Friendships are more beneficial than just sharing laughs over a cup of coffee. A lack of strong relationships increases your risk of premature death from all causes by 50%, according to research from Harvard University. That’s the same mortality risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. If your social life is looking light, it might be time to make some new friends, but it doesn’t have to be an intimidating and awkward process.
“Get it out of your head that it’s harder to make friends when you’re older,” says sociologist Jan Yager, author of Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives. “It can actually be easier because you know who you are, and what kind of friend you would like.”
The secret to making new friends is as simple as being open to it. Here are six things you can do to fill your calendar and forge new friendships:
The first impression sets the stage on whether a person will be communicating with you or not, says psychotherapist Richard E. Toney. “The key is your facial expression,” he says. “Think about people who you’ve seen in grocery stores, airports, and even in long lines that are near you. If you see them grimacing and frowning, you more than likely will not communicate with that person because they do not appear approachable or even nice.”
An inviting smile or a courteous head nod could go a long way in allowing people to know that you are available and open to communicating, he says. And being a good listener is a big part of being approachable, adds Yager. “Too many focus on sharing with others, forgetting that they need to be there for their new relationships that might become friends,” she says.
One of the best ways to make new friends is to meet people with whom you share a common interest, says John Boese, founder of GoFindFriends.com, a website that helps New Yorkers find new friends. Turn your hobby into a social activity by joining a meetup.com group or social sport league, he suggests.
Going to places that you enjoy allows you to be around like-minded individuals, adds Toney. “It is easy to start up a conversation about things that you like,” he says. “Once you find someone who has similar interests to yours, you can exchange phone numbers or email addresses and keep in touch.”
“Feeling positive is one of the absolute requirements of friendship, and how we choose who we want to spend time with,” says Shasta Nelson, CEO of GirlFriendCircles.com, an online community that helps connect women, and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.
Figure out ways to help other people feel better for having spent time with you. Saying “thank you,” being encouraging, asking questions, validating feelings, and smiling are all ways of affirming new friends, she says.
People don’t like to be around others who are negative all the time, adds Keith Rollag, author of What to Do When You’re New. “Researchers have found that if you say good things about other people, people tend to remember you as having those positive qualities,” he says. “For example, if you tell a new coworker that your previous boss is a friendly, helpful person, they will likely walk away remembering you as somewhat friendly and helpful, too. But if you complain that your previous boss was an egotistical jerk, they may see a few of those qualities in you, too.”
While you can feel vulnerable approaching someone for the first time, the other person may have even more reluctance, says Rollag. “Just go for it,” he says. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Relationships are built on give and take, and Rollag suggests starting by helping other people meet their needs. “Many of the things we want in friendships–trust, reliability, integrity–have their basis in reciprocity,” he says. “Figure out what other people want and help them get it, and you’ve predisposed them to see you as a potential friend.”
Be proactive and ask people to get together, or let people know that you’re looking for activities to join, adds Boese. “You’ll be surprised how many people are open to having you join one of their weekend activities,” he says.
Relationships are built largely on logging time together, so be thoughtful about how to stay in touch, says Nelson. “Before leaving one get-together, say, ‘This was such fun and I’d like to get to know you better, could we schedule it now and avoid the email back-and-forth?’” she suggests. You can also send an email the next day, thanking them for their time, or set a reminder in your calendar for a date they mentioned of something coming up, such as a surgery or birthday, and email them to let them know you’re thinking of them.
One of the keys to turning an acquaintance into a friend is consistency, adds Boese. “Don’t let more than two weeks go by without seeing them,” he says. “If you spend time with someone and then don’t talk to them for a month, it’s going to be tough to keep them in the friend zone.”
People who make friends easily view events as opportunities to meet people, says Nelson.
“Remind yourself to choose based on what you value or hope for, not based on how you feel in the moment,” she says. “Like exercise, if left to only when we felt like it, we’d often opt for a quiet night in instead of the chance to connect.”