When you’re a kid, making new friends is fairly easy. There’s school, sports, and a slew of extracurricular activities where you meet other kids and form relationships. When you’re an adult, however, the process isn’t quite so effortless. Commitments such as work and family limit free time and–unlike during childhood–it can feel awkward to ask someone, “Do you want hang out?”
“Professionals who accomplish amazing goals like starting companies often admit that they have a hard time making friends,” says Shasta Nelson, author of Friendships Don’t Just Happen.
And the older you get, the fewer friends you probably have. While social circles increase through early adulthood, friendship networks peak and start to decrease as you move through your twenties, according to a 2013 study published in the Psychological Bulletin. Researchers found that the drop in friendships was often due to marriage, parenthood, and a desire to focus on closer relationships.
Unfortunately close relationships aren’t guaranteed to last; a study by sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst of Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that we lose half our close friends every seven years and replace them with new relationships.
“Life changes such as moves, career transitions, relationship changes, and different life stages bring a shift in our friendships and frequently leave us drifting apart,” says Nelson, who launched the online friendship-building community GirlFriendCircles.com in 2008. “We all want the proverbial friend whose shoulder you can cry on, but that’s an honor that is given with time.”
And it’s time we should find. According to researchers at Brigham Young University, having too few friends is the equivalent mortality risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is riskier than obesity.
“When friendships themselves are healthy, they relieve stress, which is extremely beneficial for health,” says Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. “Most people find it hard to create a deep and meaningful friendship in adulthood, but it’s not so hard if you know what to do.”
For friendships to form, you need consistency, says Nelson. “When we’re kids, this is automatic,” says Nelson. “You go to school, summer camp and play outside with the other kids in the neighborhood until dinner is ready. As adults, we rarely have that kind of consistency outside of work.”
Nelson suggests joining groups that meet on a regular basis, such as a associations, networking groups, book clubs, classes and workshop. “When you join a group, the consistency is built in; people are already showing up without you having to invite them,” she says.
The trick is that the friendship is limited to its “container”–the group–until someone initiates gathering outside of it, says Nelson. If friendships aren’t practiced outside of the container, they will most die when the activity or class ends.
“People often take it personally when they leave a job and no one calls them,’” says Nelson. “But they forget to recognize that they stepped outside of the container. If you hadn’t already initiated a friendship outside of the container, it most likely won’t suddenly happen.”
While Nelson recommends using friendship containers as long as possible, the goal is to move out of them. Start small. Invite work friends out for lunch, happy hour or over to watch the game. “The idea is to practice doing other stuff together, and glue more pieces of your lives to each other,” she says. “It can take six to eight experiences with someone before you feel like you made a friend.”
To deepen relationships, Epstein says you must be willing to be open yourself up: “Vulnerability is the key to emotional bonding, without which relationships tend to feel superficial and meaningless,” says Epstein.
Children are naturally put into situations in which they feel vulnerable, such as school, and Epstein says adults should look for similar scenarios.
“Put yourself in situations in which you and potential friends will feel vulnerable, because such situations make people feel needy and provide occasions for other people to provide comfort or support,” he says. Volunteer or get part-time work at a hospital. Sign up for courses on skiing or salsa dancing.
And while you can’t plan for them, sometimes life circumstances lead to friendships: “A single experience–the bonding that took place between two strangers who were near the World Trade Center when it collapsed, for example–can produce a deep friendship that lasts a lifetime,” Epstein says.
While you’re building friendships, Nelson says it’s important to, work hard to keep the communication upbeat. “Be conscious about the value and joy you’re adding to the other person,” she says.