The Challenges and Rewards of Making Friends in Adulthood

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Have you ever resented a baby? I have.

When I was in my mid-twenties I met a new friend through a friend. Her name was Jeana. We clicked instantly and quickly became closer than we were separately to our mutual friend. Even though we didn’t live near one another we would routinely visit each other.

The best memories I have of our time together were during our three epic road trips that crisscrossed the United States and Canada. Never have I laughed so hard in my life like when I was on those trips.

Eventually, Jeana met a great guy and more quickly than she planned became pregnant. While I was happy for her, I was bummed that our road tripping days were likely over. As she moved into the new phase of motherhood, our relationship changed.

She had new priorities and she was living a life I couldn’t fully comprehend or appreciate. I was happy for her but sad for us. Over time, the outreach became more and more one-sided and our closeness diminished. Now we’re no longer in contact.

For a long time, I wrestled with the frustrations and sadness of losing our special bond. I mourned my friend and resented the changes that led to our eventual parting. In time, however, I came to a place where I realized that nothing lasts forever and paths sometimes eventually diverge. I think while there was a lot to mourn, one of the biggest disappointments was losing a dear friend I had found as an adult.

Finding Friends is Childsplay

I recognized even then that our close friendship was unusual because it was formed when we were both adults, not kids. It seems many lifelong friendships are formed in childhood because it’s an impressionable time filled with new experiences void of the emotional baggage that comes later in life.

In childhood, our brains are still developing and the part that is responsible for judgment (of ourselves and others), planning, and personality isn’t fully formed. So we’re very accepting of new experiences and new people without the inherent fear of rejection and self-consciousness we carry around as adults. At those tender ages, we’re all clean slates.

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As children, we look at the world more literally and don’t yet feel the burden of idealistic expectations. Making a new friend can be as simple as asking a playmate, “Do you want to be my friend?” There’s no heavy anticipation of the answer and it doesn’t carry so much meaning. Whatever the answer, in an instant, a child’s perspectives allows him to seamlessly move on to something or someone else.

The other condition of childhood that makes finding and forming relationships so easy is the endless opportunities to find them. You have so much more exposure to a wider and more diverse group of kids through school, social activities, your neighborhood, your cousins, etc. And in these environments and with these extended networks, children create experiences through play and learning that cements the memories and bonds that can last a lifetime.

Too Few Friendships In Adulthood

All throughout childhood and young adulthood we accumulate more and more friends. But then we hit a max as life obligations begin to bog us down. As scientists have concluded, we have a peak number of friendships at the age of 25. As we approach our late twenties, commitments like family and career take over and we begin to lose our close attachments with our friends. Time and distance grow and the decline of friendships continues for the remainder of our lives. The sad thing is that while this may be the statistic, it’s not what we all really want.

As humans, we are conditioned to be socially connected. It’s how we survived and how we eventually thrived as a species. Social media understood this inherent instinct and produced for us a means to be infinity connected with everyone everywhere. But as we’re beginning to realize, the panacea is hollow. The impressive friend count doesn’t get the job done. Instead, we’re longing for genuine and meaningful connection.

It’s a conundrum really. We all secretly (or not so secretly) long for richer connections but we’re uncertain on how to do it. The easy make-a-friend conditions of childhood are no longer in play and now we have that pesky fear of rejection. We don’t know what to do so we do nothing. We put our heads down and consume ourselves in busyness to ward off the feelings of loneliness. The irony is that we’re all in the same boat. Like lonely isolated molecules floating around seeking another to bond to!

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Friendship is Essential for Your Health

The pursuit of friendship as an adult isn’t just a feel good, it’s a lifesaver. Literally. The lack of meaningful connections with others is a significant condition for premature death. The stress of social isolation impacts our biology by raising blood pressure and causing the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries. It also leads to depression that precipitates destructive behaviors that will certainly lead to premature death like heavy drinking, smoking, poor diet, and reckless behavior. In short, science has concluded that having too few friends can kill us.

Aside from the science, we know instinctively that friendship is body/mind/soul-nourishing. Being around good friends leaves us feeling physically upbeat and confident while giving us a perspective that we’re connected to the broader world outside ourselves. With a good friend we feel accepted, heard, and understood. And we proceed through our days with a comfort that we know someone has our back to champion our wins and lift us up in trying times.

