How to make friends as an adult

I decided to write this short guide because I feel like I see a lot of people struggling to make friends as adults. In school or university you are confined to a space with other people with whom you, by default, have common ground. After graduation those friendships tend to drift apart, people move to new cities for job opportunities or relationships, and somehow people wake up aged 28 or 35 and realise that they are lonely. It seems there are lots of people in the same boat: lonely adults who wish they could make meaningful friendships, but don’t know where to start.

I’m going to help you find each other.

But first, a disclaimer: despite the qualifications I do have as a psychologist, this advice has frankly nothing to do with my professional work. I am not a therapist or relationship counsellor. This advice is mostly made in my capacity as an extrovert.

 

Where to start

Friendships don’t need to be based on being identical people with identical interests and lifestyles. In fact one of the best things about friendships is being able to expand your own bubble and learn about the passions of other people. However, you do need at least some congruence around values and general areas of interest.

The easiest way to meet new people is by meeting friends of friends. And then friends of friends of friends and so on. However, joining a group based around an interest of activity is a good way to get out of your bubble. You can look for local sports teams or clubs (football, rock climbing, yoga). There are meet-up groups based around films, board games, whisky tastings, taxidermy, DIY, painting, and pretty much any other interest you can think of. Many of them offer beginner sessions, or will at least be friendly and inclusive to newcomers, so even if you’ve never participated in the activity you can meet people and learn something new.

The internet is a boundless resource for your specific area.

Activities are good because you a) have a go-to topic of conversation rather than awkwardly poking around to try to find common ground, and b) everyone is there to meet people willingly – you are not imposing on an established group as an outsider, or making the “cold” approach to people who may not be interested in meeting anyone at all.

Do not try to make friends in bars or clubs.

 

Small talk

People hate small talk. However, small talk has a purpose and, when done correctly, doesn’t have to be painful.

The purpose of small talk is to tread water. People come from a lot of different backgrounds, with a lot of different opinions, and a lot of different lifestyles. Use small talk to probe into who the person you’re talking to is, and whether you have some common ground.

Small talk will also ensure you don’t offend people because you were lacking in information – for example talking about your weekly “I hate kittens” meet-up group to someone who is an avid cat lover. But more specifically to avoid pressing hot-button topics which people tend to get very defensive about, such as religion, political views, and lifestyle (children, relationships, family).

The interactions described above are intended for strangers at parties, or the aforementioned activity groups. Basically, situations where making friends is normal and acceptable.

My personal advice is to avoid trying to make friends at work, but your mileage may vary.

You start with an innocuous question or comment – about their weekend, or Christmas plans. They answer. If the answer is interesting, you can ask them to elaborate further. “Oh you went hiking? Do you go hiking a lot?” or “Oh, you’re going up to Norwich for Christmas? Is that where you grew up?” They answer. You tell them a little information about yourself, and continue the conversation. “Scotland, huh? I haven’t been hiking since I was a kid; my aunt used to take us to Wales. I’d love to get back into it though.” People love talking about themselves, and they love feeling like they are interesting. If you ask people questions they will like you because they think that you think that they are interesting. The purpose of offering information about yourself is that when the information volume is imbalanced (i.e., you know way more about them than they know about you), people start feeling awkward.

You’ll notice I said “if the answer is interesting”. A lot of the time, it won’t be. A lot of people are boring. A lot of people aren’t boring, but your interests do not line up with theirs. A lot of people are bad at socialising and don’t recognise “bids for information” (which is what I described above) and will give you one-word, uninformative answers.

All of this is fine, normal, and to be expected. If you’ve realised you’re talking to a person you’re not getting on with, just move on to the next one.

The point is that by getting into the habit of making these small talk prods, you might eventually stumble upon someone you click with.

You may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a friend-prince.

 

How to make the leap from acquaintance to friend

Let’s say you finally met someone cool. The first step is to exchange contact information. It’s perfectly fine to literally say “Listen, you seem like a cool person. Do you want to swap numbers/add me on Facebook/whatever your preferred mode of communication is? It would be nice to hang out again some time.”

If they hesitate or get a weird look on their face, that means “no”. At that point you say “Hey, no worries if not. Enjoy the rest of your night!”

Let’s say they say yes.

Invite them somewhere. Don’t invite them to “hang out”, invite them to a specific event relevant to something you talked about or were doing on initial meeting. “Hey, I’m going to [thing] on Tuesday, do you want to come?”

They might say no. This may mean they’re genuinely busy, or they don’t like the sound of [thing], or maybe they’re feeling ill. It may also mean they don’t want to hang out, at all, and are giving you a “soft no”.

That’s fine.

Wait for a bit of time to pass, maybe a week or two, and invite them to something else.

If they still say “no”, the ball is in their court and if they do want to cultivate a friendship with you it is up to them to reach out. Do not invite them to something else again unless they reach out first.

If they say yes – congratulations, you are on the path to building what might be a friendship!

Ideally they will also eventually introduce you to their friends, and you now have a much larger pool for meeting new people and making new friends, using the same process outlined above.

