9 Ways To Make Friends, Keep Friends, And Be A Better Friend Yourself

Want to live longer and be healthier? Have more quality friendships. It’s really that simple.

by Isobel Whitcomb
Originally Published: 
Friends hugging
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Happy, healthy people tend to have one thing in common: strong networks of friends. Analyses have found that people with satisfying friendships are less lonely, have lower risk of chronic illness, and function better in old age compared to those with fewer friends or more strained friendships. In some cases, having good friends may even be more important than how well we get along with family in predicting our health and well-being.

So go out there and get some friends! We’ll wait.

No? We get it. Making friends isn’t as easy as it was in your 20s when you shared tiny apartments and threw parties with housemates, went out to bars and struck up conversations with strangers, played sports, or hung out with all those green colleagues who wanted to share career visions. But leaving your 20s behind doesn’t mean the end of satisfying friendships. Although opportunities to develop new friendships dwindle and our networks of friends tend to shrink with age, the friendships we keep have the potential to be more fulfilling than ever. In fact, people tend to be the happiest with their friendships in their later years.

A friend — a true friend, one who is close enough to give you the parasympathetic benefits that help your mind, body, and, sure, soul — looks a little different than your average pal. It takes vulnerability and dedication to have this kind of relationship.

Fortunately, there’s a strong body of science literature on the subject. We looked at more than 20 studies, talked to three experts, and found some surprising, some not so surprising, and all entirely helpful advice on friendship. Here’s exactly what you should look for — and give — to be a great friend, with all the benefits.

1. Show Up

Marisa Franco, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and the author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends, says showing up is the first step of good friendships. That might sound like low-hanging fruit, but when the going gets tough, whether or not you show up is a real test of whether a friendship will fizzle out or last a lifetime.

For a 2017 study published in The Journal of Relationships Research, a team of scientists in Oklahoma interviewed 87 people about their history of traumatic life events — such as abuse, death, and addiction — and their ability to recover from those events. People who reported more supportive friendships experienced more of a sense of personal growth, self-acceptance, and purpose in life after their trauma. Those who reported higher levels of social support from family experienced a similar effect, but at a smaller magnitude, suggesting that friends may be more important than family in helping us through difficult times.

In other words, good friends are there for hard times. “These are diagnostic moments in a friendship,” Franco says. “They matter more than other moments for how people perceive the friendship overall.”

2. Wear Your Investment On Your Sleeve

It’s not just about being there during the hard times — it’s also about enthusiastically supporting your friend’s shifting identity and everyday choices, whether they want to quit their job and travel the world or settle down and start a family. A wealth of scientific literature has found that when people have friends who are more supportive of their identity and choices, they become more invested in the friendship and happier overall.

Researchers at the University of Rochester had 98 pairs of friends respond to a series of statements ranging from “I feel that my friend accepts me whether I follow their advice or not” to “My friend tries to understand how I see things.” The study, published in Personality Social Psychology Bulletin, found that people who agreed more with those statements tended to be more satisfied with their friendships, were more likely to turn to their friends for emotional support, and were more likely to see their friendship as an important part of themselves.

Another study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, offered college students in romantic relationships a similar questionnaire. Respondents with a supportive romantic partner weren’t any happier than those without one. But students who had supportive friends in addition to that supportive partner were not only happier — they were more successful in school.

3. Don’t Just Be There — Be Available

It can be hard to know what to do when a friend receives a scary diagnosis, experiences a death in the family, or is struggling with their mental health. You might be afraid to burden them at an already chaotic time or say the wrong thing. However, the most important thing you can do during these times is to make yourself available — you don’t necessarily need to know exactly what to do.

“In your individual style, signal ‘hello, I’m here,’” says Jens Binder, a psychologist focusing on social connection at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom.

Researchers in Finland interviewed 91 mothers who had experienced the death of their child about the support they received afterward, and the support they wanted. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, found that one of the forms of support they reported needing most was someone to simply listen and look out for them. Mothers who longed for a listening ear and shoulder to cry on but didn’t receive them were more likely to experience despair, panic behavior, blame, and anger. Mothers who had friends to talk to about the death experienced more personal growth in the wake of it. The most hurtful behavior wasn’t from friends who said or did the wrong thing, the study found; it was from friends who fell off the map.

Listening and care can come in the form of a phone call, text, email, or whatever form of communication works for you and feels most genuine — all these forms of support were important to the 21 women interviewed for a study on social support after a breast cancer diagnosis. “It feels good to know that many people are thinking of me when I have to go through this,” one of the women reported. “The support gives me a sense of security; to know they appreciate and love me.”

4. Offer More Than Just Emotional Support

Psychologists recognize three kinds of support: emotional (listening, offering care and compassion), instrumental (helping with tasks, giving money, sharing resources), and informational (sharing advice, information, and personal experiences).

Instrumental support can look like chipping in for funeral expenses, cooking your friend a meal, or going with them to a doctor’s appointment. Informational support is tricky — in the study of grieving mothers, the participants found advice helpful, especially when it came from their own mothers or from others who had experienced a similar event. Still, unsolicited advice isn’t always welcome. Before offering it, first ask your friend what they need from you, Franco says.

When you do reach out, don’t necessarily expect that your friend will accept your offer to help or even reply — but don’t stop letting them know you care. “You may have to be prepared to do this sort of signaling for a little longer than usual,” Binder says. “You are a support resource as a friend, and you just need to show that this resource is available.”

