91. How to Make Friends
The science of friendship and its connection to happiness.
Last weekend, I did something I rarely do: I went out. Like out out. I put on heels, wore makeup, and made chitchat with strangers at a fundraiser for a local museum.
I was invited as a date for a friend whose husband went on a last minute business trip, leaving her as the lone stag in a group of eight couples. My butt did a great job of filling the seat, but a table of familiar faces brought not a sense of inclusion, but the sting of loneliness.
The experience highlighted a nagging feeling I’ve had since MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS was published in September. The book was, in many ways, my best friend. A constant, intimate presence, it persisted through the ebbs and flows of my life, the work often reflecting my reality. It gave me a sense of purpose, never wavered in its dedication, and showed up when I needed it. When it hit bookshelves, it’s like it moved away. It isn’t mine any more. It belongs to other people now, influencing their lives while I scramble to fill the void.
Though the loss has gifted me oodles time, it also illuminates neglect. All of my relationships have suffered over the past five years, particularly my friendships. As a single person with no kids and a minuscule family unit—it’s just me and my mom, no siblings or notable extended family—I’ve always kept a mental running list of friends who would step up in a crisis, no questions asked.
I don’t know if there’s anyone on that list anymore.
Years ago I might have blamed this development on the failure of the parties involved, assuming we just didn’t try hard enough. Now, I understand that biology and social psychology is at play, and that itinerant life I’ve led isn’t conducive to creating and maintaining intimate friendships.
The number and quality of friendships is the single most important indicator of longevity and happiness and as we age, friendships become more important for health than family.
But in 2021, 12 percent of American adults said they had no close friends, contributing to the loneliness crisis that began well before, but was exacerbated by, the pandemic.
So how do we make friends as adults? More importantly, how do we create meaningful friendships that increase happiness? I dove into the research of evolutionary psychologist and friendship expert Robin Dunbar to find out.
You can only maintain so many relationships.
Robin Dunbar is best known for Dunbar’s Number, which he defines as the number of relationships people are able to cognitively able to manage and maintain at once. He puts this number at 150, which unsurprisingly, is just about the size of the average American wedding guest list.
These 150 people are made up both friends and family and sorted into a sort of circular hierarchy. The closer the ring of people around you, the fewer the people in the ring.
In the bullseye with you is an spouse or intimate partner, followed by three to five people who make up the first ring, usually family members and a close friend or two. The next ring expands and holds secondary characters. Grandma, perhaps. Friends you know very well but maybe not the one you call in a crisis. From there, we expand through the rings of fair weather friends, colleagues, extended family, old friends who live in different places, and so on through the target.
Friendships are created and maintained through consistency.
Meaningful friendship is woven by shared experience and regular exposure. Therefore, the best way to make new friends is to engage in a consistent, social activity like a weekly meetup group.
When we’re kids, this is automatic. We go to school or an after school activity, see the same people every day, and become friends. As adults, we lose opportunities for that natural interaction. Some people get it through work, but for someone like me who works alone and at home, I have to create it. It’s no surprise, then, that the people in my “close” and “best” friend circles over the years have come from going to the same CrossFit class, at the same time, five days a week for years.
It’s also not surprising that over the past six years, when I was either traveling internationally or splitting my time between Canada and the US, my friendships suffered. I’d be in town for three weeks and leave for two months. People had babies in the time I was away.
In my head, they still remained in the “close” or “best” category because I didn’t stay in one place long enough to forge a friendship strong enough to fill the space. But while I was away, my place in their hierarchy shifted, knocking me to outer circles.
The characters in the hierarchy may change, but the quantity does not.
Where people stand in the hierarchy is constantly shifting. When you see less of someone because you see more of somebody else, it pushes people in and out of different circles. We see this happen all the time when people enter new relationships. In an interview with Dan Harris on the Ten Percent Happier Podcast, Dunbar said that falling in love can actually take the place of two close relationships, because the mental energy and attention devoted to the new person inevitably boots two people out of the ring. This explains why people disappear when they get into a relationship. It’s not because they don’t care or are blinded by love. It’s because we have limited capacity.
When the hierarchy changes, find acceptance
When life separates “close” and “best” friends, the instinct is to hold those people in their circles by keeping in touch through social media or phone calls. Though social media has a reputation for, you know, toppling democracy and obliterating societal mental health, it’s actually supports relationship intimacy. But with limited energy to devote to friendships, time spent on Facebook eats into opportunities for in-person connection.
For relationships in the outer rings, this isn’t a big deal. But at the inner rings, intention is crucial. As Dunbar says, people might be “better off finding a new shoulder to cry on just round the corner, so when the world does fall apart, they can walk around the block, knock on their door and get a hug.”
Said another way by the lyricist Stephen Stills: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
Making new friends takes time, but it gets easier
The hardest part of making friends—especially in a new place—is the beginning. But once you engage in a community and show up consistently, proximity will eventually lead to connection. Once those connections are made, the circles naturally expand as people get introduced to one another, creating a flywheel affect that ultimately leads to the sort of event I found myself at last weekend.
As I felt sorry for myself at the table, envious that these sixteen (!) adults had so much support for one another, I wondered what it was about me that made me feel so separate.
The answer is that while I was off in Cambodia or Croatia for a month at a time, they were all moving back to Reno and starting their families. All of them have kids around the same age. They get together for play dates and PTA meetings. When the kids aren’t around, they share the common ground gained from so many years of similar experience, often within walking distance of one another.
It’s a barrier I’m just not going to be able to crack. But that’s okay. There’s plenty of room for them in my “good friends” category, and now I won’t beat myself up wondering why I can’t bring them closer.
🎙Inside Mental Health by PsychCentral: Are Antidepressants for Life? With Food Network’s “Chopped” Champion Brooke Siem This is the biggest podcast I’ve done so far, and also the most challenging. As a very mainstream organization, Inside Mental Health skews pro-medication, which means I had some work to do. Luckily, the response has been fantastic.
🎙 Author2Author with Bill Kenower. I adored speaking to author Bill Kenower about the writing process for MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS. So much of my press has been about the topic of antidepressant withdrawal, so it was great to talk about the craft of writing.
📺 My morning news segment on KOLO Morning Break.
My Autistic Son’s Lesson: No One Is Broken by Bill Kenower for the New York Times. An excerpt:
“We wanted Sawyer to be with us. We did not want him to live in this bubble of his own [autistic] creation. And so, instead of telling him to stop pretending and join us, we started pretending and joined him. The first time Jen joined him, the first time she ran beside him humming and thumping her chest, he stopped running, stopped thumping, stopped humming and, without a single word from us, turned to her and said, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Learning what it’s like to be you.’”
🌄How I’m starting my day
🌶 Two steamed eggs with Momofuku Chili Crunch.