IOWA Magazine | 03-28-2024

Ask an Expert: How Do I Make New Friends?

2 minute read
Iowa professor Rachel McLaren offers tips on how we can open ourselves up to new connections in adulthood.
Rachel McLaren PHOTO COURTESY RACHEL MCLAREN Rachel McLaren, UI associate professor of communication studies

Trying to find friendship in adulthood can feel risky, says University of Iowa associate professor of communication studies Rachel McLaren

“We don’t know if people are going to like us or not like us,” she says, “so there’s a lot of uncertainty in initial interactions, and it makes us very hesitant to be direct in our communication—many times for fear of rejection.” 

But humans are social creatures and have a fundamental need for connection, McLaren said in a recent UI webinar titled “How to Human: Combatting Loneliness and Cultivating Friendship.” Relationships give our lives meaning and promote personal growth, she added. They’re also crucial for our health.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates occurring among young adults. Research shows we’re spending less time per week with friends than past generations, which is problematic because loneliness and isolation carry comparable levels of health risk as smoking, diabetes, and obesity. 

Simply put, strong relationships keep us happy and healthy. Here are three strategies from McLaren for taking the first steps in making new friends. 

Use Mindset to Your Advantage

McLaren says we tend to underestimate how much others like us—an effect experts call “the liking gap”—which can lead us to act cold and reserved. By shifting our mindset and reminding ourselves that people naturally want to connect, we open up to the possibility of new friendships.

“There’s a funny thing that happens, a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. “When I assume that people like me, I actually end up acting in more open and friendly ways, which can result in better social interactions.”

Join an Active Group

Research shows that we have an unconscious desire to like people who are familiar to us—a psychological phenomenon known as the Mere Exposure Effect. McLaren says we get an inside track on making friends by simply seeing the same faces regularly.

“Sign up for a language class that meets once a week for 10 weeks, or a dance class that meets every week, or some other event that you know is going to happen regularly,” she says. “You’re going to give yourself more chances to observe the people in that group and to be exposed to them and hopefully connect with them.”

Be Present

Once we commit to turning off Netflix and leaving the house regularly, McLaren says it’s important we communicate our openness to talking to others. That starts by putting away our phones around others, being present, and being open to small talk.

“It’s going to be hard initially, but it’s a muscle we can continue to work on,” she says. “People aren’t just going to show up at our door, so we’ve really got to get out there.”

Join our email list
Get the latest news and information for alumni, fans, and friends of the University of Iowa.
Join our email list
Get the latest news and information for alumni, fans, and friends of the University of Iowa.
Related Articles

We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies in accordance with our Privacy Statement unless you have disabled them in your browser.