Recently, a coworker was lamenting that her best friend had left the company, and she wasn’t sure how to make new friends. Chances are you’ve been in this situation as well. Data suggests we’re lonely and getting lonelier. And research also shows making and keeping friends is getting harder.
But there is hope. Friends matter—a lot—for your happiness and engagement at work and for your quality of life. But you can take steps to make (more) friends, keep friends and sustain strong relationships over time.
It’s Tough Out There But Friends Make It Easier
Unfortunately, many people are lonely and lacking adequate support from friends. A poll of about 1,200 people by YouGov found 27% of Millennials have no close friends, and 22% report they have no friends at all. Fifteen percent of Gen X and 9% of Baby Boomers also report having a lack of close friends.
In addition, 30% of Millennials said they feel lonely “always” or “often” while 20% of Gen X and 15% of Baby Boomers said the same. Most people find it difficult to make friends because they’re shy (53%), but people also report friendship is too much work (20%) or they are too busy (14%).
But no matter what your generation or your inclination to make friends, they are critical for multiple reasons.
- Continuity. A study of 280,000 people by Michigan State University finds friendships can be more important than family relationships for people to feel a sense of support, mental wellbeing and overall wellness. This is especially true over time, because unlike family, we tend to select our friends. And best friends last—providing a sense of continuity throughout our lives.
- Mental health. Research from the University of Virginia finds friendships also predict future mental health. When people have stronger friendships in adolescence, they have reduced social anxiety, greater self-worth and less depression during subsequent years.
- Performance at Work. In a meta-analysis reviewing 26 studies of over 1,000 groups and over 3,400 participants, Ohio State University discovered when you work with groups which include friends, the performance of the group improves. This is likely because friendship tends to foster trust, shorthand communication and the valuing of each other’s input.
- Engagement. In addition, according to Jeremy Fojut, an expert on relationships and founder of Like|Minded, a startup app that facilitates work friendships, “When you have friends at work, you just want to be there. The atmosphere is more welcoming, and you trust that you can bring your best to work because you trust the people around you.”
- The Culture. Friends are also important for imparting values and beliefs across groups. A study by the University College London finds when broad networks include strong friendships along with weaker bonds, information travels more efficiently in the group. Close friendships create linkages and boost communication which foster shared beliefs and values.
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The Dynamics of Friendship
Beyond what you certainly know about friendship, there are also some surprising points. For example, your friendships tend to turnover approximately every seven years. The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research finds that while the size of your overall network tends to be consistent, the friends and relationships within it shift. About every seven years, only 48% of the actual people in your group are the same. This is likely because your circumstances shift—you move or focus on different projects at work with different people, for example.
In addition, you tend to make similar choices in your friends. Fojut points out, “We tend to have friend archetypes. If you move from Milwaukee to Boston for example, your friend group may shift, but you will likely select similar types of people with whom to bond.”
Over the course of the pandemic, it’s been more challenging to make friends. We have less opportunities to run into people casually and strike up friendships because we’re not seeing people in person as much. In addition, as you’ve gotten back to events, parties or social gatherings, you’ve likely spent the majority of your time with people you already know. A “myth of mingling” suggests we get to know new people when we have the opportunity to mix in groups. But instead, we generally speak with existing acquaintances. Truly expanding social circles is generally reserved for only the most extreme extroverts. In addition, the conversation you may strike up at the bar isn’t likely to be lasting.
Bottom line: All of these dynamics reduce the chances you’ll find a friend or build a relationship—or they make it more challenging.
How to Make Friends
So, if we’re largely lonely, but if friendship is also so important, how can we make new friends? There are some research-based recommendations which may help.
Gratitude. To make a friend, gratitude is a powerful engine. A study at the University of New South Whales finds when you express gratitude in a relationship, people perceive you as warm, friendly and thoughtful. And this leads people to see the potential for a high-quality lasting social bond. In addition, according to research in The Righteous Mind, when you feel grateful toward others, it’s generally easier to consider their perspective and empathize. This bodes well for friendship—so express gratitude in order to fast-track making a new friend.
Trust. Fojut says trust is one of the primary drivers of friendship. “In general, the deeper your level of trust, the more likely you’ll have a lasting friendship.” Building trust starts with sharing openly. Trust is reciprocal: You share, your friend shares, you open up and so on. Opening yourself to others and watching for them to open up in return is how trust is built. Knowing yourself is a factor. According to Fojut, “When you understand yourself, including your strengths and your weaknesses, you can bring more to the other person—opening yourself to the friendship and supporting the relationship.”
Time. Making time for friendship is also a pathway to build relationships. A recent study published in Human Communication Research finds it takes about 60 hours of sharing, conversation and connections to solidify a friendship. In addition, when you share experiences, friendships are more solid. Beyond a virtual happy hour, you’ll experience a more meaningful connection when you engage in activities or adventures together.
Interests. Fojut says, “Common interests are a driver for friendship—not just what you say you love to do, but the things you actually spend time doing. These are the commonalities that will influence friendship the most.” For example, if we both say we love camping, but I rarely camp and you camp every weekend, our interest in camping won’t predict our friendship as much as if we both spend a lot of time camping. How we spend our time is an indicator of our true interests—and these more accurately predict friendships.
Friendship is also situational, and some things may be outside your control but worth paying attention to.
Proximity is one of the greatest determinants of friendship. The people you see more are the people with whom you build relationships. That’s the person you see regularly at yoga or the coworker with whom you spend a lot of time on a project.
Life stage. You also tend to be closer friends with people who are at a similar life stage. When you’re raising young children, you have more to talk about with others who are new(ish) parents. Or when you’re planning for retirement, you’re more interested in spending time with others who are considering their own off-ramps. While you may have a colleague of a very different age with whom you have a strong relationship at work, but you’re less likely to spend time outside of work together.
Transition points. Life transitions also tend to be points where you make new friends. You move to a new city and you’re especially open to meeting new people. Or you have a baby and you’re craving adult companionship. Or you’re starting a new job and seeking to grow your network and meet colleagues. Transition points tend to make us more open to new things and people, so these can be moments to focus on making connections.
Where To Make Friends
The YouGov study identifies patterns in where people meet friends and form relationships. They represent opportunities based on proximity, common interests, investment of time and more. People tend to meet others:
- In high school (87%) or college (70%)
- Through work (75%)
- Through neighborhood (61%)
- Through church or spiritual community (44%)
- Informally (started talking at park or café) (38%)
- Through children (play group, children’s sports) (38%)
- Through sports/fitness activity (33%)
- Through social clubs or activities (wine club investing club, etc.) (32%)
- Through volunteer work (30%)
- At an event (concert, movie, game) (24%)
If you want to find friends or seek connections, use this list as an idea-starter and consider which of these might be a fit for your proclivities. Also realize these are the places people may be most open to meeting others and forming the basis for a friendship.
Friendships are critically important for our overall wellbeing, and they are increasingly tough to develop and sustain. But all is not lost. With intention and investment of time and energy, we can build lasting, meaningful bonds which enrich us in our work and in life outside of work.