There’s an epidemic of loneliness, you know, my clients often tell me. I’m a marriage and family therapist and a relationship scientist, which basically means that I study relationships for a living. And in my clinical practice, I regularly find myself listening to clients lament how challenging it is for them to form friendship connections as an adult. In response, I’ll validate their emotions and assist as they recount the litany of ways that self-help articles and books suggest making friends: Go to networking events, join a Meetup group, download an app. All this advice is well-intentioned. But what happens when you’ve tried it all without much success? Finding myself in a similar boat, I wondered if I might approach platonic relationships like many do romantic ones—that is, by soliciting new friend “dates.”
Finding people to go on friend dates with me would require getting vulnerable and putting myself out there (more on that below). But the potential result of forming new connections seemed more than worth it. After all, it is tougher to find opportunities for new friendships as an adult, when out of school, and no longer transitioning between places of employment. And the resulting loneliness can have psychological and physiological consequences, increasing one’s risk for anxiety and depression, sleep difficulties, a weakened immune system, and high blood pressure.
It is tougher to find opportunities for new friendships as an adult, when out of school, and no longer transitioning between places of employment.
Understanding this ripple effect gave me a sense of purpose for my experiment: Find new people with whom I could go on “friend dates” every day for the first month of 2023 in order to combat loneliness and boost my mental and physical health as a result. If it worked, I would also plan to share the details of how I did it with my clients and finally offer them a solution I could really stand by for the most common question I’m asked: How do I make new friends as an adult?
Soliciting friend dates on social media
I got started in mid-December by sharing a blurb on my social-media accounts, encouraging people I knew (in the social media-sphere at least) to connect me with people they knew and with whom they figured I’d get along. I posted it with a calendar link and waited for the influx of notifications indicating that friend dates had been set.
One day passed since the post and… nothing. Day two… crickets. People liked my post, and some even commented that it was a great idea, but by day six, there were still no sign-ups.
After experiencing what felt like a shame cycle stemming from my public admission of friendlessness, I tweaked my approach. My goal to schedule one friend date every day in January remained intact. However, I realized that I would need to directly message people with my request for this to happen. Admittedly, this seemed even more daunting, as it would put me in the vulnerable position of sending messages that could potentially go unanswered. Despite my fear, I was already committed, and I began the task.
I messaged people I missed and with whom I’d lost touch, people with whom I was connected by circumstance but didn’t really know, and even some former friends with whom the relationship hadn’t ended on the best of terms. Leaning on the project as the purpose of my message, I was able to share my desire to establish and, in some cases, re-establish connections with people in a more direct and (what felt like) authentic way. The process was both empowering and humbling.
By the end of December, I had a full schedule set for January: early-morning virtual coffees, late-night virtual drinks, and mid-day work breaks.
The experiment: Friend-dating throughout the month of January
All my friend dates were initially virtual, but several led to in-person second dates. Each one was different. During some, my “date” and I engaged in fun, easy banter and during others, deep, thought-provoking conversations. On several dates, we shared who we are and who we want to be, and during others, we discussed our pet peeves and perceived shortcomings. Several people tried to convince me that I’d still be able to learn to parallel park (not a chance).
Some dates moved slowly as we searched for conversation and common ground, whereas others flowed naturally like we were old friends who had reconvened to reminisce. But each showed me something new about myself and my approach to relationships. Overall, I went on a total of 31 friend dates in the month of January, occasionally skipping a day or attending multiple dates in one.
The takeaways: What I learned from going on 31 new friend dates in a row
1. Friendship takes a lot of work
While I knew, prior to my experiment, that friendship is an investment of time and energy, this process crystalized that for me. In order to get something out of any relationship, you need to put something into it.
Logistically speaking, organizing all the friend dates was tiring. This may have been the product of my having an already packed schedule—and having to fit the dates in like puzzle pieces—and the exhaustion that can accompany back-to-back video calls. I also found that, on an emotional level, connecting with someone every day was a challenge, too.
