How to make friends in retirement — and why it’s so important

Making friends can be difficult at any age, but in retirement it can pose additional challenges because it can be lacking in the built-in social life that existed in school or during the working years — or even as a parent of young children.

Americans spend less time with friends and more time alone as they grow older. In their 20s, Americans spend more than two hours a day with friends, but this drops to less than one hour by 40, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey. 

“Finding a new tribe is important — new friendships, new activities. The social part of retirement is very important and often overlooked,” said Joe Casey, managing partner of Retirement Wisdom.

Read: ‘I was meant to be here.’ The pros and cons of moving to a 55+ community

Don’t underestimate the power of friends. Loneliness is considered a deadly epidemic, according to the Surgeon General, and the number of people living alone has surged to about 29% of the U.S. population. 

“When was the last time you made a new friend?” said Robert Laura, founder of the Retirement Coaches Association. “It can be hard.”

According to research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Americans only spend about 41 minutes a day socializing, which is one-third of the amount of time spent watching TV or commuting. 

Making friends takes time.

Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, found that it takes between 40 and 60 hours to form a casual friendship with someone, between 80 and 100 hours to transform a casual friend into a friend, and more than 200 hours to transition from friends to good or best friends.

“You have to show up and keep showing up. Make it a habit. Take the initiative and keep at it. Any behavioral change takes time,” Hall said.

“Those conditions in college or school rarely ever are replicated. Past the age of 25, the most important friend-making stage is over,” Hall said.

Hall said there is no consensus on what is needed to feel connected — or the optimal number of friends. 

“We don’t know the magic number of how many friends you need. It depends on the person. It’s a fuzzy science,” Hall said. “Everyone has social-connection differences that they need. There are several different routes to belongingness.”

For older adults, there may be a meaningful loss —such as the death of a spouse — as well as an increased risk of loneliness. And loneliness is not easy to fix. Loneliness and depression often go hand-in-hand, Hall said. 

A Duke University study found that social exclusion or the loss of friends causes feelings similar to physical pain, while social interactions create feelings of pleasure as endorphins bond with opioid receptors in the brain. And people with more friends have a higher pain tolerance, according to Oxford University researchers.

So what’s the key to making friends and combating loneliness?

Use technology as an advantage

Something as simple as a phone call, reconnecting with old friends on social media and even games like Words with Friends can help people feel more engaged and connected, Hall said.

Recommendations also included apps that can help find new friends — much like dating apps, but for BFFs. Some popular and free or low-cost apps include Bumble BFF, which searches for friends with common interests; Skout, an online book club; or Friender, another friend-finding app. Meetup is another way to find people with similar interests or in similar age cohorts.

Create a routine

“Create a routine so you go to the same coffee shop at the same time every day and go to the gym at 10 a.m. each morning,” Laura said “You’ll get familiar with new people and start making small connections at first that can evolve over time.”

Don’t give up too quickly

Making friends can be a challenge, especially when people are juggling family, health issues and other commitments. Having someone decline an invitation may be more of a statement on the other person’s life than friendability. Try again another time. 

Most of all, Hall said, don’t be too hard on yourself — or the other person.

“If another person doesn’t have time for you, it’s not a reflection of you. They may not have time or may already have a full social network. Not everyone you’re going to meet is going to be perfect,” Hall said. 

Follow up

“Everyone has said ‘let’s get together sometime’ to people. But so many people don’t actually do it. Well, follow up. Don’t make the other person do all the work,” Hall said.

Some people are naturally gifted at making bold moves such as inviting an acquaintance over for dinner or making the leap from workout buddies to friends who meet for coffee. That means making friends has to be a habit that’s developed.

Pursue a new hobby, activity or college course or volunteer 

“One of the best ways to find new friends is to join a group that’s involved with an activity that you’re interested in,” Casey said. “The possibilities are vast. Take a class. Join a book club, a bike club or a community group. The key is to do things with others and put yourself in places where new friendships can emerge.” 

Participation in community activities — guest speakers, movie nights, neighborhood cleanups, the dog park — where people are around means opportunities to make new friends. Volunteering is another great way to meet like-minded people.

Read: Volunteering can be key to a happy retirement. Why aren’t more people doing it?

While only 26% of the nation’s 70 million retirees volunteer, it can help forge connections between those with a shared sense of purpose. 

“Take a chance. Get involved with others doing something you love,” Casey said.

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