Writing for the New York Times, Catherine Pearson explains what is driving the "loneliness crisis" in the United States and offers six expert suggestions to help adults make—and keep—friends.
When Marisa Franco, a psychologist who studies friendship, was conducting research for her new book, "Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends," she learned several strategies on how to successfully make and keep friends as an adult.
During a solo vacation in July, Marisa Franco was able to use those strategies to form a new group of friends in just 10 days.
According to Pearson, Franco assumed that the people she met would like her. "And she reminded herself that people in transition — like those who've recently moved, gone through a breakup or who are traveling — tend to be more open to making new friends," Pearson writes.
At a café, Franco invited a fellow English-speaking traveler to an event for people who want to practice speaking Spanish. "At the language event, I met someone else, made the same assumptions, and we exchanged numbers," she recalled. "I invited them to a lucha libre wrestling match, and they came. This is to say: People are actually really open to friendship."
Franco acknowledges that making friends as an adult is not always "simple or easy," which may be one reason friendship is declining.
While just 3% of Americans said they had no close friends in 1990, almost 12% said they had no close friends in 2021. "The United States is in the grips of a loneliness crisis that predates the Covid pandemic," Pearson writes.
According to Franco, there are some simple strategies to help people make friends in adulthood.
Remember that platonic love is just as important and meaningful as romantic love
"We have this idea that people who have friendship at the center of their relationships are unhappy or unfulfilled," Franco said. "It's something I used to believe myself: I thought romantic love was the only love that would make me whole."
Don't fall for the misconception that friendship happens organically
According to Franco, research suggests that people who believe that friendship happens by chance are lonelier than those who make an effort to put themselves out there.
Assume people want to be your friend
When people follow the "risk regulation theory," they decide how much effort to invest in a relationship based on how likely they think they are to get rejected. "So one of the big tips I share is that if you try to connect with someone, you are much less likely to be rejected than you think," Franco said.
"And, yes, you should assume people like you. That is based on research into the 'liking gap' — the idea that when strangers interact, they're more liked by the other person than they assume."
Take advantage of the 'mere exposure effect'
While it can be nerve-racking to put yourself out there, Franco suggests looking for clubs and activities that require regular participation. "That capitalizes on something called the 'mere exposure effect,' or our tendency to like people more when they are familiar to us."
In addition, the "mere exposure effect" means that people "should expect that it is going to feel uncomfortable when you first interact with people," Franco noted. "You are going to feel weary. That doesn't mean you should duck out; it means you are right where you need to be. Stay at it for a little while longer, and things will change."
Make sure your friends know how much you like them
According to Franco, people typically like us more when they believe we like them.
"The more you can show people that you like and value them, the better. Research shows that just texting a friend can be more meaningful than people tend to think," Franco said.
Don't put too much pressure on yourself
"I want people to understand that they are much more typical if they don't have friendship all figured out," Franco said. "The data shows that so many people are lacking for community, and that is nothing to be ashamed about."
For example, social media can be a good way to connect with others, but it is often used to "lurk," which can increase feelings of loneliness and disconnection. "That's not necessarily our fault, though," Franco noted. "Social media is designed in a way so that we don't use it consciously; we tend to just stay on it mindlessly."
Ultimately, "[t]here are just a lot of societal reasons people feel lonely," Franco added.
Reach out to your existing connections
For people who are trying to form a new friendship or strengthen existing relationships today, Franco suggests taking one easy step. "I'd say to swipe through your contacts, or look at who you were texting this time last year, and reach out," she said. "You can say something simple, like: 'Hey, we haven't chatted in a while. I was just thinking about you. How are you?'" (Pearson, New York Times, 10/1)
Create your free account to access 2 resources each month, including the latest research and webinars.
You have 2 free members-only resources remaining this month remaining this month.
Never miss out on the latest innovative health care content tailored to you.