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#GirlGangs are priceless for empowerment and support, but the reality is that as adults, most of us struggle to find a co-captain, let alone a whole squad. In fact, a whopping 40 percent of Americans feel like they lack companionship or meaningful relationships and that they're isolated from others, according to a study last year from health insurer Cigna.
What's more, it's Generation Z and millennials who report feeling the loneliest right now, not the stereotypical older generation.
And feeling lonely is a big deal—having social support is about way more than just a shoulder to cry on, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and one of the foremost researchers in social relationships. "Loneliness gets a lot of attention for how it affects our emotions and quality of life, but we can't ignore the very strong effects it can also have on our physical health."
How Friendship Impacts Your Health
Research shows that skimping on social connections can damage everything from sleep quality to cognitive function to actually increasing your chances of dying. Postmenopausal women with a strong social support system were significantly less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, reports a new study in Menopause. Perhaps most surprisingly, a 2015 meta-analysis from Holt-Lunstad's team found feeling lonely can be just as—if not more—influential on one's health and mortality risk as major killers like smoking, obesity, alcohol abuse, and exercise.
Why are relationships so crucial to our health? For one, the people around you influence your behaviors—everything from smoking to eating more vegetables. If your friends have healthy habits, you're more likely to have healthy habits, explains Holt-Lunstad. (Of course, the opposite is true too.) Social support also gives you a sense of meaning and purpose in your life, which can translate to better self-care and less risk-taking.
But relationships also change our physiology in a very real way: "When we're in the presence of others, particularly someone we are close with and trust, we have a different cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune response to things like stress," explains Holt-Lunstad. (Related: Just Thinking About Someone You Love Can Help You Deal with Stressful Situations)
Primally, there's security and survival in numbers, so being around others when you feel threatened or scared actually causes your body to trigger less of, say, a fight-or-flight response than if you feel alone. Repeated day in and day out, these altered responses add up—particularly when it comes to inflammation, which is linked to a number of chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression, she points out.
The vast majority of the research we have on the risks of loneliness are in older populations—but curbing those consequences starts much younger, says Holt-Lunstad. "Chronic illnesses don't develop overnight. It's the effect of constant exposure over time that has such a lasting effect—and the same holds true for social support."
Bottom line? "We need to consider being socially active to be just as important as being physically active to one's health," she says.
Why It's So Hard to Make Friends As An Adult
OK, so friends can be literal lifesavers—but that doesn't make them easy to come by, especially since your social circle starts to shrink after you're 25 years old, according to a 2016 study out of Finland and England.
There are endless reasons why it's so much more difficult to forge real connections past college. For one, there's less of a cultural expectation that our social circles should be increasing as we get older, compared to when we're young, Holt-Lunstad says, so we may be less open to and inclined to make new friends.
Plus, most adults are attracted to people like themselves—with shared religious beliefs, race or ethnicity, income, education level, political views, life stages—which limits our options more than when we're teenagers and don't identify with such rigid parameters, suggests a series of national surveys from research house Barna Group.
Moving for jobs and family, which takes us away from our established social networks, is one part of the equation. But we also may be prioritizing career success above social relationships, Holt-Lunstad points out. "There's evidence to suggest the majority of Americans are no longer participating in social groups like clubs or religious and community organizations. When asked why, the number one response for people under 65 was that they were too busy," she offers.
And that brings us to a core truth in combating loneliness: To make new friends, you have to put in real time and effort—including powering through rejection and initial awkwardness and anxiety. In fact, a 2018 study from the University of Kansas suggests it takes a whopping 50 hours of time together to move from acquaintance to casual friend, and another 40 to transition to being real friends. So let's get started.
How to Make Friends As an Adult
Luckily, you don't need a whole squad to combat unwanted solitude. Holt-Lunstad points out that loneliness is defined as the discrepancy between your actual level of social connection and your desired level of it. That means if you feel supported with just two close friends, your health is safe.
But if you crave more connections, here are a few ways real women have found friendship outside of the things you've probably already looked into, like Meetups and volunteering.