5. Don’t Worry About Being “Needy” — Or Reciprocity

We’ve established that friends come to you during the tough times when they need a helping hand. But they also won’t hesitate to come to you during the rest of the time. In strong friendships, double- and triple-texting are the norm, and “needy” isn’t a dirty word. That’s because after a certain stage, it’s normal and healthy for friendships to stop being reciprocal. “Reciprocity grows weaker and weaker the more we engage with our chosen friendships,” Binder says.

Whereas new friendships, acquaintances, and work relationships are often characterized by an even give and take — for example, you send a text and wait for a reply before reaching out again; you’re careful not to over-rely on the person when you’re going through a tough time — in a close friendship, that stops being the case. Franco prefers the term “mutuality.”

“That means we’re considering both of our current needs and capacities,” Franco says. “You are in a place of higher need and have less capacity? That means I’m going to be doing more, and vice versa. It’s not that it’s always one-to-one, although it might be that in the bigger picture it will end up that way.”

6. Time Matters

Good friendships don’t happen overnight. They’ve got to pass the test of time. Most people are constantly pruning their network of friends — every seven years, we replace about half of those relationships, according to a 2009 study published by Utrecht University in the Netherlands. And as we get older, we become more discerning in who we keep as friends, devoting energy to those we see as most valuable, according to a psychological principle called “socioemotional selectivity theory.”

Multiple studies find that the remaining friendships are both longer and more satisfying. “The friends we tend to keep tend to be sort of like the cream of the crop,” Franco says. “The ones you’re willing to invest in, despite people moving away, are the ones that really stand the test of time.”

7. Be Agreeable

Extroverts — people who are more outgoing, talkative, bubbly, and high-energy — are well-known for their friend-making prowess. These social butterflies do tend to have more friends across more social contexts. More than any other personality trait, extraversion predicts making a good first impression, a 2011 study published in the European Journal of Personality found.

However, when it comes to lasting relationships, it’s not extraversion that predicts likeability but a different personality trait that psychologists call “agreeableness,” according to a review published in the journal Psychology Compass. Agreeableness is characterized mainly by warmth and by a tendency to be cooperative rather than competitive. Agreeable people tend to be passive rather than dominant — they don’t pursue friendships, but once they have a friend, they’re more likely to keep them.

8. Know How To Express Value, Warmth, And Vulnerability

Along those same lines, a good friend expresses how much they care. “Feeling valued is one of the top qualities people report looking for in a friend,” Franco says. To show this kind of warmth, Franco recommends being generous and affectionate toward your friends: cooking them dinner, remembering their birthdays, taking them on dates, or simply telling your friend you love them.

A good friend is also vulnerable. They open up about their insecurities, worries, and difficult life experiences. For an analysis published in Psychological Bulletin, researchers compiled the results of 94 different studies on the effects of disclosing personal information to friends. They found that people who did open up were better liked than those who didn’t — and the more intimate the information shared, the greater that effect.

“People feel more connected to us when we’re vulnerable,” Franco says. “And vulnerability begets vulnerability. Because when you’re vulnerable, your friends are able to be more vulnerable with you.”

This kind of warmth and vulnerability tends to be harder for men than for women, Binder says. “Because by and large, and on average, males are more about doing stuff together. And that they’re less about the touchy feely talking stuff.”

That might have something to do with a fear of breaking gender norms or even latent homophobia, Franco says. If you’re a guy who wants tighter friendships, try making the first move: Be vulnerable, and see how it lands.

9. Recognize That As A Dad, Friendship Has More Hurdles

Becoming a parent is often a longed-for experience — but that doesn’t make it easy. In many ways, new dads need the same kind of support from friends as people who have experienced a difficult or traumatic life experience: someone to listen, assistance with money and various tasks, and advice, says Jason Sumontha, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, who studies family and communities. But dads — especially new dads — also have serious hurdles to this support group.

For one, postpartum depression in men affects about 1 in 10 new dads — but is often diagnosed late or goes unacknowledged completely. Researchers in Iran found that among 205 new dads, 11.7% of them experienced depression after the birth of their child. But those who received social support from friends were less at risk of experiencing depression, according to a 2014 study.

Keeping the friends you have likewise will be more difficult. Times of transition stress male friendships in particular, Binder says. Because men, generally speaking, tend to bond over activities rather than conversation, something as all-consuming as a brand new kid can make it difficult to maintain friendships.

So what do you do? Binder has a few suggestions: Take your hangouts to the online realm. Gaming and other shared virtual activities are meaningful forms of social interaction, he says. Keep texting, too. And social media might seem like a poor substitute for in-person interaction, but thoughtful interaction over your chosen app goes a surprisingly long way, Binder says.

Binder researches how people use technology to maintain relationships, and has found that online relationships can be just as satisfying as those with more face-to-face time — although they tend to be less close. Think of it as a better-than-OK substitute for in-person interaction during an extraordinary time of life. “It keeps the friendship simmering in the background,” Binder says. “Later, it becomes easier to reactivate friendships, because you haven’t lost all contact.”

That said, those interactions have to feel personal, he adds — blasting an Instagram story to a mass audience isn’t the same as a thoughtfully chosen inside joke sent in a private message. Sending, say, a funny meme is an important way to signal to your friend that you care — or want to keep this relationship going, despite the all-consuming bundle of joy in your life.

If you can, ask your spouse for time with friends. Prioritize this over, say, “recovering” or being alone. It will give you so much back.

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