• Divulge a secret. There are ways to make fast friends,
too, psychologists say. Research by Stony Brook University
professor Arthur Aron, PhD, showed that gradually increasing
the depth of questions and answers between strangers can
spawn friendships in just 45 minutes (Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, 1997). Fehr and her team are building on
this model by directing a couple of college buddies first to ask
each other neutral questions, such as, “When did you last go
to the zoo?” and slowly build up to more intimate questions
such as, “If you knew someone close to you was going to
die tomorrow, what would you tell them today — and why
haven’t you told them yet?”
So far, she’s seeing men’s friendships getting stronger.
“When they do open up to each other, they feel closer to each
other and they feel more satisfaction with the relationship,”
• Realize it’s in your head. Loneliness is a subjective
experience that can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy, says
Cacioppo. “When people feel isolated, the brain goes into
self-preservation mode,” he says, meaning that they become
preoccupied with their own — not others’ — welfare. While
the response is an innate one meant to protect us from
threats, over time, it harms physical and mental health and
well-being, and makes us more likely to see everything in a
negative light. It can also make us seem cold, unfriendly and
socially awkward. But recognizing what’s in your head can
help you get out of it, Cacioppo says.
In a review of interventions to reduce loneliness, he and
colleagues found that those that encouraged participants
to challenge their own negative thought processes — for
example, by sharing a positive part of their day with someone
else — were more effective than interventions seeking to
improve social skills, enhance social support or increase
opportunities for social contact. “It has a surprising effect,”
Cacioppo says. (Personality and Social Psychology Review,
• Log on, with caution. Liz Scherer, a copywriter in Silver
Spring, Md., used social media to forge friendships when she
moved from New York City to Annapolis, Md., about 10 years
ago at age 42. Through Twitter, she connected online with
others in her business and met many of them in person at
social media conferences. “ I’ve made some really good friends
who I talk to … every single day,” she says. “They’re good
social supports and business supports.”
Research suggests Scherer’s positive experience with social
media is most common among people who are already well
connected. A review of four studies by psychologist Kennon
“If you rely on virtual relationships entirely, that’s
probably bad for you,” Carstensen says. “But when you’re
using email and face time to supplement real relationships,
that’s a good thing.”
• Don’t force it. If the pressure to forge new relationships
is more external than internal, put away the “friend wanted”
ad and focus on what and who does make you happy, says
Carstensen. “If people are not very socially active and
they aren’t necessarily interested in expanding their social
networks, and they seem OK emotionally, then you shouldn’t
feel alarmed,” she says.
After all, being highly connected has its downsides, too,
says University of Sheffield psychologist Peter Totterdell,
PhD, who studies social networks in organizations. He’s
found that people with large work-based networks tend to be
more anxious than those with fewer connections. “Possibly
what’s going on there is that you get more possibilities, more
resources, but at the same time you’ve got more responsibility
as well,” he says.
And trying to change who you are can backfire, since
people’s likelihood to forge connections seems to be relatively
constant throughout life, Totterdell says. “People may have
a natural inclination, and to try to change that [may] make
them uncomfortable with the results,” he says.
The bottom line? Whether you’re content with two
close friends or prefer to surround yourself with 20 loose
acquaintances, what matters is that you feel a part of
something greater than yourself, Carstensen says.
“We shouldn’t judge people who say, ‘ I’m not a party goer,
I don’t want to make friends, I don’t want to hang out in the
bars or the clubs’ — that’s fine,” she says. “There’s a whole
bunch of people who feel the same way.” n
Social network changes and life events across
the life span: A meta-analysis.
Wrzus, Cornelia; Hänel, Martha; Wagner,
Jenny; Neyer, Franz J.
Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 139( 1), Jan 2013,
Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A
Meta-analytic Review. Holt-Lunstad, Julianne;
Smith, Timothy B.; Layton, Bradley J. PLoS Med
7( 7), July 27, 2010.
“Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for
Social Connection,” by John T. Cacioppo and
William Patrick. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008).
“Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways
Friends Make Us Who We Are,” by Carlin Flora.