How to Make Meaningful Friendships as an Adult
By Sarah Alexander
Loneliness carries a health risk equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can shorten a person’s life span by up to 15 years, according to a study by the University of New Hampshire. More concerning, loneliness is on the rise. In 1990 3 percent of Americans reported having no close friends, a number that has risen to 12 percent today, according to the Survey Center on American Life.
As Americans report having fewer close friends, another kind of friendship is on the rise—online friendships. While people may think having many online friends decreases loneliness, the opposite is true. A study from the National Library of Medicine showed people with the largest online network to be the most unhappy with their life.
A study from ResearchGate found this seems to be because people tend to seek online friendships as a form of social compensation when they lack in-person friends. Online friendships offer them the illusion of connectedness, making them less likely to venture from the comfort of home in search of in-person friendships.
“Folks who are engaged in exclusively online relationships are deliberately avoiding the higher stakes involved in in-person relationships,” said Lisa Lempel-Sander, who has worked as a psychoanalyst for Long Island Counseling in Queens for more than 35 years.
Lempel-Sander admits that in-person relationships present many challenges and cost considerable effort to maintain, but that may be just the point. “There is the very interesting component of in-person relating, which is that you can’t just turn the screen off and walk away,” she said. “You have to navigate through moments of awkwardness and distress, pleasure and joy, and the option of simply terminating the action isn’t so readily available and so requires more stamina, finesse and skill than just conducting an online interaction.”
She worries about the proliferation of online relationships because they fail to fulfill the need for human sociality. “Human interaction is wonderfully complex, involving a wide range of subtle signals and communications beyond the language used,” she said. “So many of those are flattened if not lost all together when you’re having an online interaction.”
Perhaps the most significant difference between online and in-person friendships is the lack of active engagement. When interacting in person there is almost always a shared activity involved—eating lunch, seeing a concert or going to a nightclub—that makes the experience substantively different than staring at a face on a screen. An activity engages all your senses, sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. By sucking many of the sensory components out of a connection and reducing it to two talking heads on a screen the experience is fundamentally diminished. The lack of a holistic sensory experience is possibly why so many people deem online connections to be less rewarding than in person ones.
But engaging in new relationships for adults can be difficult because they are not organically thrown together in a classroom or an after-school club as are children and adolescents. Lempel-Sander said the challenge for adults is “putting yourself out there” and proactively seeking engagement that may cause social discomfort at first. It requires a minimal level of self-confidence to arrange a new meet-up or attend an event where you don’t know anyone. The depressed or anxious person may not be able to override their natural feeling of apprehension and the preference to hide asserts itself.
While many people are naturally gregarious and will always gravitate toward in-person friendship, others find the effort required daunting and will quickly reach for the easier, but less fulfilling, online option. But the consequences can be serious.
“Humans are social beings,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a family practitioner from Esopus, New York. “Men and women were not created to be hermits; we need interactions with other human beings, not only to be happy, but also to maintain our sanity.”
In 34 years of family practice, Zimmerman has seen patients seriously debilitated by loneliness. Their feeling of isolation causes insomnia, poor nutritional health and a dysfunctional immune system leading to more frequent viral ailments. Dysthymia, or depression, is another symptom he has seen in people who are socially isolated. People with dysthymia often stop reporting to school or work and become increasingly dysfunctional, Zimmerman said.
Here are some tips for those adults who struggle to make in-person friendships.
Look for friendship in every person.
Julia Gobes, a junior English major at Adelphi, said she finds the best friends in the most random places. “Everyone looks to find [friends] in the easiest spots. For instance my English classes, you would think, ‘Oh I’m going to make so many friends here, we have so much in common,’ but then the only thing you really have in common with a lot of people is silence and the fact that they’re English majors,” Gobes said. “Meanwhile on a social outing, I’ll go up to a random 25-year-old and come away with the most interesting friendship.”
Gobes, who bartends at a restaurant and bar on Long Island, said she made one of her most rewarding connections with a man her opposite. He was gruff, older and conservative, and at first glance Gobes decided he was not friend material. Yet one night she found an amazing connection with him over Pink Floyd’s album “Wish You Were Here" and a friendship was born.
Gobes encourages people to look for a potential friend in every person you meet, as often the most meaningful connections are found in people of a different age or walk of life than you.
Initiating new social connections is a vital skill and, in a world where we move about constantly, one we must often use. However, many people hesitate to initiate new friendships and both Lempel-Sander and Zimmerman believe this is because we are afraid of vulnerability.
However, vulnerability is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, Gobes believes it to be the most important aspect of a healthy relationship. Lempel-Sander agreed. “A meaningful social connection…ought to include mutual vulnerability…if we go up to 30,000 feet and take a look at a relationship—the partners in that relationship should be holding each other, in a symbolic sense.” We cannot truly “hold each other” without allowing ourselves to appear vulnerable to one another. So instead of shying from vulnerability, embrace it, because although scary, it is the key to meaningful and healthy friendships.
While your online connections may be an important part of your life, they are not a substitute for the greater complexity and reward of an in-person relationship. Zimmerman said, “I would like to emphasize the importance of ‘in-person’ friendships….friendships at your school or at your place of work, people you can actually talk to face to face—you need to continue to make new friends when you move—if all your friends are geographically distanced from you, you need to make friends where you’re at.”
Zimmerman’s words are sage counsel for college students who experience a succession of transitions from high school to college to career, transitions that often take them far from home and the friend groups that supported them in their adolescence.
If you feel anxious about initiating new friendships, Lempel-Sander had a further piece of advice: “Remind yourself that you have something wonderful to offer. Remind yourself that others feel as tentative as you do about putting yourself out there.”