What is a friend?
You know a friend when you have one, but sometimes he or she is hard to define. Simply, a friend is someone you care about who also cares about you. Technology may have shifted the definition of friend in recent years, but having hundreds of online friends is not the same as having a friend you can connect and be with in person. Technology can facilitate social opportunities by helping you reconnect with old friends, start new relationships with people around the world who share similar interests, and maintain relationships with friends who don't live nearby, but online friends can't hug you when a crisis hits, visit you when you're sick, or celebrate a happy occasion with you after work.
Friends vs. acquaintances or online friends
Sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between real friends and mere acquaintances::
- An acquaintance is someone you exchange small talk with as you go about your day, trade jokes or insights with online, or chat about sports with in a bar. While most of these relationships will never progress beyond an acquaintance level, with effort, real friendships can blossom from online contacts, people you meet on social media sites, or from neighborhood or work acquaintances.
- A friend is someone who shares a deeper level of interaction or communication with you; he or she is someone you can really connect with, face-to-face. A friend is someone you feel comfortable sharing your feelings with, someone who'll listen to you without judging you or telling you how you should think or feel. As friendship works both ways, a friend is also someone you feel comfortable supporting and accepting, and someone with whom you share a bond of trust and loyalty.
What to look for in a friend
A good friend will show a genuine interest in what's going on in your life, what you have to say, and how you think and feel about things. He or she will accept you for who you are and listen to you attentively without judging you or trying to change the subject. A good friend will act in a trustworthy and loyal way, and he or she will feel comfortable sharing things about themselves with you.
If a person is controlling towards you, overly critical, selfish, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted danger, drama, or negative influences into your life, it may be the sign of an unhealthy friendship. A good friendship is not dependent on the use of drugs or alcohol, and does not require you to always agree with the other person.
Why friends are important
When we're young children, many of us seem to have little trouble making new friends. Kids tend to bond quickly but as we age friendships grow and develop differently. As adults, we tend to become more guarded with new people and have less time to devote to friendships. Consequently, most of us find it much harder to make new friends. If you've never experienced a close friendship, even as a child, you may find it even harder as an adult. But we all need and want good friends, even those of us who may sometimes pretend otherwise.
The need for friends is instinctual. Our survival once depended on having friends to hunt and find food with, to help us build shelter and keep our families safe, and for companionship. Today, good friends are just as important. They add a special meaning to life. They help you enjoy the good times and overcome the difficult ones. While strong relationships with friends can be a huge source of fun and pleasure, they are also important for your physical and emotional health.
Good friends can:
- Improve your mood. Happiness can be infectious. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
- Help you to reach your goals. Whether you're trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
- Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor for depression.
- Support you through tough times. Even if it's just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenge in life.
- Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Having people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and be a buffer against depression, disability, hardship, and loss. Staying socially engaged as you age keeps you feeling positive and boosts your happiness.
Of course, friendship is a two-way street. Being a good friend to someone brings them all of the above benefits, and boosts your own happiness and sense of self-worth in the process. It also makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life. While developing and maintaining a friendship takes time and effort, the many benefits of having a close friend make it a valuable investment.
Why you might need to make new friends
Commitments such as work, romantic relationships, and family may cause you to neglect existing friends or not prioritize social engagements. Or friendships may simply fade over time as interests and circumstances in your life change.
Other reasons why you may need to make new friends:
- You've recently moved to a new area.
- You've retired, or changed or lost your job.
- You've recently divorced or finished a long-term relationship.
- You are an older adult and friends have died or moved away, or you've lost mobility and maintaining a social network has become more challenging.
- You're shy or suffer from social anxiety and feel that it's impossible for you to meet new people and develop friendships.
- You've rarely or never experienced close friendships before in your life and are unsure what to look for.
Attachment, bonding, and relationships
How you bonded with a parent or caretaker as an infant will determine how you relate to others as an adult. Those who experienced confusing emotional communications during infancy often grow into adults who have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the feelings of others. This limits your ability to build or maintain successful friendships. Read Attachment and Adult Relationships.
No matter your age or situation, you don't have to be an extravert or the life of the party to make new friends. It's important to realize there are plenty of other people out there who feel just as awkward about meeting new people as you do. And remember: close friendships aren't formed overnight; they take time to build for anyone. By simply being willing to put yourself in a new environment, however, you can meet interesting new people and take the first step to building a friendship.
How to find a friend & build friendships tip 1: Where to meet people
Close relationships don't happen overnight, but there are steps you can take to help you connect with others and find friends. When looking for places to meet new people, try to be open to new ideas and cultivate an interest in other people, their lives, and their stories. Not everything you try will be successful but you will often have fun and learn from the experience.
- Volunteering can be a great way to help others while also meeting new people. Volunteering also gives you the opportunity to regularly practice and develop your social skills.
- Take a class or join a club to meet people with common interests, such as a book group, dinner club, or sports team. Websites such as Meetup.com can help you find local groups or start your own to connect with others who share similar interests.
