You know you need friendships. Not only can friends help you through life's ups and downs and give you career and relationship advice when you need it, research shows that having friends actually helps you live longer. Everyone tells you friendships are important, but no one tells you how to actually form friendships as an adult. Unfortunately, the times in your life when you need friends the most are usually the times when it's hardest to make new ones.
I'll never forget the day I took two small children on an outing to play glow-in-the-dark miniature golf at a local mall. The little boy and girl were cousins, but their families lived in different towns and they probably couldn't remember the last time they'd seen each other.
"I'm six years old!" he announced.
"Me too!" she answered. And with that, the two of them turned and ran off through the mall, side by side, already pals.
If only it were that easy for grownups. No one ever tells you how hard it will be to make new friends once you finish your education and are out in the working world. For some people the workplace offers new chances at friendship, and for others, being the parents of small children naturally brings you into contact and commiseration with other parents. Some people make new friends this way, but if you work alone or in a place where employees don't socialize, and if you don't have small children to force you out to parks and play dates, it's all too easy to sink into isolation.
In a beautiful essay on the website Shondaland, the fantasy author Roshani Chokshi describes the time after she and her husband moved to Atlanta for his residency after medical school. She knew he'd be mostly unavailable and that she needed to construct a social life of her own. Doing that turned out to be much harder than she'd imagined.
I've been through that struggle myself. Years ago, after my first marriage imploded disastrously, I moved from New York City to Woodstock, New York, more than 100 miles away. I spent most of my time trying to rebuild my career and dealing with the legal complexities of fighting a contested divorce.
That didn't leave much time for going out to find new friends, and when I did have the time, I lacked the energy. So much had gone wrong that I couldn't work up the optimism to try meeting people in the hopes that we might bond. I desperately wanted friends and I felt sure that I would never find any. On top of that, it was the dead of winter in rural New York State, when the days are short and where there are no streetlights. I was a city girl and I had never experienced that much darkness in my whole life.
If you're feeling this way making new friends can seem like an impossible challenge. Take my word for it, it isn't. In time, I dug myself out of my friendless hole, and you can too.
1. Set down your smartphone and walk out the door.
Social media has been widely blamed for the fact that Millennials are lonelier and more friendless than any preceding generation. Personally, I believe social media is more like a mixed blessing. I can't count the number of times I've learned via social media that a friend was having a hard time and needed my help, or having a party and wanted me to attend.
On the other hand, increased social media use has been decisively linked to depression. One reason is that social media interactions are the emotional equivalent of empty calories. They can make you feel better in the moment but in the long run they won't give you the nourishment you need. For that, you have to get out in the real world and meet people face to face.
2. Do what you like.
Once you walk out the door, where should you go? Let your own inclinations be your guide. My mother once gave me some excellent advice about finding romance that applies just as well to friendship: Don't go out looking for it, instead go do things that you would like to do anyway and it will most likely find you. And if it doesn't, you will still have had a good time and maybe learned something new. So if you've always wanted to study a new language, or take up a sport, or volunteer in your community, do it now.
3. Don't burden your new friendships with expectations.
You may feel like you need a new friend to make you stop feeling lonely, someone who'll listen to you and give sage advice when you spill out all your troubles, someone whose friendship will sustain you for many years to come. It may be true that you need all of that, but it's unrealistic to put those kinds of expectations onto someone you've only recently met.
A very wise friend once gave me some seriously good advice that I've remembered all my life. Every friendship is useful even if it isn't the friendship of your dreams. You may be wishing for a close confidant, but you will also benefit a lot from someone who's happy to go bowling with you on a Saturday night.
4. Don't let rejection drag you down.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. If you're feeling lonely and friendless, the smallest rebuff can make you feel crushed. Chokshi writes that during her lonely time, a neighbor unexpectedly shared the details of a crisis she was going through. I know I've certainly shared too much information with relative strangers at difficult times in my life and it sounds like that's what the neighbor did too. But to Chokshi, it felt like her friendship prayers had been answered. She offered a lot of advice and "attempted to rush to the rescue," as she puts it. But the neighbor, clearly regretting her own openness, sent a text telling Chokshi to stand down. "This is really my fault, sry. We're not even close enough for me to be sharing like this with you. Lol."
Even at the time, Chokshi recognized that the neighbor was merely setting an appropriate boundary. Still, Chokshi writes that she sent a quick response, then set down her phone and then cried for 20 minutes.
I remember feeling rejected at various times with my own friends, for instance when a friend stood me up at the last minute after I'd bought a ticket to meet her at a movie that I didn't really want to see, or more recently when my super-fit Sunday hiking partner got involved with a very athletic man and the two of them went off on hikes that are way beyond my capabilities, leaving me behind. In both cases, I suffered the deep misery of wanting more from a relationship than the other person does. In both cases, I knew there was only one thing to do: Keep putting myself out there to find new friendships and so I wouldn't be overly dependent on that one.
It's incredibly difficult to go out and look for new friends when you're feeling rejected and unwanted. And yet, it's the only thing that will actually help. If you keep at it, it will work for you just as it worked for me.