Making adult friends can be surprisingly hard. One of our basic human needs is connection with others, yet many of us struggle to make it happen. Anxiety and discomfort get in the way. Lack of time and lack of energy get in the way. Uncertainty about how to make friends gets in the way.
Loneliness is a brutal feeling and a brutal circumstance. Our physical health, happiness, and longevity are closely tied to the quality of our relationships, including friendships. Research confirms that the strongest predictor of overall life satisfaction hinges on the caliber of our connections with others.
Why is it so hard making new friends?
When we are young, we are often in places where groups of peers hang out and it’s simpler to gravitate towards people like us. School classes, athletic activities & teams, neighborhood families, churches, scouts, after school clubs & lessons of all types. Peers are everywhere and even if you’re shy, it’s possible to connect with one or two. After our school years are over, most of us are left with: the friends we have gathered so far, and the workplace.
Our modern society is both transient and packed with obligations and distractions. The friends you gathered in your youth have likely dispersed or become busy navigating their own life demands, making it harder to sustain close connection.
These diminished connections are common and it’s not a sign that you are a bad friend or uncared about. But it is factual information letting you know your options: deepen friendships you have and/or create new friendships. We’ll look today at how to create new ones; we can address deepening current friendships in another article.
Idea: "Friends for a Reason, for a Season, or for Life"
It may be helpful to think of your friendships like songs in your music collection.
Most played songs – these songs light us up no matter when we hear them, because we feel so connected to them.
Often played songs - they are pretty good to listen to, but not all the time and we kind of need to be in the mood, like dance music you like to get you hyped up for a run.
Seldom played songs – they were great when they first came out but then they got overplayed and now you can tolerate it, but sometimes you just prefer to skip it. Not your jam as much anymore.
None of these songs are objectively good or bad - your tastes and desires just vary. Same with friend types.
Friends for life are like your “most played” song category.
These friends are few in number and stick around through thick & thin. You typically share a similar sense of humor, interests, values and life goals. These people get you and appreciate you and love you without judgment.
Friends for a season are like your “often played” song category.
These friends are likely from periods of our lives where there were in proximity to us – a high school friend, a college roommate, a caring neighbor from our first apartment building, a close colleague from a job we once had, a fun connection we made working on a volunteer project.
These are humans that we like and value, but the connection was based on paths crossing for a period of time. It does not sustain its depth when the paths shift.
Also in this category are those friendships where values or priorities have diverged (e.g. you’re a parent now doing lots of kid things and the friends have different energy & free time; you’ve transitioned away from bar hopping every weekend and the friends are still out til 2am). The season of sharing time & interests in similar ways has come to an end.
Friends for a reason are like your “seldom played” song category.
These are friends or acquaintances like coworkers on a project or fellow parents on your child's sports team or the server you’ve chatted with nearly every Friday for 6 years when you go out for pizza night. You are humans in the same place at the same and the exchange is warm and mutual, but it does not extend outside that context.
Here’s what holds you back:
Thinking that all friendships need to qualify for the “most played” song category.
Lifelong friendships take time to grow and deepen. It’s tempting to get impatient and to crave a quick path to that profound satisfaction of feeling understood and safe with someone. It’s tempting to assume you won’t be able to achieve the depth you desire and just not even try. Not all friendships need or deserve that “friends for life” distinction.
Every human relationship can matter for your sense of connectedness and help to decrease loneliness. Regardless of the “song category,” all friendship levels are beneficial to your emotional health. New friends do not need to be a soulmate friend match. The idea of making new friends as an adult gets a lot less scary if we take this particular pressure off.
So let’s get into it: How to make new adult friends
1. Identify your interests, hobbies and passions.
Shared interests are the easiest way to make connections because you have at least one thing in common to talk about. It might be helpful to reflect on what got you excited when you were younger and tap back into that. Adult kickball game, anyone?
What kind of non-solo interests do you have where you can connect with others? Consider examples like:
Hiking groups hosted by local athletic/outdoor stores
Book clubs hosted by libraries and bookstores
Alumni group gatherings in your location
Trivia nights at area restaurants/pubs
Table top game nights at local game stores
Clubs, festivals and events hosted by your city/town
Voting/Political activism groups
Conversational foreign language groups
Note that the attendees at these events tend ebb and flow, so you may need to try several times before you find people that seem like friend material. If anxiety spikes up, you may need to just attend a few times without placing pressure on yourself to create a connection. If you don't really have any hobbies or non-solo interests, see next...
2. Take a class.
Adult learning classes can be a nice way to connect with similarly-minded people while also learning something new. If you are a person without many interests or hobbies, a class can help you to explore yourself and find new interests. The key is to be intentional about making connections with a classmate or two. Use the setting as an opportunity to have some 1:1 interaction before, during or after class gatherings.
Most colleges and universities offer classes for community members to attend. You can also find workshops & classes at your local community centers and other city-sponsored entities that are often free or low cost.
3. Consider volunteering.
When you are looking for friends that may share similar perspectives to you, volunteer activities provide a nice baseline. Typically someone’s decision to invest time with a non-profit effort reflects on their particular value system or passion.
Explore the sites below so see what matches your values & interests. Most allow you to search by keyword, skillset, interest area and location to find a fit nearby.
One of the largest online databases of volunteer opportunities. Most are in the U.S. although there are some listings from elsewhere.
Focused on connecting individuals, groups, and companies with volunteer activities in the NC Triangle area.
Includes volunteer opportunities around the world. Also jobs and internships!
