Many things get better as we age—we get better at advocating for ourselves, we get more comfortable with who we are, we learn what matters to us, and we let the stuff that doesn’t fall away. One thing that gets progressively worse, though, is our ability to make new friends.
At the playground, you’d be instant best friends with anyone who had the same favorite ice cream flavor as you. In high school, your best friend likely played the same sport or did the same after-class activity. In college, your friends studied the same subject as you or were members of the same fraternity or sorority. But once you’re out of those structured environments, it’s hard to make new friends. You switch jobs, maybe move cities, and it becomes even harder.
Finally, as you reach your later years, near retirement, or retire, making new friends can feel impossible. It’s not.
Whether you’re five or sixty-five, you are an innately and intensely social being. Yes, even introverts are social beings. We humans are like pack animals. We survive best when we connect with others. When we have friends to talk about our day with, to commiserate with us over a cup of coffee, support us in times of struggle, or cheer us on in times of joy, we are at our happiest and healthiest. We are wired to form positive connections with others and suffer serious consequences when we don’t.
Step number one in making new friends is an obvious one. You must meet new people.
Seek, and you will find. You know how you won’t meet new people? By living every day like it’s identical to the previous one and not mixing up your routine at all. A strategy with a high-return rate is to go places or do things you enjoy and see who you meet there. If you like to read, join a book club. If you’re more physically oriented, join a gym or take a class in a new sport: golf, tennis, tai chi. The more it involves interacting with other people, the better.
Keep an Open Mind
Having only friends who think exactly like you—or who come from the same background—limits your learning opportunities. You may surprise yourself and discover that someone you initially rejected as friend-material, thinking you had nothing in common, becomes a close friend if you give them a chance. As you get older, one thing that’s vital to your health and happiness is to continue to learn and experience new things. A new person with different life experiences than you is perfect for this.
Let’s say you’ve met someone you like and you’re becoming friends. Now what? Not only may your friend-making skills be lacking, but your being-a-good-friend skills may be lacking, too. To become a better friend, think about the qualities and characteristics you like in a friend and make sure to develop them in yourself. To attract the kind of people you want and to keep them in your life, you need to be that kind of person.
As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve spent years perfecting exercises to help people form and keep better relationships.
This mindfulness exercise should help you become a better friend.
1. Imagine an interviewer is asking someone you know—a friend, relative, colleague—to describe you. What are the first three words you’d like them to say?
2. Find a quiet place and some alone time to de-clutter your mind of other thoughts and focus on those three words. See what images present themselves that show how you display these qualities in your interactions. Or how you display the opposite qualities.
3. Write down your thoughts and any physical sensations you experience. Feelings of tension, sadness, or the like, can be signs you’re disappointed in or angry with yourself for not displaying the qualities you’d like. Ask yourself what you can do or say that would more authentically embody the quality you think you’re missing?
4. Make a “to do” list for how you can display the qualities you’d like to embody.
5. Establish some checkpoints for yourself; once a week, perhaps. In mindfulness practice, let images from the previous days come to mind and see how you’re doing.
To make new friends as an adult, you’ve got to meet new people. To meet new people, you’ve got to do new things. And to do even more new, fun things with these fabulous new people you’ve met, you’ve got to be the kind of person someone would want to be friends with. It may not be as easy as making friends on the playground, but it’s likely not as hard as you fear, certainly not impossible, and definitely worth it.
To read more about developing solid relationships, please visit my website.