A good friend can be hard to find—especially in your older years. Friendships form frequently—and quite easily—in childhood, but they are relatively rare in adulthood, leaving many older adults lonely. This doesn’t just detract from their social lives…it can significantly impact their health.
Researchers at BYU who examined the results of 148 published longevity studies concluded that when it comes to living a long life, having a large social network matters even more than exercising or losing weight.
Meanwhile, a study by psychologists at University of Illinois and University of Pennsylvania found that the most pronounced difference between happy and unhappy people was not whether good or bad things happened to them—it was their level of social connection.
Fortunately, it is possible to form new friendships during adulthood—even if you aren’t naturally outgoing. It just takes a little more effort than it did when you were a kid.
Waiting for Friendship Won’t Work
School was an excellent setting for friendship formation when we were kids. Sociologist Rebecca Adams, PhD, has said that we’re especially likely to form friendships with people with whom we have repeated unplanned interactions that include shared vulnerability. We had that with our classmates, but it’s rare in the adult world.
It may be surprising to learn that vulnerability plays a critical role in forming friendship—vulnerability is widely viewed as dangerous and best avoided, especially by men. But the risks associated with showing vulnerability in social settings are greatly outweighed by the benefits that vulnerability offers in the form of strengthened social bonds. A series of studies conducted by researchers at Florida State, Yale and Carnegie Mellon universities found that participants who shared their negative emotions, such as nervousness about an upcoming project, received more assistance and formed more friendships than those who didn’t.
All of this is good news for adults—we don’t lose our ability to form new friendships as we age…we just need to find new ways to display the vulnerability that was unavoidable in school and then do so with people with whom we interact regularly.
The Right Kind of Vulnerable
Most people respond positively to vulnerability, but some instead pull away or seek to exploit the situation. To gauge who will respond well, ask acquaintances unconventional, probing questions outside the bounds of normal small talk. Examples: “What would constitute a perfect day?” or “Among everyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” People who respond to questions such as these openly also tend to respond well to vulnerability…while people who become evasive or judgmental tend to be “avoidant” and respond poorly to vulnerability.
Caution: Attempts to be vulnerable also fail when people overshare, burying acquaintances under laundry lists of painful personal details. Vulnerability facilitates friendship most effectively when it’s limited in scope. How to be vulnerable…
Open up about one thing you’ve struggled with recently. This could be “I’m having the hardest time staying on a diet” or “I haven’t been able to figure out this new client.”
Share your joy about one positive aspect of your life. Perhaps “I’m really proud of how well my daughter has done for herself” or “I worked hard my whole career so I could afford this car—and I love it.” This is a form of vulnerability because we’re opening up about something that matters to us and trusting that the people we’re speaking with won’t consider us braggarts. Moderation is key.
Voice a positive opinion about the person you’re speaking to. This could be “You always have something intelligent to say” or “I’m so blown away with your sense of style.” Complimenting people who are not yet close friends shows vulnerability because we can’t be certain how our praise will be received.
What Prevents Potential Friendships
Have you ever stood quietly in a corner at a social gathering and wondered, Why is everyone here so unfriendly? They probably weren’t unfriendly—they feared social rejection. By standing in a corner not speaking, you send a signal that you’re the sort of antisocial person likely to reject anyone who approaches.
To escape this trap: Be the friend you want to meet. If you wish someone would strike up a conversation, walk up to someone else and strike up a conversation. If you wish someone would say something nice about you, say something nice about someone else.
Reassure yourself that most people probably like you more than you think—and there’s science to prove it. Participants in a study conducted by Cornell University researcher Erica Boothby, PhD, were asked to interact with strangers. The study participants later were asked how much they liked the people they met…and to estimate how much the people they met liked them. Virtually everyone reported thinking others liked them less than others actually did. In other words, virtually everyone underestimates how much other people like them—and that probably includes you.
To Identify Potential Friends
Our odds of forming successful friendships are greatest with certain sorts of people…
Fellow members of groups and clubs that meet regularly. Not only do these organizations bring together people who share common interests, they’re a way to take advantage of the mere exposure effect. People who see us regularly are predisposed to like us—even if we’ve never spoken to them. Researchers at University of Pittsburgh put this to the test—they instructed strangers to show up in college classes but not interact with anyone else. When other students in those classes later were shown photos of these strangers, they expressed more favorable opinions about the strangers who had been in their classes most often—even though they’d never spoken with them and often couldn’t recall where they’d seen them before.
Neighbors. A study conducted by a University of California, San Francisco, researcher found that the higher the cost of continuing a friendship in terms of resources such as time, the greater the odds that the friendship will fail. Someone who lives five minutes from your house is thus a better friendship candidate than someone who lives a half-hour away.
People who display signs of social acceptance. If a conversation partner smiles…leans slightly toward you…and nods his/her head as you speak, those are signals he’s on the same page as you, greatly improving the odds he’s interested in forming a friendship.