Let me tell you the story of how I met one of my best friends. I met her at work. She hired me, actually. After I got the job, we went to lunch and she was quick to tell me about the behind-the-scenes of my new gig. We kept going to lunch together, then sometimes met up for drinks. I’d go over to her house and make pizza for her and her roommate, and we’d watch The Bachelor or paint or she’d dye my hair or let me test out her endless beauty products.
“This is the kind of friendship I always wanted in high school,” I told her on more than one occasion.
Then she moved out of state for a new job. I’d encouraged her to do it. After she left, I tried for a while to replace her, to make new friends who might also want to hang out on the couch and watch TV on a whim. I showed up as my most extroverted, humorous self to dinner dates, or I'd listen closely and compassionately when they told me about struggles. But nada. No new best friend.
I won’t be the first person to say it: Making friends as an adult is hard. It’s also inarguably important. Social interaction is critical for our mental and physical health, and being lonely has been called worse for our health than smoking cigarettes.
So what gives? If we need friends to be happy and healthy, why are so many of us having trouble?
Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness, told me friendships really come down to three key ingredients: positivity, consistency and vulnerability.
We’re really struggling in the consistency department. “When we were younger and we were in school, the consistency was built in for us,” she said. As adults, we’re often not part of any regularly occurring events, like church, community get-togethers — even our workplaces are often solitary. This makes it hard to see people frequently enough to have positive interactions or start to develop vulnerability.
Plus, we — including me — tend to think that our goal is to “find” a best friend the way you might find Prince Charming. “A best friend is not something you find; it’s something you foster,” Nelson urged. Even if you found the perfect match for a best friendship, you would need to practice positivity, vulnerability and consistency over and over before you had the kind of friendship you’d want to celebrate.
So how do we beat loneliness and make friends? Here are Nelson’s best tips:
This is advice as old as time, Nelson admits, but what many people get wrong is thinking the goal of the group is to just expose you to more people. That’s not really the case. “Join something where you don’t have to schedule everybody else. They’re going to show up and be there too,” Nelson said. “Ask yourself, 'Is there anything I’ve been wanting to do that I can join? Or that I can participate in regularly?'”
Make a commitment to yourself to show up, and you’ll start creating relationships with the other people who show up consistently too.
If you don’t want to join a group or can’t, you’ll have to initiate a friendship — and the follow-up — on your own. And the follow-up is key. “I often joke that when we’re dating somebody… and we both enjoy being together, we expect to see each other again in the relative short term. We would never think, 'Oh, that was so much fun. We should go on a date in a couple of months again,'” Nelson said.
The sweet spot, according to her surveys, is meeting up six to eight times. But you’ll want to do it relatively quickly to give yourself the opportunity of momentum. “You’re just trying to log those hours together. Because you can’t do vulnerability and positivity unless you have that time together.”
One popular myth about friendship that’s circulating right now is the idea that friendships arise when you feel a “spark” with another person. But Nelson says we’re notoriously bad judges of who we’ll connect with. For evidence, she says to consider your closest friends: How many of them were people you would have anticipated feeling close to? How many, if you were to meet them today, would you be likely to strike up a friendship with?
What we should really look for is interactions that make us feel good about ourselves. “The research shows we have to have five positive feelings for every negative feeling in order to keep a relationship healthy,” she said. If we’re not feeling good when we leave the interaction, we’re not likely to be consistent with hanging out, and the relationship stalls from there.
It’s easy to get caught, like I did, in wanting to find a “best” friend. But the reality is there are so many other levels of friendship that are absolutely important. “We will feel like we belong more in any setting if we know a few people,” Nelson said.
That means it’s worth knowing your neighbor’s names or a getting friendly with couple of people at your child’s dance recitals or engaging with the regulars at your coffee shop. These are, indeed, types of friends. “They’re the ones that are exposing us to new things, making introductions, helping us get jobs, telling us about amazing vacation that we want to go on, good books to read,” she continued. “All the other things… that make us rich and nuanced come usually from the bulk of our relationships that aren’t our best friends.”
So join a group, set up a weekly lunch date and work toward regular, positive interactions with the people around you. You may just make a friend.
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