October 29, 2020

Making Good Friends

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Anne Artley, Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: June 2019.

Why are friends so important?

Our society tends to place an emphasis on romantic relationships. We think that just finding that right person will make us happy and fulfilled. But some research shows that friends may actually be even more important to our psychological welfare. Friends bring more happiness into our lives than virtually anything else.

Friendships have a huge impact on your mental health and happiness. Good friends relieve stress, provide comfort and joy, and prevent loneliness and isolation. Developing close friendships can also have a powerful impact on your physical health. Lack of social connection may pose as much of a risk as smoking, drinking too much, or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Friends are even tied to longevity. One Swedish study found that, along with physical activity, maintaining a rich network of friends can add significant years to your life.

But close friendships don’t just happen. Many of us struggle to meet people and develop quality connections. Whatever your age or circumstances, though, it’s never too late to make new friends, reconnect with old ones, and greatly improve your social life, emotional health, and overall well-being.

Know what to look for in a friend

A friend is someone you trust and with whom you share a deep level of understanding and communication. 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.
  • Accept you for who you are
  • Listen to you attentively without judging you, telling you how to think or feel, or trying to change the subject.
  • Feel comfortable sharing things about themselves with you

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.

Focus on the way a friendship feels, not what it looks like

The most important quality in a friendship is the way the relationship makes you feel—not how alike you seem on the surface, or what others think. Ask yourself:

  • Do I feel better after spending time with this person?
  • Am I myself around this person?
  • Do I feel secure, or do I feel like I have to watch what I say and do?
  • Is the person supportive and am I treated with respect?
  • Is this a person I can trust?

The bottom line: if the friendship feels good, it is good. But if a person tries to control you, criticizes you, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted drama or negative influences into your life, it’s time to re-evaluate the friendship. A good friend does not require you to compromise your values, always agree with them, or disregard your own needs.

Tips for being more friendly and social (even if you’re shy)

If you are introverted or shy, it can feel uncomfortable to put yourself out there socially. But you don’t have to be naturally outgoing or the life of the party to make new friends.

  • Focus on others, not yourself. The key to connecting to other people is by showing interest in them. When you’re truly interested in someone else’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and opinions, it shows—and they’ll like you for it. You’ll make far more friends by showing your interest rather than trying to get people interested in you. If you’re not genuinely curious about the other person, then stop trying to connect.
  • Pay attention. Switch off your smart phone, avoid other distractions, and make an effort to truly listen to the other person. By paying close attention to what they say, do, and how they interact, you’ll quickly get to know them. Small efforts go a long way, such as remembering someone’s preferences, the stories they’ve told you, and what’s going on in their life.
  • Self-disclosure: the key to turning acquaintances into friends
  • We all have acquaintances—people we exchange small talk with as we go about our day or trade jokes or insights with online. While these relationships can fulfill you in their own right, what if you want to turn a casual acquaintance into a true friend?
  • Friendship is characterized by intimacy. True friends know about each other’s values, struggles, goals, and interests. If you’d like to transition from acquaintances to friends, open up to the other person.
  • You don’t have to reveal your most closely-held secret. Start small by sharing something a little bit more personal than you would normally and see how the other person responds. Do they seem interested? Do they reciprocate by disclosing something about themselves?

Evaluating interest

Friendship takes two, so it’s important to evaluate whether the other person is looking for new friends.

  • Do they ask you questions about you, as if they’d like to get to know you better?
  • Do they tell you things about themselves beyond surface small talk?
  • Do they give you their full attention when you see them?
  • Does the other person seem interested in exchanging contact information or making specific plans to get together?

If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, the person may not be the best candidate for friendship now, even if they genuinely like you. There are many possible reasons why not, so don’t take it personally!

Tips for strengthening acquaintances

  • Lots of other people feel just as uncomfortable 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.
  • Bringing up old times makes for an easy conversation starter. Some associations also sponsor community service events or workshops where you can meet more people.
  • 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.
  • Put it on your calendar. Schedule time for your friends just as you would for errands. Make it automatic with a weekly or monthly standing appointment. Or simply make sure that you never leave a get-together without setting the next date.
  • Group it. If you truly don’t have time for multiple one-on-one sessions with friends, set up a group get-together. It’s a good way to introduce your friends to each other. Of course, you’ll need to consider if everyone’s compatible first.
  • 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. Be prepared to listen to and support friends just as you want them to listen to and support you.
  • Give your friend space. Don’t be too clingy or needy. Everyone needs 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 between you.

Fear of Rejection

It helps to evaluate your attitude. Do you feel as if any rejection will haunt you forever or prove that you’re unlikeable or destined to be friendless? These fears get in the way of making satisfying connections and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody likes to be rejected, but there are healthy ways to handle it:

  • Just because someone isn’t interested in talking or hanging out doesn’t automatically mean they’re rejecting you as a person. They may be busy, distracted, or have other things going on.
  • If someone does reject you, that doesn’t mean that you’re worthless or unlovable. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they misread you or misinterpreted what you said. Or maybe they’re just not a nice person!
  • You’re not going to like everyone you meet, and vice versa. Like dating, building a solid network of friends can be a numbers game. If you’re in the habit of regularly exchanging a few words with strangers you meet, rejections are less likely to hurt. There’s always the next person. Focus on the long-term goal of making quality connections, rather than getting hung up on the ones that didn’t pan out.
  • Keep rejection in perspective. It never feels good, but it’s rarely as bad as you imagine. It’s unlikely that others are sitting around talking about it. Instead of beating yourself up, give yourself credit for trying and see what you can learn from the experience.

Thought Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. What qualities have meant most to you in good friends?
  2. What traits or qualities would you like to find in friends going forward?
  3. How did you go about developing a long-term friendship?
  4. How did you go about making a recent new friend?
  5. What helpful information did you find in the tips above?
  6. How can you deal with the fear of rejection?
  7. How can you deal with real rejection?

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