So we know we need it but how do we make friendship happen?

The big question…

Creating a Mindset for Finding New Friends

Before we embark on the quest to find new friends, it’s important to lay some mental groundwork. As we’ve already discussed, as adults we have the inconvenient disposition to avoid risk and rejection. So we need to put a few things in perspective to keep our head in the game and to press on towards the prize.

A few things to consider:

Make this endeavor a game/mission/project/challenge. Call it what you want but by giving this initiative a name it helps objectify and compartmentalize it. Like starting down an unknown road you aren’t sure what you will encounter. But if you make this effort about supporting the mission as opposed to a reflection of your friend-making abilities, it will be easier. Take some inspiration from Rachel Bertsche author of the memoir MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. It’s an entertaining read that chronicles the inevitable ups and downs of finding new friends.

You gotta love yourself first. People are attracted to people who are poised with some semblance of self-confidence. A person who is comfortable in their own skin and knows what they want. Mind you, wouldn’t we all want to be like this?! But the point here is that you need to have some level of self-assurance for others to be attracted to. The old adage is true: you must first love yourself before anyone else will. Functional and flourishing friendships are not found by the overly needy. Do the necessary inner work before venturing out. It will be a lot less painful.

Know that some people are flakes. And others won’t be receptive. We live in times where there is a growing lack of consideration to our fellow man. Dropping a social connection can happen with a click of a button with no further (in person) explanation. It’s left us in a place where empathy and social graces are in short supply. As a result, commitments aren’t always honored and relationships often remain on the surface. Excuses fly fast. Don’t be surprised by any of this. This article by @jackiehluo sums up beautifully how flakiness is ruining our friendships. Don’t be that guy/girl.

Recognize making friends may not be some else’s priority. Timing is everything. While finding friends may now be a top priority for you, this isn’t the case for everyone you approach. While I do believe everyone longs for connection, sometimes the complications of life get in the way.

Someone’s mom is dying, they’re getting a divorce, their kid is experiencing major behavioral problems, they’re gunning it for the next promotion. Your time may not be their time and that’s perfectly okay. This is not something to take personally. It’s about their life (right now); not your worthiness of being a potential friend.

Be open, optimistic, and generous. If you aren’t prepared to go into this with the right attitude you shouldn’t do it at all. The right attitude means being hopeful that good things will happen and being open to the adventure that awaits. Have faith that most people are looking for connection too but they may be either too lazy or not capable of making it happen. You deserve a pat on the back for the initiative.😊

If you approach this with paying it forward and being generous with a smile, your time, a good intention, etc. positive things will materialize. As a disclaimer though, this is not to say you won’t run into a few jerks. They’re out there. Stay away from them.

The Practical How To Meet New Friends

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You will hear a lot of advice about how to get the ball rolling. The most obvious one is to go be among your kind. That means finding people that have similar interests as yours. Whether they are faith-based communities or recreational hobbies. Breaking the ice with people who share a common interest is infinitely easier and less intimidating. At the very least you have a good basis for discussion with a wide range of people that have passions that match yours.

An important element of this is having in-person contact with the same group of people repeatedly and consistently. Over time you get to know them more intimately and they come to anticipate your participation. You eventually become an indispensable part of the social circle. Born from this may be some lasting friendships.

Be Brave and Makes Some First Moves

To make some new friends, you’re going to have to get up and get out of the house. It’s a daunting world out there but you need to muster up some courage to dive in and be…you know, friendly.

Look for opportunities to make a first move that helps ease the awkwardness of talking with a stranger and makes you come off as super nice. Go out of your way to introduce yourself to the new employee or the new neighbor or the new barista. Ask them questions about themselves and be genuinely interested. If you need help on what to say, check out these 10 unconventional conversation starters.

Another brave first move is to ask your existing contacts for friend introductions. Friends of your friends likely could be your friends too. Remember Jeana? Asked to be set up on a “friend blind date”. You could save some face by making an excuse for the reasons why.

  • I’m new to town and would like to meet some new people.

  • I would love to learn more about the industry your cousin Gary’s in.

  • I am trying to find a new running partner. Your friend Denise runs, right?

