When you’re a kid, making friends is seamless. You meet at the park or at school, play together and before long, you’ve got a new bestie. Most of us also made friends easily enough in college, or at early jobs, when everyone’s doing the same thing at more or less the same time. Such connections are not as easy to establish when you’re a full-grown person navigating the challenges of career, kids, and/or aging parents all striving for your attention and time.
But don’t stop trying! Strong friendships are linked to a longer life, mostly because they protect against loneliness, explains Michael Ryan, Psy.D., a psychologist at Henry Ford Health. When we have friends, we’re more likely to engage in emotionally positive activities. That can have a trickle-down effect in terms of supporting health and wellness.
In fact, studies confirm adult friendships aren’t just nice to have if you’ve got the time. They play a central role in a healthy, happy and meaningful life. Some studies even suggest close friendships help reduce the risk of everything from high blood pressure to depression. Here, Dr. Ryan offers 6 suggestions for making friendships at any age or life stage.
- Make friends where you are. Introduce yourself to neighbors, start a conversation with another parent at the school or playground and invite colleagues to lunch. Relationships are easier to establish and maintain if they start where you already are.
- Break out of your comfort zone. Arrange to do something with a new friend that falls outside of the same-old and may interest you both. It doesn’t matter whether you go skydiving, take a cooking class or see a foreign film. The idea is to share a new experience, which studies show can enhance bonding.
- Make time for hobbies. Whether you enjoy rock-climbing, yoga or reading, get out of the house to do the activities you’re crazy about. While many of these hobbies are individual pursuits, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy them with other people. Find a meet-up group for rock climbers, sign up for a yoga retreat or start a book club. There are even groups that allow solitary knitters to ply their needles in groups rather than solo. The key is forging friendships around an activity you’re already doing to ensure it fits within your busy schedule.
- Chat up your coworkers. Studies show that people who socialize at the office have better overall health and may even live longer than their reclusive counterparts. So rather than hunker down in your office or cubicle, make an effort to mingle with your colleagues. Lunch with a coworker once a week, participate in water cooler chats and arrange a monthly happy hour for office staff. Not only does it help with team-building and satisfaction on the job, it may also lead to lasting friendships.
- Ask for help. If you never ask friends for favors, you rob them of a two-way, give-and-take relationship. The “I-can-do-it-all” mentality hurts you (because no one can actually do it all!), and it hurts current and future friends, because everyone wants to feel needed and valued. Need a school carpool buddy or help organizing your garage? Ask! (And then be sure to reciprocate when your help is needed.)
- Reach out on social media. If you’ve fallen out of touch with friends from high school, college or a former job, consider reaching out to them on social media. It’s a fun way to re-establish old friendships. And you can exchange messages through social media at any hour, no matter how busy your schedule. The only caveat: When you’re face-to-face with friends (new or old), make sure to put your phone in airplane mode.
Most important, don’t be afraid to put yourself in situations where you can make friends. Just like you can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket, you can’t make new friends when you’re sitting alone at home.
Unsure how to dip your toes into the friendship pool? Go online. There are groups of nearly every type on the Internet. If you’re more of an introvert, meeting people online first can help foster real-life connections.
No matter how you forge your friendships—whether online or in real life—remember quality is always more important than quantity. “People can have dozens of connections and acquaintances and still feel lonely,” Dr. Ryan says. Her advice: Focus on developing just a few high-quality relationships with people who really know you and can help you navigate your way through life’s issues and celebrate the successes.
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Dr. Michael Ryan see patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.