people Our society tends to place an emphasis on romantic relationships. We think that just finding that right person will make us happy and fulfilled. But research shows that friends are actually even more important to our psychological welfare. Friends bring more happiness into our lives than virtually anything else.
Friendships have a huge impact on your mental health and happiness. Good friends relieve stress, provide comfort and joy, and prevent loneliness and isolation. Developing close friendships can also have a powerful impact on your physical health. Lack of social connection may pose as much of a risk as smoking, drinking too much, or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Friends are even tied to longevity. One Swedish study found that, along with physical activity, maintaining a rich network of friends can add significant years to your life.
But close friendships don’t just happen. Many of us struggle to meet people and develop quality connections. Whatever your age or circumstances, though, it’s never too late to make new friends, reconnect with old ones, and greatly improve your social life, emotional health, and overall well-being.
The benefits of friendships
While developing and maintaining friendships takes time and effort, healthy friendships can:
Improve your mood. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
Help you to reach your goals. Whether you’re trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor to depression.
Support you through tough times. Even if it’s just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenges in life.
Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Knowing there are people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and serve as a buffer against depression, disability, hardship and loss.
Boost your self-worth. Friendship is a two-way street, and the “give” side of the give-and-take contributes to your own sense of self-worth. Being there for your friends makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life.
Tips for being more friendly and social (even if you’re shy)
If you are introverted or shy, it can feel uncomfortable to put yourself out there socially. But you don’t have to be naturally outgoing or the life of the party to make new friends.
Focus on others, not yourself. The key to connecting to other people is by showing interest in them. When you’re truly interested in someone else’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and opinions, it shows—and they’ll like you for it. You’ll make far more friends by showing your interest rather than trying to get people interested in you. If you’re not genuinely curious about the other person, then stop trying to connect.
Pay attention. Switch off your smart phone, avoid other distractions, and make an effort to truly listen to the other person. By paying close attention to what they say, do, and how they interact, you’ll quickly get to know them. Small efforts go a long way, such as remembering someone’s preferences, the stories they’ve told you, and what’s going on in their life.
Self-disclosure: the key to turning acquaintances into friends
We all have acquaintances—people we exchange small talk with as we go about our day or trade jokes or insights with online. While these relationships can fulfill you in their own right, what if you want to turn a casual acquaintance into a true friend?
Friendship is characterized by intimacy. True friends know about each other’s values, struggles, goals, and interests. If you’d like to transition from acquaintances to friends, open up to the other person.
You don’t have to reveal your most closely-held secret. Start small by sharing something a little bit more personal than you would normally and see how the other person responds. Do they seem interested? Do they reciprocate by disclosing something about themselves?
Friendship takes two, so it’s important to evaluate whether the other person is looking for new friends.
- Do they ask you questions about you, as if they’d like to get to know you better?
- Do they tell you things about themselves beyond surface small talk?
- Do they give you their full attention when you see them?
- Does the other person seem interested in exchanging contact information or making specific plans to get together?
If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, the person may not be the best candidate for friendship now, even if they genuinely like you. There are many possible reasons why not, so don’t take it personally!
How to meet new people
We tend to make friends with people we cross paths with regularly: people we go to school with, work with, or live close to. The more we see someone, the more likely a friendship is to develop. So look at the places you frequent as you start your search for potential friends.
Another big factor in friendship is common interests. We tend to be drawn to people who are similar, with a shared hobby, cultural background, career path, or kids the same age. Think about activities you enjoy or the causes you care about. Where can you meet people who share the same interests?
Making new friends: Where to start
When looking to meet new people, try to open yourself up to new experiences. Not everything you try will lead to success but you can always learn from the experience and hopefully have some fun.
Take a class or join a club to meet people with common interests, such as a book group, dinner club, or sports team. Websites such as Meetup.com can help you find local groups or start your own and connect with others who share similar interests.
Walk a dog. Dog owners often stop and chat while their dogs sniff or play with each other. If dog ownership isn’t right for you, volunteer to walk dogs from a shelter or a local rescue group.
Attend art gallery openings, book readings, lectures, music recitals, or other community events where you can meet people with similar interests. Check with your library or local paper for events near you.
Behave like someone new to the area. Even if you’ve lived in the same place all your life, take the time to re-explore your neighborhood attractions. New arrivals to any town or city tend to visit these places first—and they’re often keen to meet new people and establish friendships, too.
Cheer on your team. Going to a bar alone can seem intimidating, but if you support a sports team, find out where other fans go to watch the games. You automatically have a shared interest—your team—which makes it natural to start up a conversation.
Unplug. It’s difficult to meet new people in any social situation if you’re more interested in your phone than the people around you. Remove your headphones and put your smartphone away while you’re in the checkout line or waiting for a bus, for example. Making eye contact and exchanging small talk with strangers is great practice for making connections—and you never know where it may lead!