Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
7 Ways to Make Friends at Any Age
Making new friends isn’t always easy, but the benefits can be well worth the effort
SHARILENE ROWLAND wasn’t used to flying solo. She’d married young and had her first child when she was 25. But after she divorced and her two sons left home, the 53-year-old caterer discovered that the only social events she attended were the ones where she was hired to cook the food. She had maintained a few close friendships over the years, but the majority of her pals lived in other cities. Her typical evening went something like this: head home after work, make dinner, and … sit around. “I was in my 50s, single and very lonely,” she says.
Unfortunately, Rowland has plenty of company when it comes to the solitary life. Midlife is when strong ties become both most important to our health and most difficult to maintain. Data from Western countries around the world shows that older people, particularly in the over-70 age bracket, are, for a number of reasons, more likely to live alone, and that more older women live alone than men.
Older adults are at a greater risk of becoming socially isolated, and that is not good for our collective wellbeing. Studies have shown that friendships can protect older adults from depression, anxiety, cognitive decline and heart disease. People with sturdy interpersonal connections have
an increased likelihood of longevity and stronger immune systems.
Yet, while many adults crave new friendships, building those links can feel daunting. “We’re much more self-conscious than children. We’re afraid we’ll be rejected,” says Irene S. Levine, a clinical psychologist who has written extensively about ageing and friendship.
The process can be especially difficult for men, who are often taught that emotional vulnerability – key in forming close relationships – is a form of weakness. “We’re told to act in a stereotypically masculine way: not to share our feelings,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “We’re raised to compete with other guys, and that makes it hard to learn to trust them.”
Robert Johnson, 52, has noticed the pressure on men to act ‘masculine’. When the accountant moved to a new city for work, he was single and knew few locals. He was apprehensive about going out to meet new people. “We’re not supposed to admit we can be as anxious and nervous as the next person,” he says.
Instead of sitting at home, Johnson co-founded a social group that hosts various kinds of outings, such as trivia nights and yoga classes. He has met hundreds of new people, especially women, who regularly outnumber men at the events he organises.
Over time, Sharilene Rowland has also managed to build a social life. In a typical week, she spends four evenings attending street festivals, wine tastings and more. She has made a number of close friends, and they’ve become travel buddies and confidantes and provide emotional support. Last year, when Rowland was considering surgery to alleviate back pain, these friends were her sounding boards. Then they kept her company during her recovery. “My friends have made my life more full,” she says. How did her success story and that of Robert Johnson come about? What do experts advise when you feel unsure about reaching out? We’ve collected seven simple tips.
■ RESIST INSECURITY Many of us fall victim to catastrophic thinking before we ever leave the house, says Janna Koretz, a psychologist who specialises in relationships. “You might say, ‘I could say something stupid, and I’ll never make any friends,’” she explains.
To overcome self- doubt, Koretz suggests assessing whether your fears are realistic and thinking through how you might recover if you do get
“We’re much more selfconscious than children. We’re afraid we’ll be rejected”
tongue-tied. Being prepared will give you a measure of security.
■ JUST DO IT The more you socialise, the easier it becomes. That was true for Rowland. After months of feeling inadequate, she signed up for an art class.
As she connected with people, her depression lifted. “You realise you’re not the only person without a big circle of friends,” she says. “And suddenly you’re not blaming yourself.”
■ USE THE INTERNET When Johnson decided he needed to make new friends, he went online to look for social-networking sites, where people connect to participate in local activities. He loved the experience.
Look for sites geared towards adults seeking platonic relationships. “Having friendships gives you reassurance that you matter,” Johnson says.
■ LOOK FOR SHARED INTERESTS This gives you a simple point of connection, Levine says. Join a book club, an exercise class or a cooking class. You can find local options online and through libraries and community centres. Pick an activity that involves spending time, week after week, with the same people. The continuity increases your chances of forming bonds, says Levine.
■ BE A PAL Of course, meeting people doesn’t automatically lead to lasting friendship. One-on-one time is necessary for a relationship to grow, but asking for it can feel awkward.
The solution is easier than it seems: listen carefully. If your new acquaintance mentions a love of biking, suggest going for a ride. If you learn of an upcoming birthday, send a greeting or a card. When Rowland wanted to get to know someone she’d met better, she’d offer the person a lift home.
■ PLAY HOST Holding your own gettogethers can be the best way to meet new people. You might feel more comfortable on your own turf.
■ BE PATIENT When Rowland took her art course, she had trouble connecting with her classmates, many of whom were retired and older. But she persisted and eventually got to know women with whom she bonded.
“It’s like shopping,” Koretz says. “Sometimes you look at 100 shirts, and the 98th one is perfect.”