Last updated 7 June, 2023

How to make friends and maintain strong friendships

"A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside,” said every child’s favourite bear, Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Wise words – for as it turns out, experts say friendship is one of the most important factors that determine our health and happiness. 

Having friends provides comfort and joy, boosts our confidence, relieves stress, and prevents loneliness and isolation. It also keeps us physically healthier, helps us live longer, and makes us less likely to experience cognitive decline.

How many friends do you need to be happy?

When it comes to friends, the adage “the more, the merrier” doesn’t hold true. 

Over the past 15 years, social media use has skyrocketed. A numbers game, how many followers one has matters. Yet, despite the illusion of having countless ‘friends’, we’re becoming more lonely. According to a recent report, 63% of Australians say they regularly feel isolated; and more than half feel they lack companionship. 

While there’s no ‘right’ number of friends one should have, experts say most people have groups of 15 or fewer friends, with between three and five close or ‘core’ friends. Studies confirm it’s the quality, rather than the number, of friends that leads to happiness. 

What type of friends do you need?

Friendship is defined as an enduring relationship between two people, characterised by mutual affection, esteem, intimacy and trust. Therefore, a true friend is someone who:

  • Accepts you for who you are

  • Is honest, trustworthy and loyal

  • Respects your boundaries

  • Sticks around, even in tough times

  • Is fun or uplifting to be with

  • Believes in you

  • Is thoughtful, caring and empathetic

6 sure-fire ways to make new friends

There’s no doubt it can be hard to make new friends. Because we’re spending more time on social media, finding someone in real life to connect with can be a real challenge. And with life becoming increasingly busy, with many competing demands, nurturing friendships can seem downright daunting. 

So, where do you start? Making friends requires intention, deliberate action and consistent effort. Here’s how to set yourself up for success:

#1. Be positive 

Putting yourself out there can be scary, especially at first. You may be shy, or fear rejection. Rather than focus on your worries, start with a positive mindset and assume that people will like you – take comfort from research by Cornell University that shows people tend to underestimate how well they are liked by strangers. 

Remember, emotions are contagious, and people are more likely to feel connected to you if you’re happy, friendly and positive.

#2. Take initiative

We tend to make friends with people we cross paths with regularly – be that at work, when we pick our kids up from school, at the gym or the hairdresser’s. Don’t wait for others to make the first move. Be bold and strike up a conversation. Don’t overthink it; break the ice by paying a compliment or sharing a joke. 

Be open and show that you’re friendly. If you feel comfortable, invite them to join you for a coffee, or a drink after work; and if you do meet up, exchange numbers so you can connect with them again. 

If they’re not responsive, don’t give up – remember, you won’t have a connection with everyone you speak to, but talk to enough people, and you will find a friend!

#3. Get involved

As adults, friendships don’t fall into our laps like they did when we were kids. We have to be more purposeful and proactive. Sign up for a class, join a club or become a volunteer. Pick an activity you enjoy or a cause close to your heart, and you’ll be more likely to meet people with similar values and shared interests, which makes it easier to make conversation and find common ground. Struggling to find time in your busy schedule for new activities? Rethink how you currently spend it: Often read at home to relax? Then why not join a book club? Or, if your regular exercise includes a daily walk, join a hiking club so you can walk with others on weekends.

#4. Say yes

One of the secrets to making new friends is to be open to it. But often, when pushed beyond our comfort zone, such as being in an unfamiliar social situation, fear holds us back (for example, fear of being judged or worrying whether we’ll fit in or not); and saying no to social invitations feels like the safer option. 

Think about it for a minute: would you get fit if you only exercised when you felt like it? So, next time you’re invited to a gathering or an event, see it as an opportunity to make new connections; and say yes, even if you feel like saying no. Besides, persistently saying no sends the signal that you’re not interested. On the other hand, saying yes gives you the opportunity to reciprocate and extend an invitation of your own.

#5. Master the art of conversation

Starting conversations with people you don’t know (or don’t know well) can be difficult, and many people feel awkward about it or worry that the other person may feel uncomfortable. However, University of Chicago research shows there are real benefits to striking up a conversation with strangers, and that making small talk could make you feel happier and more positive – regardless of whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert. 

