Fear of rejection and lack of time can make creating new friendships hard. But trying new activities, such as volunteering or joining a book club, can help you meet new people.
As we grow older, making new friends and keeping old ones can become harder and harder. Feelings of loneliness can drive us to stay isolated and leave us too exhausted to even consider finding new friends or reaching out to the ones we have.
You may find that you don’t have many people to talk or spend time with. Or, you may find yourself spending time with people regularly but not feeling comfortable sharing your inner thoughts and feelings with them.
If you’re asking yourself, “Why can’t I make friends,” you’re not alone.
According to a 2021 Cigna survey, more than half of adults (58%) in the United States report feelings of loneliness. In fact, it’s so prevalent that researchers have unofficially called it the “loneliness epidemic.”
It impacts young people, older adults, families, and even workplaces.
Dr. Marisa G. Franco, professor, speaker, and author of “Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends,” says many factors can make you feel lonely.
But there are also many ways to help you make friends and feel more connected.
Here are some common roadblocks that keep people from making friends.
Fear of rejection
When it comes to making new friends, Franco says that “One of the biggest obstacles tends to be that people really fear rejection.”
Being turned down when you’ve reached out can make you feel hurt and embarrassed. It’s understandable that if you fear this, you’d hesitate to reach out in the first place.
Keep in mind that staying quiet can make it that much harder for others to figure out that you want to be friends.
Assuming everyone already has friends
“I think people have this sense that everybody else already has their friends,” Franco says. But this is a misconception, she adds, because many people are “actually really lonely.”
People who need and want friends may miss the chance to befriend each other because both people may assume the other won’t be interested in another social connection.
This can be particularly hard for older adults who have watched many long-time friends pass away. It can feel disheartening to think that the social network you once had is now shrinking.
You may worry that it’s too late to start new bonds.
Lack of time
Research from 2018 found that it takes 30 hours of time just to make a “casual” friend. This means 30 hours (not necessarily all at once) of spending time with another person where you’re able to engage with them socially.
A good friend takes much longer: About 140 hours of togetherness. Best friends take 300 hours to form.
Adults with busy schedules may not have much time for social events, which can make the process of building friendships seem painfully slow.
Not enough opportunities
Children don’t go to their first day of school determined to spend 300 hours with another child. Their friendships happen unplanned because they’re thrown together with classmates 5 days a week whether they want to be or not.
Many adults don’t have the same type of opportunities bringing us together with a large group of peers over and over. In fact, the business of our lives makes friendships harder.
Adults are often expected to spend time at home, away from peers, doing housework, and caring for family members. Many adults spend most of their waking life at work, where they may not have like-minded peers or may not have many opportunities to interact with them.
Lack of friendship can drive feelings of loneliness, and feeling lonely over a long period can have negative effects on mental health.
“Loneliness is the biggest predictor of depression,” Franco says. On the flip side of that, having friends is “one of the biggest predictors of happiness.”
Loneliness and connectedness can have a profound impact on our moods and on how we view life. They can even affect our physical health.
A 2019 cohort study looked at loneliness among Black and white men and women and discovered that loneliness was associated with higher death rates in all demographics.
So, what can you do if you feel like you can’t or don’t know how to make friends? Consider these strategies to boost your social calendar.
Join a group or activity that frequently meets
Since it takes time and repeated exposure to forge friendships, try to find something that will help you to be around the same people again and again. This might be a club, activity, religious service, volunteer group, etc.
Some examples of these types of activities include:
- book clubs
- sporting groups
- taking a class, such as an exercise or art class
- game nights
- volunteer projects
- visiting a new museum
- study groups
- parent or baby groups
Reconnect with old friends
It can feel a little daunting to make new friends. Consider warming up by first reconnecting with people you used to be close to.
If you had trust and rapport with that person in the past, it may be easier to build it up a second time. This can give you confidence, which in turn will help when starting new friendships.
Reach out in a way that makes you more comfortable
If fear of rejection is holding you back, consider picking a form of communication that will make you less nervous.
For example, you might invite a new acquaintance to an activity by texting them or messaging them through social media rather than posing the invite to their face. Whether they say yes or no, you won’t have to react to their answer right in front of them.
“Our experiences of rejection can feel more visceral depending on the medium in which we could be rejected,” Franco explains.
If your new acquaintance says no to a hangout through text, it might feel less painful — but keep in mind that they might also say yes!
Assume people like you
We may face much less rejection than we think, Franco says. She points to research from 2018 that suggests people can underestimate how much new acquaintances like them.
This phenomenon has been termed “the liking gap,” and it means that you may not realize how much your new conversation partner actually enjoys being around you.
What if you started assuming that everyone you meet likes you?
Franco points out that it’s natural for people who expect to be liked to actually become warmer, friendlier, and more open when speaking to others. That makes it even more likely that new people will warm up to you in return.
Don’t worry if you don’t “hit it off” with someone
First impressions are crucial, but not every great friendship starts right when two people meet.
It feels fun and exciting when you have friendship chemistry with someone immediately. But rewarding friendships can also develop between two people who didn’t feel a connection at first.
Actively engage with the people you’re around
Some people find that even when they’re with other people physically, they have a tendency to mentally check out. They may check their phone instead of chatting or physically position themselves a little apart from the group.
Franco suggests showing up mentally to help turn loneliness around. Try to put your phone away and strike up a conversation.
Maybe ask someone about their favorite hobby, or get their opinion on the event you’re attending. You don’t have to worry about being entertaining or charismatic. Showing warm interest in others will go a long way.
“It’s about making other people feel like they belong,” Franco says. If you want to feel included, becoming an includer yourself can help.
Try not to compare friends too much
You might be tempted to compare new friends to old ones. You might ask yourself if your new friends measure up to the depth of relationships you had with friends in the past. This can be especially true for older adults who have lost friendships that were decades old.
But comparing friendships may not give you an accurate picture of your new friends.
It takes time to form a bond with a friend. Just because new friends don’t have the same history with you as old friends don’t mean the friendship can’t be wonderful.
Feeling lonely and wondering why you can’t make friends can be overwhelming, but there are strategies you can try to help make friends.
Many things, such as the fear of rejection or lack of social availability, can affect your ability to make friends. But research shows that most of us are likely underestimating how much others like us and how much they need friendships, too.
It may simply be a matter of making the first move to take an acquaintance from casual friend to good friend.
Try joining a new group like a local book club or reconnecting with old friends to restart a friendship that’s been lost. If finding a new friend in person is intimidating, try reaching out first by text or direct message through social media. Reaching out in a way that’s comfortable for you might make it easier to find new friends.
Remember that friendships are hard to predict. Even if you don’t gain traction with every connection you try to foster, you might be surprised which ones do work out well.