Friendship is an essential part of the human experience. In fact, friendship can be powerful medicine. There are numerous studies that show strong social support can increase self-esteem, ease anxiety, and improve overall health. Some studies even refer to it as a proverbial “vaccine” for improved health.
Finding quality friends is an obstacle at any age, but older adults may have a more difficult time. “In later life, we tend to be less active in environments that give an opportunity to make friends,” says GinaMarie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor with PsychPoint. While younger people often find socialization within school and hobbies, older adults may spend their time prioritizing their family or career.
“Some people never progress beyond the friends they made in school or college, or stick with family members. However, as we get older, former school friends can drift away, people pass on, and friendship circles diminish,” says psychotherapist and self-help author Tina B. Tessina, PhD.
Making friends later in life can be challenging, but not impossible. If you’re struggling to strengthen your social circles, try these 10 tips to make friends at any age.
Is there an interest you’ve always had or a skill you’ve wanted to learn? Do you have an activity that once brought you joy that has fallen to the wayside? Hobbies often fall off our to-do lists when life gets busy, but they can be a helpful tool in meeting others with like-minded interests.
“It’s important to reconnect with things you enjoy and doing so is the easiest way to build new friendships organically,” says Paige Harnish, licensed independent social worker and owner of Lifetime Therapy Services.
Brush up on your art skills with a community painting class, boost your endorphins with a group exercise class, join a book club — the opportunities are endless. Carve out time for hobbies that can enrich your overall happiness and provide an easy path to friendships.
Much like dating, finding friendships requires you to take chances and put yourself out there. Taking the initiative to spark conversation with someone or invite them on an outing can feel awkward at first. Don’t let the fear of rejection hold you back from making the first move and showing interest in getting to know someone.
If your invitation is rebuffed or you find you don’t have a strong connection, don’t take it personally. “Congratulate yourself on having the courage to have taken that risk. Take a breath and when it feels appropriate, try again with someone else,” says psychotherapist Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA.
Jessica Tappana, psychologist and founder of Aspire Counseling, finds that repeated exposure and shared interests are the two main elements that foster friendships. “Look for opportunities to regularly see the same group of people. Bonus points if it’s a group of people who naturally have the same interests or values,” says Tappana.
These community groups and volunteer programs can create a consistent routine that provides a natural rapport over time. As you get to know these peers, you’ll likely have an easier time building deeper friendships.
Reach out to your local community center in your city to find opportunities and groups. Many cities have senior activity centers that are free to the public. You can also search for a local YMCA or the like, which often provides programming for adults of any age.
Finding volunteer opportunities may require some additional research on your part. If you’re passionate about a particular cause, reach out to an organization in your area to ask about volunteer opportunities. If you attend religious services, your place of worship may also host volunteer events to partake in.
No one likes to be judged at face value. When meeting new people, psychiatrist Dr. Rashimi Parmar recommends having an open mind when approaching someone new for a potential friendship. “Try to be a little more forgiving and flexible during your interactions and give the person more time to grow on you,” she shares, “Focus more on the positive aspects of the person while ignoring minor flaws or differences.”
While there’s a harmony that comes with finding someone similar to you, don’t ignore people with different interests. “Sometimes we gravitate toward people who we feel most similar to, but a lot of richness can come from difference,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, founder of Take Root Therapy.
Working on your self-esteem may be easier said than done, but building up your confidence can be a great help in finding friendships. Parmar encourages patients to engage in self-compassion and positive self-talk on a regular basis.
As you build up confidence in yourself, use this as an opportunity to build self-awareness. Ask yourself what types of relationships you want to have in your life and discover what qualities you bring to a friendship. Having a better understanding of yourself can help you attract people who fit the relationship you’re looking for and weed out fickle friendships.
Friendship is a two-way street. Healthy friendships typically require both parties to feel invested in the relationship. Reciprocity can be a reliable gauge of what value someone puts on a friendship.
Lurie recommends asking yourself, “When you invite someone to talk or to do something, do they accept the invitation? When you ask them a question, do they respond and continue the conversation with their own inquiry?” If the relationship is one-sided, this may not be the right person to focus on.
In a “give and take” relationship, you also don’t want to be all “take.” Be authentic and vulnerable, but don’t use your friendship as an opportunity to take advantage of someone. If you’re the friend who always talks about themselves, be cognizant of also asking and actively listening to the person you’re starting a friendship with.
Building a friendship requires effort, but once you have that friendship it takes time and resources to sustain it. “Free up your resources of time, energy, and finances so that you can invest some of it toward quality friendships,” recommends Parmar.
It’s difficult to build a relationship if you find yourself lacking the time to engage and spend time together. “If you have a busy schedule and feel burned out by the end of the day, you may have to prioritize your daily schedule and set aside some time over weekends toward this goal,” says Parmar.
While life circumstances come up, carving out the time for friendship will benefit your health and happiness in the long run.
The search for a friend can feel intimidating and you may find yourself feeling like you’re starting from scratch. While you’re making new friends, don’t forget the people you already know,” suggests Tessina.
“Are there acquaintances at work, at church, in your neighborhood, involved in your child’s (or your own) school, or elsewhere with whom you could develop a friendship? Consider reaching out to them,” she encourages. Make an effort to strengthen an existing relationship and see where it takes you.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, society has retreated to remote work — and friendships.
Nadia Charif, a wellness coach and advisor at Coffeeble, has found that her clients can find happiness through online relationships. “A surprising amount of friend-induced happiness can come from digital connections,” she says.
Charif recommends searching for Facebook groups with people of common interests. “Indeed, my own grandmother is a Facebook maven and is still quite vibrant — socially and emotionally — at the age of 83,” she quips.
Online communities can also make their way into in-person friendships. Try finding local groups on Facebook or find local virtual and in-person events using apps like MeetUp.
If you find that you’re feeling stuck or struggling with emotions during your quest for friendship, consider reaching out to a mental health counselor for support. Parmar finds that sometimes there may be “deep-seated issues like depression, anxiety or trauma-related conditions that need to be addressed first.”
Conditions like depression can fuel social isolation, while anxiety can sometimes cause fears about engaging in social activities. Likewise, you may find it helpful to work on strategies if you feel a bit discouraged or alone.
Finding friends can be challenging at any age but don’t let that deter you from expanding your social circle. Interpersonal relationships contribute to health, happiness, and your overall well-being.
It’s normal to feel nervous or awkward when trying to strike up a friendship. In the long run, stepping out of your comfort zone and keeping an open mind can help you create lasting relationships.
Jillian Goltzman is a freelance journalist covering culture, social impact, wellness, and lifestyle. She’s been published in various outlets, including Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Fodor’s Travel Guide. Outside of writing, Jillian is a public speaker who loves discussing the power of social media — something she spends too much time on. She enjoys reading, her houseplants, and cuddling with her corgi. Find her work on her website, blog, Twitter, and Instagram.