 

Maintaining friendships

Some people have a “set it and forget it” approach to relationships. Once you have decided that You Are Friends, that label is assumed to be true until explicitly revoked. Some people can go months without even speaking to each other and then reconnect like nothing even happened.

However, most friendships do take effort and maintenance from both parties, or they wilt and eventually die.

This means that if you find yourself doing all the inviting and reaching out, either the person isn’t all that keen on being friends with you, or they don’t think you are worth putting effort in for. My advice is to not continue putting in the one-sided effort.

As a rule of thumb, reach out three times. If they do not reciprocate (invite you somewhere, send the first text message, phone you), then do not reach out again until they do. Once they do reach out, the “count” resets.

By the same token, you cannot expect a relationship to coast on the effort of the other person. If you are constantly turning down invitations and not reaching out, you can expect the friendship to dry out. Even if your reasons are legitimate, it makes the other person feel like their efforts are being taken for granted, or that you do not appreciate them, or that you are subtly trying to tell them to stop pestering you.

 

A few parting words of advice

Although this may sound harsh, none of the above advice will be helpful if you are fundamentally a boring or unpleasant person. Friendships are reciprocal. If you bring nothing to the table, you cannot expect others to want to be your friend. This means cultivating interests and hobbies in your own time. It’s incredibly difficult to hold a conversation with someone who has nothing to talk about, even for the most extraverted extraverts.

Unpleasantness, especially in the early stages of trying to meet new people, mostly refers to the inability to take rejection gracefully. Rejection is an inevitable, and incredibly common aspect of socialising. In the words of Dita Von Teese, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there will still be someone who hates peaches.”

Finally, consider the area you live. If you are struggling to find like-minded people, it could just mean that there are no like-minded people around.

And finally, finally: don’t get discouraged. It’s entirely normal to have to speak casually to 100 people to find 20 that you like, of which 10 may like you back, of which 5 will take you up on your offer to hang out, of which 2 might become good friends of yours. Or you might meet your new best friend at that thing you’re going to on Thursday.

What is intermittent fasting doing to your head?

Intermittent fasting (IF) keeps popping up with increasing regularity in the media and on the internet. The idea is that short-term caloric restriction interspersed with “normal eating” has a variety of health benefits.

There are several different types of IF:

  • Alternate Day Fasting: eating <600 calories every other day
  • The 5:2 diet: eating 500-600 calories two days a week
  • Daily Intermittent Fasting: eating within a set time “window” each day (and effectively fasting the rest of the time)

intermittent fastingThe good thing about IF is that it allows for individual adjustment. None of the rules are set in stone and adherents are expected to fast in a way that suits their needs and lifestyle. It also isn’t a short term “diet” – rather, the aim is to switch to IF as a lifestyle change and then maintain it permanently.

It also isn’t being touted as a weight loss strategy – yes, it can be expected as a welcome “side effect”, but the intention is to improve physical and mental well-being in general. Some research suggests that IF lowers blood pressure and increases heart and brain cell resistance to stress. This effect can improve the functioning of the nervous system and could potentially delay the onset of age-related neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Potentially. Most of this research has been carried out in mice, so we just don’t know yet.

Trying out IF with the sole intention of weight loss probably isn’t entirely advisable either. In Rena Wing’s study, obese patients on IF diets did lose more weight than those simply on low calorie diets (14 vs. 10.5kg over 50 weeks) – but the caveat is that the IF diet was more “fasting intermittent with a low-calorie diet”. In the end, the differences just weren’t that impressive.

Some practitioners have also made the argument that switching to IF will only be beneficial alongside other positive eating and lifestyle changes; fasting will not be of much use if it is interspersed with overeating and a poor diet.

I was somewhat sceptical about the reality of IF. First of all, it can’t be very practical. Second, I would have expected surviving on a measly 500 calories to be, at the very least, unpleasant – and at worst, debilitating. By contrast, it doesn’t seem that IF particularly affects cognitive function: attention, memory and reaction times seem to be unaffected by up to 24 hours of fasting. Studies in people observing the Ramadan (which requires abstinence from food and drink during daylight) suggest that IF can actually increase vigilance but increases feelings of fatigue. Having said that, Michael Mosley tried out the 5:2 variant of IF for BBC’s Horizon and said he found it “surprisingly easy“. So it seems that the psychological effects of IF are negligible.

A word of warning: one study conducted in mice found that caloric restriction led to decreased sexual arousal and made the male mice less attractive to female mice. Just saying.

So, it seems that the jury is out on the benefits of IF. The science is not as wild about the benefits as some of the blogs I’ve seen – but it doesn’t appear to be harmful. Personally, I’d like to see more research on the emotional consequences of IF, and its impact on quality of life and interpersonal relationships.

If you’re thinking about trying out intermittent fasting, see the 5:2 NHS page for some comprehensive advice and a review of the evidence.

Have you tried intermittent fasting? What was your experience?

Is the media to blame for eating disorders?

