It will transplant you both back to that moment when you were closer and skip over the sometimes rigid ‘What are you up to now’ conversations,” Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a licensed psychologist in New York City, told TODAY.
Just because you're going back to your past doesn't mean you should dredge up old wounds. “Don’t dwell on conflicts or the reasons your friendship drifted apart. Instead, focus on what you had in common and the good times you shared together,” she said.
And while you're rebuilding what once was, try to take away the pressure to be as close as you used to be. “Slowly build up the relationship in a way that feels natural to you,” she recommended.
Work on your body language
You can convey warmth and emotion through your actions alone. When interacting with a new friend, be expressive with your hands and nod your head while they speak to show interest.
“Sometimes we don’t realize that the way that we’re communicating, either intentionally or unintentionally, can relay whether we’re receptive to meeting new people or not,” Harouni Lurie said. “Consider your body language and facial expressions, and be thoughtful about how you’re inviting someone to engage in conversation with you.”
Listen and learn
There's power in being a good listener. “Enter conversations with a mind and heart that wants to learn more not only about the person, but also from them,” Ross Mills said. Try to leave conversations with at least one takeaway that inspired, challenged or perplexed you. Whatever it is, just make sure it’s “something that would instigate a deeper connection between yourself and your new acquaintance.”
Romanoff also stands by this rule. "Many think, in order to be helpful, they must provide tangible advice or an action to take. This can actually have the opposite of effect by invalidating the needs and feelings of the person you’re trying to help,” she said.
To build trust, Romanoff says that you must "decenter from your own position to enter the world of the other person." As a result, they'll feel "seen, understood and validated."
Related: How to be a good listener
No risk, no reward. Be the leader in creating a friendship even if it’s outside your comfort zone. “If there’s someone you’d like to have a friendship with, say 'hello' and ask how their weekend was,” Harouni Lurie said. “Being proactive and making the first move can help communicate that you’re interested in connecting with them.”
Once you've established a connection of some, sort, Ross Mills stressed that it's important to go deep. “It is easy to put up walls, live with skepticism and cast judgment as we get set in our ways,” she said. “As we let down that wall and share from our hearts, we can get to know others at a deeper level. Offering a little more of ourselves gives our new acquaintance the freedom to do so as well.”
Bump into a neighbor in the elevator wearing a great scarf? Tell them how much you love it. Waiting in line with someone in the checkout line who’s holding a book by an author you love? Compliment their taste (and then share a recommendation to keep the conversation going).
“There is something called spontaneous trait transference where people tend to associate the adjectives you use to describe other people with your personality,” Schiff said. “So if you describe someone else with positive adjectives, people will associate you with those qualities.”
Think outside the box
You never know where you'll find your future best friend, so always have a lookout. “Be open to forming new relationships with neighbors, classmates, co-workers, no matter how different from you they appear to be,” said Schiff. If you feel like you've exhausted your current options, join a new club, take classes or volunteer for a cause you care about.
But whatever you do, don't be afraid to pursue new relationships — even if you've convinced yourself that they already have a solid friend group. “Going from acquaintance to friend sometimes entails asking to hang out or exchanging phone numbers,” Harouni Lurie said. “Those moments can be a little anxiety-inducing, but remind yourself that someone has to make the first move and it might as well be you.”
Show your true colors
Take the pressure off yourself to be perfect when forming a new friendship. “Showing that you aren’t perfect makes you more relatable and shows a sense of vulnerability toward the people around you,” Schiff said.
To that point, you might want to consider telling them a secret. “Self-disclosure is a great relationship-building technique and helps both parties feel closer to each other and more likely to confide in one another in the future,” Schiff said. “This vulnerability creates intimacy in the friendship.”
Channel a positive attitude
Approaching the whole process with a sense of enthusiasm goes a long way. “As we get older and have more responsibility and ‘plates in the air,’ it is easy to feel as if pursuing new friendships is a chore. It is a treat if we let it be," Ross Mills said.
People are drawn to positivity, so "have the right mindset and focus on being open."
When your neighbor invites you over to dinner and you’re tempted to duck out, reconsider and go. Worst case scenario: You eat a decent meal at your neighbor’s house. Best case scenario: You eat a decent meal and make a new friend at the same time.