Make Multigenerational Friends

When people get on in years they tend to become rather nostalgic. They may look back on their lives, reflect on their experiences, and long to share all their accumulated wisdom. Young people, conversely, have a vitality and ambition that older people appreciate and admire and quite frankly sometimes need. There is much to be gained when different generations mix, coming together with the intention to mutually share and learn from one another. This can be the basis for a remarkable and nurturing friendship.

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Gatherings like Moxie! are filling this missed social opportunity. They bring women together that span decades in age to share, champion, and support one another. At one gathering in Chicago this year, guests’ ages ranged from 28 to 97!

There is still benefit even if the age difference isn’t so dramatic. I was fortunate enough to form close relationships with two nurturing bosses early in my career. They became like father figures to me and decades later they are still dear friends and mentors.

Likewise, when I was traveling in South America a few years ago I met two other gentlemen who are at least two decades my senior. We enjoyed many long thoughtful discussions that covered myriad topics during our travels. Now years later, I still enjoy rewarding conversations with them when we connect periodically throughout the year.

Start Online then Meet IRL

Over 3.5 billion people or almost half of the world's population is online. That’s a lot of potential friends. As much as there are some pitfalls to finding and cultivating social connections online, there is no point denying the age we live in. If reaching out to a stranger who could eventually become a good friend seems intimidating, start with an electronic first move. It’s an efficient and scalable way to meet a bunch of new people.

But then the very important part is to eventually move this interaction into the real world. It is when you meet someone face-to-face or hear the inflections in their voice you get to experience the personality behind the name. They become a real person to you. A person that could potentially be a more lasting connection IRL...where all the meaningful stuff happens.

Find an Accountability Partner

Every Wednesday afternoon I have an hour-long call with Stephanie. She and I used to be co-workers but we both had aspirations to do something more than our 9-5 jobs. We decided to become accountability partners to support our respective endeavors. I worked on starting this blog. She decided to write a book. The beauty of our arrangement is that we feel less alone as we are charting our new paths. While we come together to talk business, the topics over time have expanded. We’ve come to know each other in many other aspects of our lives. We’ve become true confidantes.

If you have a hobby, project, goal, or secret dream you wish to pursue try to find a buddy to join you on your journey. You will feel you’re not going it alone and will appreciate the mutual support. It’s so nice to have someone to turn to when tough challenges arise. Equally, it’s awesome to have someone help celebrate your wins. Keep an eye out for potential buddies and if you think there’s an opportunity, just ask. Most would greatly appreciate it. I originally proposed this partnership to Stephanie and she thanks me for it regularly.

Schedule Your Time with Friends

Keeping up with your friends is like keeping up with your garden. Both are equally rewarding if you give them the love and attention they need. And if you let too much time go by without tending to them, they die. For all your hard work, don’t let this happen. You need to be organized and proactive to maintain your friendships.

I actually schedule my outreaches with my friends. I put them on the calendar. I do this to make sure too much time doesn’t go by without some contact. I have one friend who I schedule a call with quarterly. He and I both know the demands of work and family will always be there and appear most pressing. Because of this discipline of staying in touch, we’ve been friends for over ten years and our conversations have evolved from chatting about industry news to lamenting about raising young children.

I will say that if you follow this advice you may find most of this work will be put on you. People will appreciate your efforts of reaching out but few will proactively reciprocate. Some people get swept away by the commitments and busyness of their lives. They don’t mean to but life just keeps on happening like a train that can’t slow down. It takes disciplined planning and effort to ensure your friendships stay healthy and vibrant. Make a commitment to this.

Create a Cornucopia of Friends and Acquaintances

Embarking on a quest for new friends as an adult is daunting but sometimes necessary. Our lives are healthier and more fulfilling when we have people in them that we care about. And we feel genuinely connected to. Making the proactive attempt is the biggest and most important step.

There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.
— William Butler Yeats

Not all connections will be winners. Everyone is different and there is a reason personal chemistry is a thing. Focus on creating a collection of diverse friends. Some may become besties and others will be mere acquaintances. But each one will contribute something to your life. And of your friendship, to theirs.

Take Action!

Reflect on if you feel you would like to have more adult friends in your life. If so, create a plan for how you’d like to go about it. Start small and experiment. It could start with an online connection that you take off-line or bravely approaching a new colleague and suggesting meeting up for happy hour. The most important factor is the initial effort.

Tell me in the comments below about your most cherished friendships.