The short answer is: not as much as you might think.

Don’t get me wrong: the thin ideal perpetrated by the media in Western cultures is in no way helpful to our well-being. Being faced with endless images of lithe, toned demi-gods usually doesn’t make us feel particularly happy about our own garden-variety, lumpy physiques. This happens because a lot of market research has been conducted over the years and has concluded that happy people spend less money. This is a problem if “people spending money” is your corporate mission statement.

Social comparison, on the other hand, is a really good way to get people to spend money. Feeling socially accepted is so important for our psychological well-being that it’s number three on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Numbers one and two, by the way, are things like breathing and not having cancer. By that rationale, being socially accepted seems like a pretty good financial investment.

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So: artificially inflating our value compared to others provides us with an incentive to spend money on things which might decrease that gap. The more we are surrounded by images of people who are way more beautiful, successful and popular than us, the more compelled we are to invest in products which promise to make us better than the horrible losers we are in comparison. This isn’t exactly an industry secret, but it’s really difficult to fight against it on a daily basis when we already expend a lot of energy on things like working jobs and taking care of our families (illicit lovers, cats, potted plants, etc.).

Here’s an illustration: a 2006 study found that 86% of the young women who took part had internalised the “thin ideal” – that is, they had positive associations with thinness and negative associations with fatness. This was regardless of what they subjectively believed to be true.

Of course, placing excessive value on thinness is also very common in anorexia and, on the surface, it does seem like the two are linked. But, as Jane Polivy and CP Herman wrote in a 2002 paper on the subject:

Exposure to the media is so widespread that if such exposure were the cause of [eating disorders], then it would be difficult to explain why anyone would not be eating disordered.

Valuing thinness simply isn’t enough for an eating disorder to develop. If people with anorexia are simply (or even mostly) trying to emulate models, why aren’t most people anorexic?

Anorexia nervosa (the eating disorder most commonly blamed on media influence) is very complex. We still aren’t entirely sure what “causes” it. Genetics seem to play a role to some extent. There are also some common personality features, such as perfectionism or a tendency to be more obsessive. People with anorexia often have a need for very rigid self-control and seem to “pick” eating as their target behaviour because it’s relatively more available, convenient and has measurable consequences (weight loss).

The media certainly does a good job at cultivating body dissatisfaction and general misery. But images of thin, beautiful people are not enough for someone to develop an eating disorder. They certainly don’t help, but using the media as a scapegoat for an incredibly complex psychological disorder is rather reductionist. If anything, anorexia is the diametric opposite of vanity.

Edit 28/05/2013:

Here is an appropriate first person account excerpt, from today’s article by Nichi Hodgson in the New Statesman:

Let me be clear: fashion magazines did not cause my anorexia; they merely “fed” my perfectionistic compulsion, a product of emotional turmoil at home and my hot-house schooling at a competitive girls’ academy.

Will green tea make you thin?

I think we started hearing about green tea as a magical weight loss potion some time in the early ’90s. The exoticism of the Far East probably plays into it, as well as the fact that only around a quarter of Chinese people are overweight (in the UK we’re nearing two thirds [pdf]). Green tea likes to pop up on lists of things which remove “toxins”.

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I like green tea. It tastes really nice with lemon. It also makes me feel healthy and radiant, which I chalk up to the fact that I’ve internalised all the endless messages about its health benefits like an entranced toxin-filled sponge.

In 1989 Todd Heatherton and his colleagues at the University of Toronto ran an experiment [pdf]. They gave people who were on a diet a pill and they told them that it would make them feel a) hungry, or b) full. The pill was a placebo, a sugar pill, in both cases – but the people who thought they should be feeling hungry ate more, and the ones who thought they’d be full ate less. Our expectations of how we should feel have a pretty potent effect on how we actually feel.

Green tea is not immune from this effect. This is especially true if you have just woken up on January 1st and started drinking green tea as part of your New Lifestyle™ which also includes not drinking whisky before noon and going for jogs before 6am. Yes, you might be feeling better because of the green tea, but those other things are probably having an effect too.

Plot twist: I did some research and it turns out that hey, actually green tea does have an effect on weight loss! Sort of. Maybe.

Some kind people in the Netherlands did a meta review of the literature a couple of years ago and found that out of 11 (long-term, blind, placebo-controlled) studies, 8 found that green tea led to weight loss. To be fair, most of these were carried out with Asian participants, so there could be environmental or cultural factors at work. The results are also far from impressively unequivocal and we’re talking about a difference of 2kg here, not ten. Still, it’s somehow a lot better than I expected.

Apparently it’s not just the caffeine, either. The thing in green tea that’s thought to help with weight loss is catechin, which is an antioxidant. It’s also found in vinegar and cocoa, which explains things like “the chocolate diet” and “I always drink a spoon of vinegar before each meal, darling.

If you like drinking green tea, by all means keep at it. Drink it for the lovely taste, the break from your usual builder’s brew, for the delicious placebo effect, but really – don’t drink it to lose five stone in three days. It ain’t magic.