Focused on people in the U.S. with passion for the outdoors/conservation/animal welfare.
Focused on matching your professional skills to nonprofits in need. Skills like accounting, web design, marketing, writing, project planning, etc. Many opportunities listed are remote, so if you are a bit nervous about making new friends in person, this is a way to dip your toe into some online connections.
4. Search for connections online.
If the idea of finding new adult friends feels daunting or time-consuming, just start surveying the landscape online as a first step. Join one or several online groups/communities. Lurk for a while, send direct messages or post comments to start slow with building connections. It matters to feel connected even in that small way until there’s something you can make work in person.
This online directory allows you to explore myriad clubs, groups and gatherings. You can search by super popular or incredibly niche topic interests to find in-person or online affinity groups (yes there is a group for underwater hockey players and also one for nighttime knitters). Most group member profiles are fairly basic.
Like Meetup, there are a lot of affinity-based groups on Facebook. You can use the Facebook Group search tool to find groups ranging from social to professional to activity-based. Some folks find it comforting to have a more robust profile attached to the group members so you know a little more about people before meeting up in person.
Take a look at the subreddit for your local community/town. In my area, there are multiple posts daily: people looking for folks to join them for activities; ideas for gatherings to plan; opportunities to collaborate on local projects and needs; people moving to the area looking for connections, etc. With Reddit, you can also click on the username to see more about their post history and get a sense of the type of person they are to assess for personality fit.
The Bumble dating app has an offshoot for connecting with other people to make friends, called BFF. You set up your profile and the algorithm connects you with other friend profiles (local or otherwise) that might be a fit. You choose whether to connect. This is a fairly low stakes way to start finding people to connect with.
5. Subscribe to newsletters.
This can be a first step and a low-risk way to get exposed to events and gatherings where you might find kindred spirits. Some find it reassuring & hopeful to realize the number of opportunities available and the types of shared interests to explore locally.
I am admittedly a nerd and don’t get overwhelmed by email, so I subscribe and learn about all sorts of workshops, novel events & volunteer activities. Here’s a snapshot of some email newsletters in my inbox:
Local area museums
The yoga studio I frequent
The local independent newspaper
The city departments: parks & outdoors, arts, community events
My graduate school
Political/activism/philanthropic groups I support
The local movie theatre
Several local performing arts theatres/centers
My state association for counselors (career-related events & connections)
My homeowner/neighborhood community
Several local businesses/stores that host events & workshops
6. Do activities organized by your workplace.
If it feels comfortable for you to blend work + social settings, with this option you can benefit from having at least one thing in common already (so, you're not starting fresh with total strangers).
If your workplace organizes happy hours or trivia nights or a 5k walk or an intramural team, give it a try. Since the activity is already organized for you, it can also be a lower stakes way to practice some of the soft skills of socializing if you are feeling a bit rusty or nervous.
7. Take your earbuds out sometimes.
Research by Dr. Gillian Sandstrom emphasizes the value of brief, friendly interactions with people we may never meet again. Often, we're so absorbed in our devices (or rushing in our quest for productivity) that we miss out on these passing moments.
Sandstrom's experiments suggest that we’d benefit from engaging in more conversations with strangers. These encounters, although unlikely to result in deep relationships, can still hold meaning and offer a sense of connectedness. And while it's rare, meaningful friendships can emerge from the most unexpected interactions.
8. Try a new perspective.
If anxiety about starting over and facing acceptance by new people is a barrier, try a shift in perspective. The majority of people out there are open to new friends or at the minimum, desire positive human interactions.
I hear from many clients about wanting more or better friendships. I also hear some assumptions that everyone already has enough friends or is too busy for new connections. It seems hard for both of those sentiments to be broadly true. I recommend testing the theory.
An American Perspectives Survey from May 2021 found that among American adults:
51% are Very Satisfied or Completely Satisfied with the number of friends they have.
30% are Somewhat Satisfied with the number of friends they have.
17% are Not too satisfied or Not at all satisfied with the number of friends they have.
And this survey also found that:
12% of Americans have no close friends
49% have 3 or fewer close friends
36% have 4 – 9 close friends
13% have 10+
And a final surprise…the survey respondents with higher numbers of friends reported those higher levels of satisfaction with their number.
Case closed: most people want more friends!
9. Solve the "missing 3rd place."
There’s this idea that as adults, most of us have just 2 main places we spend chunks of time: home and work. When we leave our school years behind, there is no built in “third place” where we naturally convene, like clubs and activities and playgrounds.
For some people this 3rd place historically was/is a church setting. As fewer Americans are being drawn to organized religion and we simultaneously have evermore entertainment & streaming options keeping us at home, fewer American adults have a built-in 3rd place to build connections. This “missing 3rd place” contributes to the decline in our adult friendships. And the pandemic certainly didn't help.
If you are a churchgoer and you want more friendships, consider how you might be able to deepen connections in your faith community by joining some small groups or activities outside of the traditional gatherings.
If you are not a churchgoer, just consider this concept of a 3rd place.
What might it look like to establish a 3rd place for yourself? Is there somewhere you go frequently that could become a place of deeper connection for you? Is it possible for you to spend time outside of home & work in a different way?
For example, I’ve gone to the same yoga studio every week for years and I’m certain that if I hung around after class to chat, I could easily carve some deeper paths with folks.
Just something to think about next time you are at the dog park and see the same friendly face you always see. They might need a friend too.
If high anxiety and other strong emotions get in the way of building and sustaining relationships, take a look at my 8-week online emotion regulation course to see if it's a fit for you.