Harder to make friends as you get older? Here's how to make, and keep, friends in adulthood
A friendship expert shares strategies for finding connection in a lonely, disconnected world.
In July, Marisa Franco went on a solo vacation to Mexico. But by the time she flew back to Washington, DC, 10 days later, she’d formed an entirely new group of friends.
As a psychologist who studies friendship, Dr Franco has a leg up on most of us when it comes to forging connections, and she leaned heavily on the strategies she learned researching her new book, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends.
Dr Franco assumed, for instance, that people would like her. And she reminded herself that people in transition – like those who’ve recently moved, gone through a breakup or who are travelling – tend to be more open to making new friends.
Buoyed by that knowledge, she struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller at a cafe whom she overheard speaking English. Dr Franco invited him to a get-together for people looking to practice speaking Spanish that she had heard about on Meetup.com.
“At the language event, I met someone else, made the same assumptions, and we exchanged numbers,” she recalled. “I invited them to a lucha libre wrestling match, and they came. This is to say: People are actually really open to friendship.”
Even so, Dr Franco knows that making friends in adulthood does not always feel so simple or easy, and that may be one reason why friendship is in decline. In 1990, only 3 per cent of Americans said they had no close friends; in 2021, nearly 12 per cent said the same. The United States is in the grips of a loneliness crisis that predates the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Franco’s book acknowledges those headwinds, while also offering practical advice for making new friends and deepening existing relationships. She spoke to The New York Times about some simple best practices to keep in mind.
Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
MUCH OF YOUR WORK CENTRES ON CHANGING OUR SCRIPTS AROUND FRIENDSHIP. WHAT ARE SOME MISCONCEPTIONS YOU’D LIKE TO SEE DISAPPEAR?
One is that platonic love is somehow less important or meaningful than romantic love. We have this idea that people who have friendship at the center of their relationships are unhappy or unfulfilled. It’s something I used to believe myself: I thought romantic love was the only love that would make me whole. I wrote “Platonic” because I wanted to level that hierarchy a little bit.
Another misconception is that friendship happens organically. But research has shown that people who think friendship happens organically – based on luck – are lonelier. You really have to try and put yourself out there.
IS THAT WHY YOU BELIEVE THAT ASSUMING PEOPLE LIKE YOU IS SO IMPORTANT?
According to the “risk regulation theory”, we decide how much to invest in a relationship based on how likely we think we are to get rejected. So one of the big tips I share is that if you try to connect with someone, you are much less likely to be rejected than you think.
And, yes, you should assume people like you. That is based on research into the “liking gap” – the idea that when strangers interact, they’re more liked by the other person than they assume.
There is also something called the “acceptance prophecy.” When people assume that others like them, they become warmer, friendlier and more open. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I never used to be much of a mind-set person until I got into the research. But your mind-set really matters!
STILL, PUTTING YOURSELF OUT THERE CAN FEEL NERVE-RACKING. ANY ADVICE?
I suggest joining something that meets regularly over time – so instead of going to a networking event, look for a professional development group, for example. Don’t go to a book lecture; look for a book club. That capitalises on something called the “mere exposure effect”, or our tendency to like people more when they are familiar to us.
The mere exposure effect also means that you should expect that it is going to feel uncomfortable when you first interact with people. You are going to feel weary. That doesn’t mean you should duck out; it means you are right where you need to be. Stay at it for a little while longer, and things will change.
YOU ALSO BELIEVE THAT IT IS CRITICAL TO SHOW AND TELL YOUR FRIENDS HOW MUCH YOU LIKE THEM. WHY IS THAT?
Because we tend to like people who we believe like us. I used to go into groups and try to make friends by being smart – that was my thing. But when I read the research, I realised that the quality people most appreciate in a friend is ego support, which is basically someone who makes them feel like they matter. The more you can show people that you like and value them, the better. Research shows that just texting a friend can be more meaningful than people tend to think.
AT THE SAME TIME, YOU ARE VERY CLEAR THAT PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BLAME THEMSELVES IF THEY FEEL LIKE THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FRIENDS. WHY DOES IT FEEL SO HARD TO MAKE THOSE KINDS OF CONNECTIONS?
I want people to understand that they are much more typical if they don’t have friendship all figured out. The data shows that so many people are lacking for community, and that is nothing to be ashamed about. I am trying to teach people how to swim upstream against a current that is pulling us all in the opposite direction – because loneliness is a societal issue that affects most of us. Our communities used to be built-in, not sought after.
Social media is a good example. It can be a tool for connection, but mostly we use it to just lurk, which is related to increased loneliness and disconnection. That’s not necessarily our fault, though. Social media is designed in a way so that we don’t use it consciously; we tend to just stay on it mindlessly. There are just a lot of societal reasons people feel lonely.
But I also believe we can hold both truths. Yes, this is a systemic issue. But there are things you can do as an individual to increase connection.
FOR THOSE LOOKING TO MAKE A NEW FRIEND OR STRENGTHEN THEIR EXISTING FRIENDSHIPS, WHAT IS ONE EASY TIP YOU SUGGEST THEY TRY TODAY?
I’d say to swipe through your contacts, or look at who you were texting this time last year, and reach out. You can say something simple, like: “Hey, we haven’t chatted in a while. I was just thinking about you. How are you?”
By Catherine Pearson © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.