When I ask people what attracts them to a romantic partner, they can wax poetic about why they fall in love. But when I ask them why they gravitated toward their closest friends, it’s clear that they haven’t given much thought to “falling in like.”
Eventually, most people say friendships start with similarity—like Chandler and Joey loving foosball games and pet ducks. Think about what drew you to your besties. You might share a passion for above-water basket weaving, a love of films not made by Wes Anderson, or a belief in the conspiracy theory that birds aren’t real. It makes sense: whether or not they actually exist, birds of a feather do flock together.
But in a classic study, a trio of psychologists investigated the factors that predicted the formation of friendships among married military veterans at MIT. They found that what mattered most was not similarity, but proximity. In a college dorm or an apartment building, the person you’re most likely to befriend is your neighbor. If you don’t happen to live near a mailbox or stairs, odds are that your friends will be limited to your floor. Although friends may well be the family you choose, you don’t really choose them that carefully.
It's not that similarity is irrelevant. A recent meta-analysis of hundreds of studies revealed that what counts is perceived similarity, not actual similarity. You become friends with people who seem similar to you. And those are the people you see the most, because every interaction is another opportunity to discover something you have in common. Friends got it right with Chandler and Joey: they met through a roommate ad, and then stumbled onto a bunch of activities they enjoyed together.
This sheds light on why it was easier to make friends when we were kids. We had regular interaction with peers where our hobbies were constantly on display. Thank you, show-and-tell. In adulthood, our cohorts shrink and our hobbies hide, so it takes longer to discover and develop meaningful bonds. Some evidence suggests that it takes an average of 50 hours of interaction to progress from acquaintance to friend and 200 hours to reach close friend. How can you accelerate that process?
I’ve noticed that most of the friends I made in my thirties share something more than specific interests. We have the same general idea of what it means to have fun.
A friend is someone whose idea of fun reverts to the same mental age as you. If your idea of entertainment is going out drinking and dancing, your fun age is 19. If the highlight of your week is knitting during a rousing game of Bingo, your fun age might be 87. If you’re like Chandler and Joey, you hit it off with people who can relate to the sheer bliss of pretending to be 4 years old.
My fun age is 9. For me, an exhilarating afternoon is riding water slides, trash talking through ping pong and Scrabble, and playing Mario Kart.
Now, when I meet someone new, I like to ask them what their fun age is. I don’t see a gap as a red flag—friends with different fun ages have a habit of stretching my thinking and expanding my comfort zone. But I do see a similar fun age as a green light—it’s a sign that I don’t have to be embarrassed about inviting an adult to play Nintendo.
What’s your fun age?