How to make (and keep) friends without school, children (and maybe even church and going into work)

When I moved to NYC in 2001 as I approached retirement, I knew nobody except a second cousin on the other side of Central Park (which I quickly learned might as well be Siberia). My chance to transfer my job from D.C. to NYC died a month later on 9/11.

After commuting weekly to my old job — partially because of the friendships in D.C. — I took a job here largely in order to meet other people who might become close enough friends to occasionally share a meal or go to a play or movie. I’m so very glad I made that choice. But I’ve relocated enough times in my life to confirm this article’s conclusion: making and keeping friends is tough.

How to Find and Keep Friends: A Guide for Middle Age

Meeting new people and prioritizing friendships you already have are doable, even in a prolonged pandemic, but you have to make an effort, friendship coaches say

By Julie Jargon Jan. 29, 2022 10:00 am ET

Loneliness is a reality for many of us, now more than ever. After last week’s column on the loneliness felt by moms in middle age, my inbox began overflowing with emails from readers, many of whom asked for solutions.

While there’s no magic wand to fix loneliness, there are things you can do to make new friends, and to rekindle or sustain the friendships you already have. Tech can help, but some of these methods are old school with a pandemic-era update. For all the strategies, you still have to take initiative—and be vulnerable.

Just ask

When our kids are little, we teach them to approach other children on the playground and ask to be their friend. Adults need to do the same—without being so literal, of course. I’ve made some good friends by chatting with other parents at my neighborhood park.

There are also ways to reach out to strangers virtually. While reporting last week’s column, I learned about a woman in Texas who posted a request for friends on a Facebook page for moms in her town; more than 200 women responded, saying they’d like to meet her.

One of my colleagues told me about a woman who had read my column and then posted to the local social-networking site Nextdoor. She asked if anyone else in their Berkeley, Calif., neighborhood would like to form a group for dinners and trivia nights.

“It requires vulnerability to do this, but if you don’t ask, you don’t receive,” said Jillian Richardson, author of “Un-Lonely Planet: How Healthy Congregations Can Change the World.” She facilitates friendships in New York with the Joy List, a free weekly newsletter of meetups.

A recent study found that nearly half of Americans have three or fewer close friends—and the trend toward fewer friends has grown considerably in the past few decades. “When considering asking someone to go out as a friend, keep in mind that, statistically speaking, that person is probably desperate for connection and you’re giving them a gift by asking them out,” Ms. Richardson said.

Be social, minus the media

Social media doesn’t necessarily cause loneliness, but many people I’ve interviewed over the years said platforms such as Facebook and Instagram can make loneliness feel worse. 

Kat Vellos, a friendship coach and author of “We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships,” suggests inviting friends to take a social-media break with you and agree to spend the time you might have spent scrolling Instagram having a phone call instead.

Create a routine

If there’s something you need or like to do each day, such as walking your dog, try doing it at the same time, said Danielle Bayard Jackson, a friendship coach. You’ll probably notice the same people out at the same time and have ample opportunity to strike up a conversation.

Doing so during a pandemic takes a little more care. Ms. Bayard Jackson advises maintaining a distance and even beginning the conversation by explaining that you’ll stay a few feet away if you sense the other person is nervous about getting too close.

I tend to go hiking and visit the park with my family at regular times. We often see the same people out, some of whom have become friends. I’ve found that people with dogs talk to more people than people without dogs, so your four-legged friend can be an instant conversation starter.

Ms. Bayard Jackson also suggests that people who want to meet new friends keep their phones out of sight while out walking, and not wear earbuds, to signal that they’re open to conversation.

Try a friendship matchmaking site

People turn to matchmaking sites to find romantic partners, so why not do the same to find friends? If you’d like to explore this option, there are several, including Bumble BFFMeetup and Friended.

When setting up a profile on such apps, Ms. Bayard Jackson suggests being as specific as possible about your interests and about what you’re seeking in a friendship, to improve your odds of attracting the right people. She said research from dating apps shows that matching algorithms favor positive language, so it’s important to list the things you like and not the things you don’t like. If you start messaging with a potential match, ask questions to show your interest and keep the conversation flowing.

Rethink the hangout

One reason many busy parents don’t see friends as often as they’d like is because the very idea of planning outings can feel daunting, especially now, when Covid-related safety measures can make everything feel more complicated. “We have this idea in our minds of happy hours and long brunches, and many people don’t feel they have time for that,” Ms. Bayard Jackson said.

A recent idea that has gained popularity on social media is going on errand dates with friends. You have to go to the grocery store anyway—why not shop at the same time as a friend? 

Book time

We’ve all been in the situation where we run into a friend and say, “We should get together,” but then no one plans anything. Friendship experts recommend booking friend dates right when the topic arises, or even entering recurring meetups into your calendar.

Jen Mann is a humor writer whose latest book is “Midlife Bites: Anyone Else Falling Apart, Or Is It Just Me?” She said that a few years ago she began pulling up the calendar on her phone whenever a friend suggested getting together. “You can tell right away who means it,” she said. “When they say, ‘Oh let’s play it by ear,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re dead to me. Next!’”

If getting together in person is too difficult or doesn’t feel safe because of Covid-19, you can book time each month for a video call with friends. Ms. Bayard Jackson said having a purpose for the meeting can help, like discussing a book or podcast.

Do the little things

Maintaining friendships doesn’t have to entail grand gestures. Sending friends an article or funny video that makes you think of them shows you care.

Texting or calling can feel time-consuming and exhausting, but you can send friends voice memos—it may be easier for you and more personal for them to hear your voice. You can use your phone’s voice-memo app or the voice feature found in many messaging apps.

Make the first move

If you don’t find groups that resonate with your interests, research events in your area then invite people to attend. You can also create your own event. 

Karla Olson, a 51-year-old mother of three in Park City, Utah, is working on creating what she’s calling the Empty Nester Club. She plans to develop an online community on the video-communication app Marco Polo, and hopes local branches will form around the country for in-person meetups. The goal is to create a community that will encourage others in midlife who are trying to develop new interests or businesses.

Ms. Mann said she found it hard to break into established friend groups in her Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood. Late last year, she and a friend created a monthly get-together they call “Midlife with Moxie,” with activities including a Christmas-lights tour and tarot-card readings. “It can feel scary to people, because what if no one comes? I’ve never had no one come,” she said. 

Ultimately, the best way to make friends—even just one or two—Ms. Mann said, is to leave your house: “You have to put on pants and go somewhere.”

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Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Appeared in the February 1, 2022, print edition as ‘Easing Loneliness Is Important Work.’

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