Let’s be honest, making friends is far from easy. And at university, there isn’t a one-stop, all-you-can-eat buffet of friendships available, like there was during recess in elementary school. Instead, it can be very daunting to reach out to people and form connections.
Tory Pino, a registered psychologist and the chair of Wellness and Psychological Services at MacEwan University acknowledges that making and maintaining friendships isn’t easy. But ultimately, it’s very important.
“As humans, we’re social creatures,” says Pino. “It’s an inherent part of life and… we have a biological need to feel a sense of connection with others.” Friendships, he says, provide us with a sense of connectedness, shared experience, and an opportunity to support and be supported by others.
Pino cites a 2022 Psychology of Aging study that found feelings of loneliness and unhappiness are worse for your health than smoking cigarettes. In fact, loneliness can add 1.65 years to your biological age. While chronological age refers to how many years you’ve been alive, biological age is how old your cells or tissues are — or even how old you are perceived to be.
“If we have persistent feelings of loneliness, it’s something that we actually really need to address,” Pino explains.
But feelings of loneliness are not uncommon. During the spring of 2022, a National College Health Assessment survey found that 53.6 per cent of university students surveyed experienced loneliness. This is far from ideal, but in some ways, knowing that others are also lonely makes it a bit easier to reach out and connect with someone.
“There’s a pretty good chance, statistically, that others are feeling that (loneliness) as well,” says Pino. “Chances are, that (person’s) friendship list isn’t necessarily full.”
Making friends as an adult comes with its own set of challenges, most notably that friendships, compared to family or romantic relationships, can be more ambiguous, says Pino. And, there is also the fear and uncertainty that comes with reaching out to someone new.
“It might seem daunting, but I’d say that you don’t find friends at MacEwan — they usually find you,” says Joelle Fagan, a third-year student in professional communications. “The people I’ve befriended have taken a lot of the same classes as me.”
“I think people want to find other people who are in the same boat as them — terrified and excited about their prospective careers and education,” Fagan continues.
Jo Dawyd, a second-year professional communications student at MacEwan, notes that there are additional challenges to making friends as a student in your 30s. “It was weird initially feeling like I don’t belong here, like I shouldn’t participate in any social things because that’s for the young students,” Dawyd says. “Slowly, I’ve started to realize that there is a space for me here too, and the student population isn’t a homogenous group of 18 to 22 year olds, like I thought it was.”
Pino explains that university provides so many great opportunities for connection and friendship because there is a shared experience, especially if you’re in a class with someone.
You can talk about the readings, or the midterm, or the stories your professor tells. And if you run out of conversation topics about class, Pino suggests switching to simple time-based questions like, “How was your Monday?” Or “What’s your weekend looking like?”
As we grow older and continue to make connections, our reasons for creating friendships change and evolve along with our needs. “I don’t need someone to play in the sandbox with me as much as I did when I was four, but I might need to connect with someone on a one-to-one basis and go a little bit deeper than small talk,” says Pino with a laugh.
This means it is also important to do what Pino calls a compassionate investigation into your friendships — an honest reflection of which friendships are currently satisfying us. Ask yourself, is this friendship energizing me? Is this friendship draining me? Do I like who I am in this friendship? Is there a dynamic in this friendship that I don’t like? What kinds of needs is this friendship fulfilling for me?
Asking yourself what kinds of friendships you have is also important. “Do you have your party friends? Do you have your friends you can be silly with? Do you have your friends you can be supported by emotionally, that you can have the good talks with?” Pino asks.
“If you’ve got tons of party friends, that’s awesome, but if you need someone that you can have a good heart-to-heart with, that’s going to be tough to do in Beercade every Friday night at 1:30 in the morning.”
Friendships don’t always last forever, and that’s OK. “University is a point of transition for a lot of people. We’re here for a good time, but not a long time,” Pino says. But no matter how long friendships last, reaching out to others, connecting, and finding shared interests is so fulfilling.
“Be brave enough to fail at trying to make new friendships,” says Pino. “That really means stepping a little bit out of our comfort zone and smiling and saying hello to other people — engaging in a little bit of small talk.”
“The more people feel connected, the more they can feel a sense of community,” adds Pino. “This makes the university experience a little bit more fulfilling.”