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6 Things Science Says You Must Do to Make Friends

You may be going about it all wrong.

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Women's faces rotating as atoms
JR Bee
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For decades now, I’ve had what I affectionately call my wolf pack – the group of my closest women friends collected and nourished over time. They are my “sisters from another mother,” the extended family that I got to pick, my ride-or-die homies. For more years than I can remember, we’ve sat in the front row of each other’s lives through the good times and the bad — for celebrations and for loss. If it was important, we showed up. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to my 70s: While my wolf pack friends still live deep in my heart, things like retirement, health concerns and wanting to be near our adult kids and grandbabies caused us to scatter physically. Distance hasn’t dampened our emotional connection, but you can’t really meet for dinner when you live 1,000 miles away. So, let’s cut to the chase: I want to make some new friends, and I suspect many of you do as well.

But making new friends when you are older is hard. Toss a two-year period of COVID isolation on the friendship flames, and what you have is a lot of older women sharing their loneliness with internet strangers on Facebook and Twitter. No, not ideal.

Well, science has come to the rescue! I spoke to Marisa G. Franco, author of the New York Times bestseller Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends. We discussed her research, and she had these suggestions on how to create and solidify your friend circle — all based on science.

Show up for real

Sure, you get points for pushing yourself to join activities when what you really want to do is spend the day on the couch with your old friend, Netflix. The mere act of showing up means overcoming overt avoidance, which is when you stay home, said Franco. Next, you need to bury your covert avoidance, which happens when we show up physically but check out mentally. You know who you are: the gal constantly checking her phone for fear of missing a text, or the person who attends an event presumably to meet new people but stays glued to the one person there you already know.

Make the first move

And here’s another kick to Netflix loungers: Waiting for someone else to initiate a connection with you doesn’t cut it. Franco said that friendships don’t just happen organically. Someone, and that includes you, must be the first to reach out. That means you really ought to be the one to pick up the phone and call the new neighbor instead of waiting for a chance trash-day encounter. You can ask the woman who also clings to the back of the Silver Singles class if she’d instead like to walk for exercise with you. Yes, you can do it.

Go where the relationship seekers are

Kudos for checking out the local gardening club. Here’s the only problem with that: People show up there to talk about plants. It makes more sense to join a dual-purpose group, like a Meetup for gardeners in your town. Meetups are ubiquitous and are intentionally designed for those who are interested in finding people with similar interests. In the business world, it’s called networking. Finding people who are equally eager for new connections is essential.

Rinse and repeat

Pick activities that interest you, but don’t just show up once. Repetitive exposure matters, said Franco. That’s why joining a travel group or going on a weekend yoga retreat will more likely yield new friends than attending a one-off exhibit at a museum. Instead of just going to one lecture at your local community college, join the professor’s class. Your classmates will become accustomed to seeing you there and, science shows, hold you in greater fondness through repetitive exposure. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh had older women show up at a psychology lecture for a varying number of classes: 0, 5, 10 or 15. At the end of the semester, the class was asked which of the older women they liked the most. The women who showed up to the most classes were liked 20 percent more than the women who didn’t show up at all, said Franco.

Online friends have a place, and it’s online

Yes, of course it is possible to meet people and make friends online. These interactions are great as a tool, although Franco said that in-person engagement does more for your happiness. The results of a Canadian study of over 5,000 subjects that was published in an NIH journal found that the number of real-life friends you have correlates positively with your well-being, while the size of your online networks simply does not. Here’s looking at you, Facebook friends. Franco said it’s fine to find people online who live near you (many social media sites let you screen members by city), but then you should try to move the friendship offline. And the internet being the internet, here’s the prerequisite caution: Always meet someone for the first time in a public space, and tell a real-life friend where you will be.

Lose your anchor point

Not to state the obvious, but nobody is going to be an old friend for you again. Old friends cannot be replaced, and it does no good to compare each new friend with your old crowd. In other words, I shouldn’t compare the woman I met at the dog park to the women of my wolf pack. Yes, my wolf pack was there for me when my late husband had a heart attack, when my daughter needed major surgery and I fell apart, when I lost my job in the recession and employers wouldn’t look twice at a woman my age. But now it’s time to stop comparing everyone to them, including the lady at the dog park with the Great Dane. Though our corgi kind of has a thing for big dogs.

Are you finding it harder to make friends as you grow older? Let us know in the comments below.

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