1. Say yes to friend-of-friend dates.
When Julia Malacoff, a 29-year-old writer and trainer, moved to Amsterdam two years ago, she forced herself to say yes to being set up by anyone who knew someone in her new city. "At first, it was weird to be set up on a 'blind date' with the potential outcome of becoming friends." But, she thought, worst-case scenario, we don't mesh and it's a little awkward for the amount of time it takes to drink a coffee. And best case: We do click and now I have a new friend. Both situations happened, but it was always worth investing the time to find out.
And best-case scenarios happen more than you think, agrees Lauren Finney, a 34-year-old who met most of her best friends via friend blind dates when she first moved to Nashville. "You find out pretty quickly if you have common interests, and then it's like any relationship—you ease into it. I'd then invite them to an event, which turned into dinner, which turned into texting all the time," she shares.
2. Use social media for good.
Social media is great at its namesake—connecting us with people we might not be face-to-face with. That includes the folks we follow online but don't know—be it fitness instructors, local bartenders, influencers, all of whom (it's easy to forget) are real people looking for real connections, too. (Related: Joining an Online Support Group Could Help You Finally Meet Your Goals)
When food and fitness writer Locke Hughes moves to Park City, UT, last summer, she started writing for local magazines and posting more about adventures in her new town on social media. One day she got a DM from a girl on Instagram: "Hey! I see you're new to Park City like me, and we both like exercising, adventuring, and eating :) Would love to get drinks sometime if you're up for it." "Yes, it felt a little like dating, but I found that's actually the best way to make friends as an adult—you want to make sure you're interested in the same thing and that the feeling is mutual," Hughes says. She met up with the girl and they became fast friends. What's more, it actually happened again—"I've now made two good friends who I originally connected with over social media," she says.
3. Forgo your solo workout in favor of group classes—and go consistently.
When Maressa Sylvie moved to LA, she made a point to go to the same yoga and spin classes week after week, and to always introduce herself to and chat with at least the instructor. When you see the same faces, it becomes easier to make offhanded conversation about the small stuff you have in common—comedy, ice cream, art, or wanting to try happy hour at the new spot in the neighborhood. "Eventually, one of us would suggest checking out that thing and we'd make plans," she says. It's a more organic lead into the "blind date," and less awkward because you already have a connection. Now, Sylvie says a lot of her current friends were made via fitness—all because she introduced herself and showed up. (See: The Major Benefits to Taking Workout Classes vs. Exercising Alone)
For Erin Kelly, 55, the breakthrough came when her regular Pilates class suddenly turned into a partner workout. "We were stuck with each other and both made a joke while awkwardly holding each other's feet, which helped break the ice," she shares. "She knew I was new, so we kept talking after class—small things lead to conversation, like me asking about her maple leaf mittens because I'm Canadian, and it turns out she's a Canadaphile. She invited me to grab a coffee, where we discovered we shared Democratic politics in a Republican part of the state, and she invited me to a Planned Parenthood fundraiser. Ten years later, we're still friends."
4. Be out and about—and available.
Married to a man in the Air Force, Kristy Alpert is no stranger to moving and having to make new friends—but that doesn't make it any easier every time she has to do it. When she relocated with her husband to Little Rock, AR, she took a pretty simple approach: Be seen.
"I started gardening in my front yard for a few hours," she says. Her neighbors started stopping by, sometimes just to compliment how good her yard was looking. With such a no-pressure situation, some would make more small talk, which led to a genuine friendship. She also started going on walks regularly around the neighborhood and on the trails near her home, saying hi to everyone that passed and stopping those she recognized as neighbors for quick chit-chat. "Now, we all know each other well and have regular BBQs in the cul-de-sac," she says. "There was a significant amount of me putting myself out there, but literally being 'out there' in my neighborhood was the key to meeting new people."
For urbanites, it's the same—except hanging in your front yard means at the corner bar or restaurant. Sarah Sheppard, who lives in Michigan, says she made a friend when she was catching up on some editing work over a cocktail at an uncrowded bar late one night. "This young woman sat next to me. The conversation started slowly, but after a while, we hit it off and decided to swap info," she explains. "The lesson I've learned in meeting friends: It's not about the first encounter; it's about the follow-up."