Your guide to expanding your social circle, even if you’re an introvert.
It’s healthy to spend some time alone. But if you constantly find yourself wishing you had more friends to call up for coffee or meet for dinner, you might be dealing with loneliness or social isolation.
Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of how often you socialize with others, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social isolation is a lack of social connections.
Roughly 35 percent of adults over age 45 are lonely, according to a 2018 report from the AARP Foundation. And 24 percent of adults ages 65 and older—about 7.7 million—people are socially isolated, according to the 2020 National Health and Aging Trends Study.
“It’s inevitable to lose friends as we age,” says Sherry Cormier, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief. “We tend to stay in familiar social groups, like a book club or church group, so as people leave, move away, or pass away, our social circles dwindle.”
Plus, when you're retired, you have fewer opportunities to continue meeting people, Cormier says. Not to mention, research suggests as many as one in two Americans identify as shy, adding another hurdle to connecting with new people.
But no matter your age or personality, making new friends is absolutely possible. You just need to know where to look-and put in a little effort. With the expert advice below, even shy or introverted people can quickly turn complete strangers into new friends.
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Step #1: Seek Out Like-Minded People Online
The first step to finding people you might like: “Go wherever people are together doing what you enjoy,” says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., a therapist and author of Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today.
The internet is a great place to start your search. "For someone who tends to be more introverted or shy, social media can be an ideal outlet to find friends," Cormier says.
One 2018 study found that for older adults, Facebook and similar social networking sites may ease isolation and help them feel like they’re part of a larger community.
Cormier suggests searching for Facebook groups that are related to some of your favorite interests, like knitting, fiction books, staying fit, or even a favorite sports team.
You could also use Instagram to search for hashtags or locations that interest you. Social media groups and pages are often full of intriguing posts and conversation starters, so you can join right in!
Step #2: Show Up in Person
You'll miss out on a lot of potential friends if you only hang out online. Whether you love to travel, hike, learn new languages, take photographs, or any other hobby, there's likely a group in your area dedicated to doing just that.
You can use the internet to find these groups initially, but then commit to an in-person meeting, even if you’re a little nervous.
"In person, you get a better sense of who someone is, their personality, and their mannerisms," Cormier says. "It's hard to glean that kind of information from online meetings."
Check out Meetup.com, which helps you find local groups that get together for a range of activities, from bridge to bird-watching. Your local senior or community center, as well as churches and volunteer groups, are also excellent places to meet new people who might become friends, Cormier says.
Love to sweat or looking to get fit? You’ll get double the benefits from a group fitness class. SilverSneakers members who participate in classes are 25 percent less likely to be lonely, according to a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab. Many SilverSneakers friends even plan social events outside of class, like potlucks or outings around town.
Recommended reading: SilverSneakers Community: 6 Reasons to Get Involved
Step #3: Strike Up a Conversation
Coming right out and introducing yourself to a stranger can feel awkward or intrusive. There's an easier way to break the ice: Ask questions!
Start with something relevant to the situation. For example, if you're both waiting to order at the smoothie bar, ask which one they recommend.
Or inquire about anything fun they’ve done recently. “Ask people about places they’ve traveled or their family—people love to talk about their grandkids and their trips,” says Christy Monson, a retired therapist and author of Finding Peace in Times of Tragedy. “And if you’re feeling shy, remember that being a good listener is just as valuable.”
Another way to spark a conversation with someone you've just met: Give them a simple compliment. "Focus on something you notice about that person-a watch, a sweater, an item of jewelry," Tessina suggests. "Say something like, 'I like your watch-does it have special meaning for you?'"
People respond well when you show interest in them—and hopefully they’ll follow up with questions about you, Tessina says.
Also, remember you have a leg up, no matter how shy you might feel. "When people are older, they're just better at making conversation," Monson says. "We've all lost that junior high awkwardness."
For more tips on striking up a friendly conversation, check out our guide to the five best icebreakers for any situation.
Step #4: Keep the Momentum Going
If an initial conversation with your would-be friend goes well, ask him or her to meet for a coffee or lunch. From there, you can begin doing more things together until you've established a pattern of friendship, Tessina says.
"Don't make the mistake of thinking the friendship will keep going if you don't put energy into it," she says. "You have to reach out, and keep reaching out."
If you have a conflict with an invitation from a new friend, don't brush the invite off. If you truly are busy at that time, say so-but add, "I'd love to do it another time" or "Why don't we have coffee on Saturday instead?"
You can also try to schedule your friend dates in advance.
"When I go to lunch with a friend, we always decide when we'll meet again before leaving," Monson says. "With some friends, we have a standing lunch on the first Monday of the month. With others, we just choose a date for next time while we're together."
While it may take some effort on your part, spending quality time with friends boosts your emotional, mental, and physical health, Tessina says. "And if you follow the above steps, you might find it isn't as difficult as you think to make new friends."
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