Helping Adults Cultivate Healthy Friendships

A recent article in the Washington Post by Ana Homayoun (…/skills-friendship…/) laid out some rules to help parents encourage their children to develop good relationships with their peers. As I read it, I realized that the guidelines she laid out could also apply to adults.
Why, you might ask, am I concerned about adults making friends? After all, don’t we already have them? Well, just like with children for whom making friends is a developmental task, as we age, groups shift due to geographical changes, health issues and deaths. Sometimes divorce requires a regrouping of friends. Even though the idea of making friends sounds easy, it really is complicated and is what Ryan Hendrix of California calls a social executive function task. It can require planning, shifting our focus, and dealing with emotional issues. It can also provoke anxiety and fear, a feeling of starting over. For some people, making friends is easy. For others, it is more of a learned skill.
The other reason for focusing on making friends as an adult is that research has pointed out that there is an epidemic of loneliness in the world today. (See the report by Dr. Murthy, our surgeon general, called “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”) A majority of Americans report experiencing loneliness, which research says is as deadly as smoking, obesity and drinking. Despite the ability to connect electronically, more and more people lack companionship and feel left out, and electronic companionship just doesn’t cut it.
Here are some tips on making friends:
Figure out what a friendship means to you. Are you drawn to people who are like you or do you enjoy being with people whose interests are more complementary to yours? There is no normal and you can have friends who fit into both categories. But most important, friends should be people that you are comfortable with. When in a group, pay attention to how people are interacting and pay attention to your own interests and reactions to others.
Acknowledge that you are out of practice. Cognitive flexibility – the ability to shift between competing and contrasting perspectives- is critical in making friends. You must be able to understand things from the other person’s point of view, while also adapting to changing situations. Part of realizing that you are out of practice may also be acknowledging that the Covid epidemic reduced our exposure to social situations, except online, for almost three years. And now it is time to get out there and mingle again.
It is important to identify your social goals. Are you looking for someone to listen to music with, play games or cards, or just talk? Are you more interested in sports, politics, or fashion? Do you want to go out to eat, play golf or tennis, or go dancing? Are you looking for friends of the same or different gender? It is also helpful to decide what kind of places you are comfortable in – are you ok getting a drink in a bar or are you someone who prefers chamber music or country line dancing? But being intentional about finding friends does not mean you should ignore or eliminate chances to do something different with someone different.
Finally, keep your options open for multiple activities in order to increase your comfort in seeking new friends. I have always subscribed to the idea that doing something I like to do is fun in and of itself. If I make a new friend doing it, that is the icing on the cake. So even if making friends is the goal, don’t be afraid of doing things by yourself.