We know nutrition and exercise are vital to optimal health and longevity, right?
But human connection is another factor that's been getting more scientific attention lately.
"We're going through a friendship famine today," says Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., psychologist and bestselling author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends.
Franco writes that platonic love lies at the lowest rung of our culture's hierarchy of love, way below the romantic or familial types. And it's a devastating loss to us all, since research shows that friends matter even more for our overall wellbeing as we age.
And, because we don't always value friendship as much as we should, we often lack knowledge on how to cultivate it.
The good news is it's never too late to make a new friend. Here's how we can start to open ourselves to new relationships, even if it feels a bit uncomfortable:
Take the initiative to develop friendships; they don't happen organically.
For children, friendships seem to form effortlessly. It's common for kids to connect at school during consistent, everyday activities like recess and lunch. As adults, we don't have the same opportunities for organic connections.
True friendships require continuous interaction and a willingness to be vulnerable. Seeing colleagues every day at work doesn't automatically foster a deep bond since people don't often show vulnerability at work.
Research shows that adults need to put in more effort to make friends. You must be proactive and put yourself out there. It could be as simple as saying, "It's been great connecting with you. Would you be open to exchanging contact information?"
The Power of Positive Perception
Don't anticipate rejection from others.
Experiencing even one instance of rejection can stop us from initiating positive interactions, as we wrongly assume that everyone will reject us. This phenomenon is called the liking gap.
Researchers had strangers interact and then asked them, "How much do you like one another?" They found that participants consistently underestimated how much they were liked by others.
The more self-critical a person is, the more pronounced their liking gap. The reality is people are less likely to reject you than you think.
Assume that people like you.
Assuming that people like us can be challenging. Our brains have a negativity bias intended to protect us, which can interfere with our social interactions.
Some individuals are more susceptible to rejection and project this fear onto ambiguous situations. For instance, if a friend doesn't sit beside them or respond to their text immediately, they interpret it as rejection.
These rejection-sensitive individuals often become cold and withdrawn. Consequently, people tend to abandon them in return.
However, researchers discovered a phenomenon called the acceptance prophecy. When participants were told evidence showed that they would get along with a particular group of people, they became warmer, friendlier, and more open.
Assuming that people like us triggers behaviors that increase the likelihood of this becoming true. Conversely, assuming rejection leads to behaviors that make it more likely we'll be rejected.
The Community Effect
Seek out groups and activities that meet regularly.
Discovering a group or class that meets consistently can have a profound impact on our lives. This realization inspired Franco to write Platonic.
After experiencing grief from challenging breakups, she approached one of her friends and proposed starting a wellness group. They began meeting weekly to engage in meditation, cooking, and yoga.
The most transformative aspect wasn't the specific activities but the regular sense of community and the joy of being around friends. You can create your own group or explore other avenues to engage with like-minded individuals.
If you enjoy learning languages, consider joining a language class rather than attending a one-time workshop. If improv interests you, enroll in an improv class that meets repeatedly over time.
The point is regular interactions with others creates lasting connections.
Make others feel valued and like they belong.
Franco once believed she needed to be intelligent, funny, charismatic, and insightful to attract friends. She aimed to be captivating, expecting people to gravitate toward her.
However, she now realizes that what truly resonates with people is making them feel valued rather than being entertaining or charismatic.
In fact, when asked about the most desirable quality in a friend, people always mention feeling valued. According to risk regulation theory, we decide how much effort to invest in a relationship based on our perception of the likelihood of rejection.
When we feel assured that we won't be rejected, we feel safer and more willing to invest in that relationship.
So, those who excel at making friends are skilled at creating a comfortable environment where others feel welcomed and cherished.
Friendship takes energy we often don't feel like we have while juggling partners, children, grandchildren, health, work, and aging parents. It's not always clear that it's worth it.
But it is.
Studies have proven that engaging with our friends releases calming hormones, helping to negate the impacts of stress.
And, in the words of favorite teacher Elizabeth Gilbert:
"If you don't have anybody who's generous and loving and full of grace in your life, then go be that in somebody else's life. What can you bring as an offering? That's how community is built. It's built on the offerings of the generous and the loving."
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Photos by: Marina Bolow, DepositPhotos (#1) & Linda Wattier (#2)