12 ways to make friends in midlife and beyond

Source: Image by Stockvault/Pixabay, CCO.

Conventional wisdom holds that making friends gets harder as you get older. Is that true?

It’s not a trivial question. Friendships are an important indicator of happiness and longevity in old age. A strong social network reduces the risk of early death by about 45 percent, according to meta-analyses.* In contrast, social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of dementia, heart disease, depression and other damage to mental and physical health. Although I personally find it hard to believe, research even shows that loneliness is as serious a health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol use disorder.

So it’s alarming that some studies support the notion of making friends after retirement and even in midlife is more challenging. In the past, school, university and work offered ready-made social networks with all kinds of friendship opportunities. Older people often lack these natural networks.

To add to the challenge, researcher Laura Carstensen notes that there is “an evolving tendency for people to dwindle from social networks as they get older… and to disassociate from people who are not particularly emotionally close or meaningful to them.” . As a friend of mine recently said, “I’m more careful about who I hang out with.” Given this tendency, it can be harder for a new person to break into an established group. In addition, friendships can be fractured and/or ended when older people move to retirement homes or to other states and when, unfortunately, death takes its inevitable toll.

So, yes, it’s true that retirees and older people may have to work harder to make friends. Nevertheless, it is possible. In fact, research notwithstanding, older people have at least one major advantage over middle-aged people: time. When you’re raising kids, working a full-time job, and helping your aging parents, who’s had time to make new friends? (Not me, anyway.) With more time and a little effort, connecting with new people can be relatively easy.

How to Make Friends as an Older Adult

Here’s what I’ve found from my own late friendships, from conversations with older friends, and from research. These tips for making friends are useful after retirement, but also at any stage in life:

1. Make the decision that friendship is important to you.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, making the decision to change is the beginning of a successful change. Let yourself know that your life would be better with friends and why.

2. Realize that making friends takes a conscious effort.

As luck would have it, while I was writing this I heard about the new book by consulting psychologist Marisa Franco: Platonic: The Secret to Making Friends as an Adult. One of Franco’s central ideas, highlighted in her article here, is that friendships don’t just happen by magic. You must be intentionally– That is, making a conscious effort to socialize, showing interest in potential friends, and sometimes taking the initiative by making appointments or responding enthusiastically when others contact you.

Source: Kampus Production/Pexels, CCO.

Source: Kampus Production/Pexels, CCO.

3. Take responsibility for organizing a meeting.

Related to #2, sometimes you need to be the organizer and meet your friend for something – lunch, coffee. There is no guarantee that your target friend will be interested in discovering a friendship with you, but you will never know if you don’t try. At least exchange contact details. situations change.

4. Don’t take it personally when your friendship attempts fail.

Your potential friends may be overwhelmed by various life challenges at the moment. Go on. Maybe some other time you’ll find common ground.

5. “Promote” former colleagues to friends.

In the workplace, friendship can be problematic. They might share too much, show favoritism, or find it difficult to draw boundaries between work activities and activities with friends. But once you retire, those barriers can dissolve. Today, many of my former colleagues are cherished friends who I see regularly.

6. “Promote” acquaintances and neighbors to friends.

In my many years of full-time work, I have had professional contact with a wide variety of people. After my retirement, I happened to meet two of them (separately). We drank coffee and immediately bonded over our shared love of writing. They have become dear friends.

7. Reconnect with old friends.

Thanks to high school reunions, I’ve reconnected with old friends and discovered new friends among my old classmates. We’re scattered across the country, but email, maps, Facebook, and the occasional Zoom meeting can keep us in touch when we can’t meet in person.

8. Be bold and invite yourself in groups.

I was meeting up with a friendship group of three women the other day when the neighbor stopped by. “How do I get into this group?” she asked. Asked and answered – she was there!

9. Join a group that meets regularly.

Franco, the friendship expert, calls an intriguing finding of research: “The sheer exposure effect.” This means the more people see you regularly, the more they’ll like you. The sheer exposure effect makes your attempts to connect with potential friends more likely to be successful when people are more familiar with you.

Try a book group, coffee group, choir, AA or Al-Anon, church group, or neighborhood group. Strengthen your social networks through volunteering or part-time work.

Source: Kampus Production/Pexels, CCO.

Source: Kampus Production/Pexels, CCO.

10. Make friends in person and on social media with people of different ages and backgrounds.

A good half of my Facebook friends are acquaintances or friends of friends. Still, I think it makes sense to connect with them. Everyone has something to offer.

11. Know that you don’t have to have a “best friend.”

It’s great to have a special friend, someone to share your deepest feelings with, but that’s not a requirement for happiness. You can enjoy a variety of people for who they are and what you can learn from them.

12. Appreciate both your activity friends and your intimate friends.

While you might be looking for a kindred spirit, activity friends are valuable too. Also, after a while you might find that talking and training with your tennis friend is a pleasure. Friendships grow and change. As psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore writes here, “It’s important to recognize that many different types of friends can brighten our lives.” Kennedy-Moore is referring to friendships among children, but this idea applies equally well to friendships among adults.

In total

Friendships offer different benefits than family and romantic relationships—such as freedom from roles and commitments, and flexibility. “It can bring us a friend for lunch or a soul mate once a month,” writes Franco Platonic.

In addition, friendships are important for both physical and mental health. As we age, friends can cushion the blows and losses that aging can bring. So if you’ve tried these or other tips for making friends in adulthood and they haven’t worked, talk to a therapist for insight, suggestions, or support.

(c) Meg Selig, 2022.

*According to science journalist Marta Zaraska, meta-analysis shows that being in a committed relationship reduces the risk of death the most, by 49 percent. A strong social network comes second, reducing the likelihood of early death by about 45 percent.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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