For the most part, however, the work felt worth it. I made genuine connections with people and have continued to actively communicate with many of them.
I made genuine connections with people and have continued to actively communicate with many of them.
The only times when I felt let down by the experiment and the work I’d poured into it were the few instances when I was stood up. It’s frustrating when people last-minute cancel plans (or worse, forget about them completely), but it’s also a reality of life. These situations can happen with current friends and partners as much as they can with prospective ones.
In those cases, I wound up using the solo time to reflect and tried to fight the all-too-common tendency to personalize. (After all, getting stood up is never about you or within your control.) Realistically, I also knew from the outset that not everyone with whom I scheduled a friend date in this experiment would become a longstanding friend. Again, growing a friendship requires time and energy, and it wouldn’t be feasible to devote that to all 31 people whom I friend-dated, anyway.
2. You have more potential connections in your network than you think
Before I started my experiment, I suspected that I’d need people in my network to introduce me to friends of theirs in order to come up with enough new people to friend-date for an entire month. But when that didn’t work, I decided to lean into my existing social network (including lost connections), and I set up far more dates than I initially thought I could arrange without assistance from others.
Rather than focusing on how my relationship once was with each of the former friends in the mix, I changed my focus to, “I wonder what more I can learn about X person?” This way, I could attempt to re-establish the bond while leaving the door open for what might come of a new, present-day friendship.
3. Reaching out to a lost connection is worth it (yes, even with the risk of being left on read)
Some of the people I contacted never responded—and while I could tell that some of them never saw my message, others clearly did and chose to ignore it. This stung, but I reminded myself that just because I wanted to connect (or reconnect) did not mean that they felt the same way. And it wasn’t worth my mental or emotional energy to try to figure out why.
All that said, I still recommend reaching out to lost connections if you’d like to have more friends because the vast majority of people responded positively, saying things like, “I am so glad that you reached out,” or, “This is such a fun idea.” Many also shared my sentiments around struggling to form friendships in adulthood and fearing rejection. This kind of validation was incredibly comforting, offering me a sense of reassurance that I had done the right thing and perhaps even inspired them to start a similar friend-dating project of their own.
4. You can know someone without really knowing them
Throughout the process, I was confronted by the realization that I’d spent significant time with some people in the past (some, from my former academic life and others, through work-related projects) and while we would talk, we never really knew much of anything about each other’s lives. And in reconnecting now, on the basis of pure friendship, I learned so much more about them—which, in turn, also helped me learn more about myself.
The biggest takeaway? Ask more open-ended questions of people in your network whom you know but don’t really know and get to know what makes them tick. This is what really fosters human connection.
Ask more open-ended questions of people to get to know what makes them tick.
That also means taking time to nurture your connections with would-be friends one-on-one. This turned out to be another upside of my friend-date experiment: Part of the reason I gained such insight into people whom I didn’t really know before was simply because I spoke to them individually. While hanging out with groups can be fun, we don’t necessarily get to learn about people and get into deep conversation when in the presence of others.
5. Being open to friendship can make you more open overall
While fitting 31 friend dates into my schedule was the main challenge with this experiment, pushing myself to make time for this new activity re-opened my eyes to the benefits of novelty more broadly. Throughout the month, I also found myself signing up for other new activities, like creativity groups and improv classes. As it turned out, expanding my social circle also meant cultivating and expanding my interests.
Though this light-speed experiment in socializing didn’t immediately grant me 31 new friends (again, it takes work to create friendships), it did illuminate the kinds of connections (and activities) that could grow my social life—and that are worthy of more of my time and energy.
This experience also showed me how many others in my network are on their own journeys to making new friends in adulthood. If that’s you, I want to assure you that you’re not alone. And perhaps kicking off a friend-dating project of your own could lead you to cross paths with people in search of their own new friends, too.