- Walk a dog. It's good exercise for you, great fun for the animal, and an excellent way to meet people. Dog owners often stop and chat while their dogs sniff or play with each other. If dog ownership isn't right for you, volunteer to walk dogs from a shelter or a local rescue group.
- Invite a neighbor or work colleague for a drink or to a movie. Lots of other people feel just as awkward about reaching out and making new friends as you do. Be the one to break the ice. Your neighbor or colleague will thank you later.
- Track down old friends via social media sites. Make the effort to reconnect and then turn your "online" friends into "real-world" friends by meeting up for coffee instead of chatting on Facebook or Twitter.
- Connect with your alumni association. Many colleges have alumni associations that meet regularly. You already have the college experience in common; talking about old times can be an easy conversation starter. Some associations also sponsor community service events or workshops where you can meet more people.
- Carpool to work. Many companies offer carpool programs. If your employer doesn't, simply ask your colleagues if they would like to share rides. It's a good conversation starter and will help you connect to people who live near you, as well as save on transport costs.
- Attend art gallery openings, book readings, lectures, music recitals, or other community events where you can meet people with similar interests. Check with your library or local paper for events near you.
How to find a friend & build friendships tip 2: Learn to start a conversation
Some people seem to instinctively know how to start a conversation with anyone, in any place, be it a party, bar, health club, the checkout line, a crowded elevator, or on public transport. If you're not one of these lucky types, don't despair.
Here are some easy ways to start a conversation with a stranger:
- Remark on the surroundings or occasion. If you're at a party, for example, you could comment on the venue, the catering, or the music in a positive way. "I love this song," "The food's great. Have you tried the chicken?" or "That's a great view."
- Ask an open-ended question, one that requires more than just a yes or no answer. Adhere to the journalist's credo and ask a question that begins with one of the 5 W's (or 1 H): who, where, when, what, why, or how. For example, "Who do you know here?" "Where do you normally go on a Friday?" "When did you move here?" "What keeps you busy?" "Why did you decide to become a vegetarian?" "How is the wine?" Most people enjoy talking about themselves so asking a question is a good way to get a conversation started.
- Use a compliment. For example, "I really like your purse, can I ask where you got it?" or "You look like you've done this before, can you tell where I have to sign in?"
- Note anything you have in common and ask a follow up question. "I play golf as well, what's your favorite local course?" "My daughter went to that school, too, how does your son like it?"
- Keep the conversation going with small talk. Don't say something that's obviously provocative and avoid heavy subjects such as politics or religion. Stick to light subjects like the weather, surroundings, and anything you have in common such as school, movies, or sports teams.
- Listen effectively. Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can't concentrate on what someone's saying if you're forming what you're going to say next. One of the keys to effective communication in any situation is to focus fully on the speaker and show interest in what's being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person, and make sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal cues like "yes" or "uh huh."
If things don't work out
Helpguide's Bring Your Life into Balance program can help.
Don't beat yourself up if the conversation stalls or ends sooner than you'd like. Not everyone you approach will be receptive to starting a conversation, let alone becoming friends. Just like dating, meeting new people inevitably comes with some element of rejection.
- Don't take it personally. The other person may be having a bad day or just not be in the mood to talk.
- Don't dwell on the experience. Even if you said something you regret, for example, it's unlikely that the other person will remember it after a short time. Stay positive; refrain from labeling yourself a failure, or from telling yourself that you'll never be able to make friends. Learn from the experience and try again.
Practice starting a conversation with customer service people
Most people in the service industry are very social and will welcome small talk. Practice your conversation starters on a friendly cashier, receptionist, waiter, hostess, or salesperson.
How to find a friend & build friendships tip 3: Be a good friend
Remember that finding a friend is just the beginning of the journey into friendship. Friendships take time to form and even more time to deepen. In order to move from acquaintance to friend, you need to nurture that new connection. It's a process that requires time, effort, and a genuine interest in the other person.
- Be the friend that you would like to have. Treat your friend just as you want them to treat you. Be reliable, thoughtful, trustworthy, and willing to share yourself and your time.
- Be a good listener. To develop a solid friendship with someone, be prepared to listen and support them just as you want them to listen and support you.
- Invest in the friendship. No friendship will flourish without regular attention. Find things you enjoy doing with your friend and commit the time to do them, even when you're busy or stressed.
- Give your friend space. Don't be too clingy or needy, and be sure not to abuse your friend's generosity. Everyone needs his or her space to be alone or spend time with other people as well.
- Don't set too many rules and expectations. Instead, allow your friendship to evolve naturally. You're both unique individuals so your friendship probably won't develop exactly as you expect.
- Be forgiving. No one is perfect and every friend will make mistakes. No friendship develops smoothly so when there's a bump in the road, try to find a way to overcome the problem and move on. It will often deepen the bond of friendship between you.
Resources for finding a friend
Help for finding a friend
Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health– Learn about the connection between your health and friendship, and how to promote and maintain healthy friendships. (Mayo Clinic)
Meetup – Find groups in your local area or start your own group and meet people who share common interests. (Meetup.com)
Friends – Collection of articles about finding friends and building friendships. (Psychology Today)