Personal Connections: Three steps to building friendships

Social connections are essential to human wellbeing. We’re a social species, evolved to be in regular contact with other people. But busy schedules and distractions can leave you feeling isolated and lonely.

If you’d like more friends in your life, you can make it happen, and you will be richer for it.

Step one: meet people

To make new friends, get out of the house. Chatting on social media may help you make some connections and certainly helps you keep in touch with people you know. But it’s no substitute for being with people in real life.

Start with people you already cross paths with regularly: neighbors, co-workers, people at the gym, other parents at your kids’ games, members of any groups, clubs, or faith organization you belong to. Smile, say hi, and ask or comment about something simple: the weather, a neighbor’s garden, the shared activity.

If the person seems receptive, ask a question or two: “Which exercise equipment do you like best?” “What position does your child play? Does he/she play other sports, too?” “How long have you lived in the area/been a member here/worked for the company? Where did you live/work before?”

You have now begun or deepened an acquaintance. If the person seems nice and you continue to chat other times, eventually they may become a friend.

If you’d like to expand beyond the people you already run into, go to new places and meet new faces. The absolute best way to do this is thinking about what you like to do, or would like to do, and finding ways to do it with other people.

Whether you’re interested in stamp collecting, mountain biking, sculpting, dog training, cooking, history, or anything else, there are people around who share your interest. Join an established group or take a class.

To find opportunities, check out adult ed listings, The Day’s calendar sections, or groups on MeetUp. At a minimum you’ll be doing something fun, and there’s a chance you’ll make friends.

Step two: go beyond chatting

Some people you meet will have better friend potential than others. Maybe you have a lot in common, or you love their sense of humor, or their style fits well with yours. These folks are worth getting to know.

Pay attention to who in any group or in your daily life seems interesting and nice. Who might you want to spend a little more time getting to know?

If you’ve been chatting for a while, you like them, and they seem to like you, take the plunge and ask them to do something with you. “Hey, want to get a cup of coffee after class sometime?” “Maybe you and your son could come over for a playdate.” “I’ve been wanting to hike at Devil’s Hopyard; do you have any interest in doing that with me?”

Sure, it’s a risk to ask. The person might say no, and that would be disappointing. But they might say yes, in which case you’re farther down the path to friendship. Or they might say no, but propose another activity, which shows they’re interested in getting to know you, too.

Step three: take it deeper

To develop real friends, you can’t just see each other once in a while. You need not just contact, but regular, ongoing contact.

Research at the University of Kansas (see phys.org/news/2018-03-reveals-hours-friend.html) has found that it takes about 50 hours of time together to go from being an acquaintance to being a casual friend and 90 hours to become a friend. Becoming a close friend takes 200 hours or more.

How you spend those hours matters. It’s great to have interests and talk about that. But if you’re looking for an intimate friendship, get more personal.

Over time, bring up the things in your life that aren’t the happy, glossy stuff you might post on social media. Mention something you’re sad, disappointed or worried about. Talk about your hopes for the future (and ask about your friend’s). Acknowledge something difficult you’ve been through.

If the person responds with kindness and compassion, you’ve got a keeper. If not, they may still be a friend, but not a close friend, which is OK, too.

And, of course, the flip side is also true. Listen when your friend talks about the hard stuff. Be attentive and supportive. To make a friend, you have to be a friend.

Happier and healthier

It’s worth the effort to develop friendships, especially the kind that allow you to reveal your true self, even the difficult parts. People who have at least a couple intimate friendships do better on all sorts of measures of emotional and physical health.

Even friends who aren’t as close are worthwhile to have. Some people you go deep with, some you only share an activity, and it’s all good.

As we used to sing in Girl Scouts, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

Jill Whitney is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Old Lyme who blogs at KeepTheTalkGoing.com. If you have a question you’d like addressed, email times@theday.com and we’ll consider it for a future column.

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