Many things about “adulting” are difficult. Bills. Taxes. Figuring out what kind of job makes you happy. Finding a place to live.
But there’s also an unspoken challenge, one that usually emerges after college and only becomes harder as we age: making friends.
The first 20 years of our lives are designed to build friendships. We spend most of our time in school, around people our age who have similar interests and backgrounds. But as we enter adulthood, those friendships tend to fade. We move to different cities, get married, have children. We dedicate more time to work and responsibilities, and less to building social connections. By the time the average American turns 40, they spend more time with friends they met through their children than those they met at school.
It’s not just the quality of friendships that change, but also their quantity. As Quartz’s Dan Kopf and Corinne Purtill have written, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey shows that, as they grow older, Americans spend less time with friends and more time alone. In their early 20s, the average American spends more than two hours of their day with friends; by the time they turn 40, it’s less than one. And the daily time Americans spend alone more than doubles between the ages of 20 and 80.
Not everyone wants or needs to have as many friends around as an adult as they did in their 20s. But research shows there are biological benefits to hanging out with your peers, even if you don’t feel lonely.
Here’s the good news: While making adult friendships is harder, it’s not impossible, and there are ways to make it easier.
The decline of friendship
In 350 B.C., Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics that “without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” Philosophers have known about the value of friendships and social connection for a long time, and modern science has just recently started to quantify it.
Researchers are still studying the mechanisms through which social connection bolsters our health. Some say it’s because friends help buffer the long-term toxic effects of stress and adversity. Others say it’s because friends can influence us to adopt better lifestyle habits, and give meaning and purpose to our lives.
Whatever the reason, a 2010 meta-analysis (pdf, p. 14) reviewed 148 studies with more than 300,000 participants and found that strong social relationships had about the same effect on all-cause mortality risk as quitting smoking. People with more close friends report being more satisfied with their lives, and are less at risk of dementia and heart disease. The reverse is also true: Social isolation, and its perceived neighbor, loneliness, is bad for our physical and mental health.
There are some important caveats to make here. First, there’s evidence that the quality of our relationships matter more than the quantity. So, if our circle gets smaller and tighter as we age, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
And second, being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. In their 2016 book Comparative Psychology for Clinical Psychologists and Therapists, Daniel Marston and Terry Maple explain that, while humans are “social animals,” we don’t need deep friendships.
“Having friends is nice and can be beneficial,” writes Marston in Psychology Today, “but it is not necessary for survival in social environments. Social isolation is detrimental—but there is a huge gap between an individual being ‘socially isolated’ and having ‘friendships.’”
Era of isolation
Unfortunately, though, we are in an era of social isolation. By and large, people are less connected to others (pdf) today than they used to be. Social networks have shrunk, and so has participation in community activities, like church groups or bridge clubs. We eat fewer meals together and tend to accept fewer invitations to join social groups (pdf, p.2). Loneliness is on the rise.
While it’s impossible to disentangle the two, excessive social media use does seem to worsen negative feelings, like anxiety and loneliness. “People often project that they are the only ones feeling lonely, everybody has [such] … wonderful lives, and social media is actually contributing to that,” says Madoka Kumashiro, a social psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Whereas in reality, a lot more people are feeling lonely and insecure.”
Social media can also serve as a crutch that prevents people from making real-life friends. If you’re up on a Saturday night talking to people in a Facebook group, then isn’t it almost the same as being out with people? Studies show it’s not.
In 2013, researchers analyzed the results of a survey of 5,025 Canadian residents aged 16 and up that asked questions about subjective well-being and social networks. They found that the number of “real-life” friends respondents reported having was correlated with higher subjective well-being, especially for people with no stable romantic partner, while the number of online friends they said they had was not.
“Social media and society has become much more individualistic, and a lot of people are also afraid of receiving social support,” explains Kumashiro.
Making friends as an adult: It’s a lot like dating
A major reason why people seem to lose friends after young adulthood is that those around them couple up. In 2010, Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, showed that both men and women lose an average of two friends when they enter into a romantic relationship.
But while dating may lead to the downfall of some friendships, the best process for forming new ones bears a striking resemblance to it. “They are virtually identical, or at least the processes are essentially the same,” says Dunbar. Looking for close friends or for a romantic partner is like “wandering the world, looking for Mr. or Ms. Right,” he says. “It’s the time it takes to find them that’s the problem.”
Researchers from California State University showed that five factors come into play with friendship chemistry: reciprocal candor, mutual interest, personableness, similarity, and physical attraction. (Sounds a lot like regular chemistry, right?) And just as with romantic partners, we like to have friends who look like us and are physically attractive (pdf, p. 476). It’s what’s known as the homophily effect (pdf). The attraction to similarity isn’t limited to appearance: Apparently, we gravitate towards friends who are as genetically related to us as our fourth cousins.
Just as with dating, it’s important to invest the time and energy it takes to find the right friend. In 2018, Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, found that it takes between 40 and 60 hours to form a casual friendship with someone in the first six weeks of knowing them; between 80 and 100 hours to transform a casual friend into a friend; and more than 200 hours to transition from friends to good or best friends.
Strength in numbers
Turning someone into a friend clearly requires a personal investment that can come at the expense of other things, like hobbies, work, or even other relationships. Within the first six weeks of meeting someone as an adult, you’re lucky if you see that person more than once or twice, never mind the 80 to 100 hours that science says it takes to turn them into a friend.
In part, that’s why the most effective way of making new friends, says Kumashiro, is to gravitate towards people who share the same interests as you.
“Join a club of some kind,” echoes Dunbar. He pegs choir as ideal—“singing produces this instant sense of belonging; it’s absolute magic”—but says any club will do. “Hiking, jogging, kayaking, church groups, bridge clubs, you name it—as long as there’s opportunity for people to circulate, and therefore talk to and get to know the other members of the group, that works.” Dunbar calls this the “ice-breaker effect.”
This is a space in which technology and social media can actually help. There is a thriving global market for friend-making apps, like Squad, Hey! VINA, or GayBFF, and websites like Meetup also offer opportunities to meet people who are interested in the same things as you.
About a year and a half ago, I moved from Washington, DC to London, a city where I knew precious few people. In the first few months of living here, there were countless things I missed about my DC life. But strangely enough, one that stood out to me was that I no longer had a group of friends to watch The Bachelor with every Monday night. The loss of this weekly tradition of gathering with friends around a shared passion for trashy reality TV suddenly seemed intolerable.
So, about a month ago, I posted a message in a Facebook group for girls who had recently moved to London, asking whether anyone else was a fan of staged romance and terribly ugly dresses. Within hours, I had dozens of replies. I decided to take the plunge and invite some of these strangers (though not all 60 of them) to my home so we could watch it together.
I only wish I had done it sooner. It taught me not just that there were plenty of people who also felt lonely at times and were looking for connection, but also that, just like with dating, if you try to simply recreate your past friendships as an adult, you’re bound to be disappointed. My weekly Bachelor tradition looks and feels different now—and not just because I have to wait until Tuesday to watch every episode. But it has made me feel connected with others and happy all the same.