So, how do you start a conversation? Experts say the best way is to pay the other person a sincere compliment as it immediately shows them that you see them. In a later study, the same University of Chicago researchers found that giving compliments draws both strangers and friends closer together. 

How do you keep the conversation going? Ask open-ended questions, be warm and enthusiastic, and listen attentively.

Still struggling to talk to others?  Seek professional support – an expert coach can help you overcome specific obstacles, and provide you with the tools and strategies you need to become a better conversationalist, opening the door to making new friends.

#6. Don’t expect too much

Be patient. Good friends aren’t made overnight so don’t expect instant results. Know that no one single person is likely to meet all your friendship needs, or share all of your values and interests. Expecting too much of one person may make you come across as too needy or too demanding, and may push them away. It’s also important to remind yourself that no one is perfect (including you); and that everyone else has their own set of expectations, too. Healthy relationships are based on appreciation rather than unrealistic expectations, and other people are not responsible for your happiness. If you expect too much, you’re more likely to feel let down or disappointed. 

How to build strong friendships

Here are a few simple strategies to try:

  • Make yourself available. Just like any other relationships, friendships need to be nurtured. Make an effort to see new friends, schedule regular time to spend together, and check in with them between catch-ups to let them know you care. If you neglect your friends, they will move on without you.

  • Be a cheerleader. Put your own self-doubt and envy aside. Rather than be negative or critical, be positive, enthusiastic and encouraging. Be a good listener; and let your friends know you believe in them – cheer them on, boost them when they fall, and genuinely celebrate their wins. 

  • Be consistent. A solid friendship requires more than spending regular time together. Rather, it depends on different consistent behaviours and actions that over time leads to building trust – a key element of any healthy and enduring relationship. Being consistent means being dependable; and it lets your friends know they can rely on you, no matter what.

  • Show gratitude. Research shows expressing gratitude to a friend strengthens your connection. Never take a friendship for granted, and never assume another person knows how much you care. Make an effort to show your appreciation not just for what your friends do, but also for who they are. Saying thank you doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – find simple ways to show them how much they mean to you, for example, treat them to their favourite takeout on their birthday, share a cheesy meme or two, or tell them straight out that their friendship means the world to you.

  • Be willing to give more than you take. Equal give and take form the basis of any solid friendship. It involves compromise and concession; but the balance will naturally shift from time to time, with one party needing to take more than they can give. When this happens to you, see it as an opportunity to be a good friend. Take the initiative to stay in touch, be there if your friend needs to vent or needs a shoulder to cry on, and be quick to forgive. In any true friendship, the pendulum will swing back and balance will be restored.

When it’s time to say goodbye for good 

Hanging out together should be a positive and joyful experience, and both parties should feel safe, valued, empowered and uplifted. However, if you find yourself constantly making an effort with someone who doesn’t reciprocate, who consistently fails to be there for you, or who no longer enriches your life, it might be time to re-evaluate your friendship.

Here are 7 signs it may be time  to cut ties with a friend:

  • They’ve betrayed your trust

  • You’re constantly fighting

  • You no longer have anything in common

  • Being with them leaves you feeling angry, upset, or emotionally drained

  • They constantly compete with you, or frequently put you down

  • They don’t respect your boundaries

  • You can’t be yourself around them

Experts say there are two ways to end a friendship. You can either ‘go cold turkey’ and quit, or you can let the friendship fade naturally by methodically decreasing the time you spend together and limiting your calls or text messages. 

Whichever way you choose to go, breaking up with a friend takes courage. It’s also important to be honest with yourself – acknowledge your role in the demise of your friendship to prevent any negative patterns of behaviour on your part impacting other relationships in your life. Accept that it’s normal to feel sad or upset when a friendship ends, and allow yourself space to grieve.   

Developing strong friendships doesn’t happen overnight. It takes courage, consistent effort, empathy, integrity, and showing up as your authentic self. In a nutshell, it requires being the kind of person you’d want to be friends with! 

Want to be empowered to make friends more easily and build stronger relationships?

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