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5 Smart Ways to Make and Keep New Friends

Research shows a strong social circle may help protect your brain


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Remember hanging out after school with friends? Your pals were always close by for chatting, laughing and acting silly. But as we get older, friends can be harder to find. Over time, our circle of buddies can be chipped away by moves to new towns, deaths, busy schedules, kids becoming adults, job changes, disagreements or divorce.

Spending time with friends may not always feel like a top priority, but it is important for your health and happiness. Staying socially connected as you age is linked to better physical, mental and cognitive health, and even a longer life, according to a 2023 advisory from the U.S. surgeon general, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” The advisory echoes the Global Council on Brain Health 2017 report “The Brain and Social Connectedness,“ which states that “evidence suggests a positive impact of social engagement on brain health.”

Unfortunately, too many people lack strong social ties. The number of close friendships adults have has dropped significantly in the last few decades, according to a 2021 American Enterprise Institute survey, and recent studies suggest that roughly half of adults experience loneliness. The potential health consequences of chronic loneliness and isolation are serious: an increased risk of dementia, depression, heart disease and stroke — and a significantly higher risk of early death.

If your social circle has shrunk over the years, try these five tips to start reaching out and connecting.

  1. Be patient and persistent. Just like dating, making friends takes time and involves a little trial and error. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t click with your first catch. Keep putting yourself out there. Psychology researchers have studied the “proximity principle,” the tendency of people to befriend those they’re around the most. Frequenting your favorite restaurants, shops, classes and parks and chatting with other regulars can be a great way to forge connections.

  2. Open up. We move from acquaintance to friendship by letting people in. So just be yourself: genuine; flawed. Share your musical tastes, your fears, your likes and dislikes. And ask for help when you need it. “Friends make us happy if they make us feel like we matter, make us feel needed,” says Carlin Flora, author of the book Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are. “That means if you never ask your friends for favors, they don’t get that satisfaction of feeling needed by you.” 

  3. Make time. Getting to know someone takes time. It’s an emotional investment. You must consistently make space in your schedule for others. When you make a commitment, put it on your calendar. Protect that time, just as you would honor a work commitment. In the book Friendship: Development, Ecology and Evolution of a Social Relationship, author Daniel Hruschka notes that a source of major tension among friends is either backing out on commitments or not giving enough time. Ultimately, making time for someone is the clearest indicator that you care about and value that person. 

  4. Go play. Participating in activities you enjoy, ones that put a smile on your face — a book club, art class, sports team, hiking club or political group — is a natural way to connect with like-minded folks. Social websites such as Meetup can help.  

  5. Smile. This sounds simple, but it’s powerful. Studies show that a smiling face pulls us in and holds our attention — and that people are attracted to positive emotions. And keep in mind that happiness can be “contagious,” according to results of the long-running Framingham Heart Study focused on more than 4,700 adults ages 21 to 70, reported in 2008 in the British Medical Journal. Support and happiness: That’s what friendship is all about.

Rachel Noble is a therapist, presenter and writer in Washington, D.C.

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