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How to Find Your People

4 strategies for building and strengthening your community.

March 21, 2024

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How to Find Your People

Illustration: DaVidRo

There is a story in the New Testament in which four friends grabbed a mat and used it to carry a paralyzed man to Jesus, lowering the man through the roof of a hut in hopes that Jesus would heal him.

To inhabitants of what often seems like a fractured, self-obsessed world, this 2,000-year-old story might feel remarkable. This man had friends who were connected to him—and to one another—enough to work in concert to help him. When crowds blocked their way, they doubled down and dug a hole to get him help. It seems like this man had built an enviable community for himself.

Today, so many years later, having a deep network of friends is no less crucial. “There are few things that are more important to our success in life than the social relationships we form and maintain,” says associate professor of psychology Jamil Zaki.

As with most good things, building connection and community requires some work. Zaki, author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, and Xuan Zhao, a social science research scholar at Stanford whose work includes the study of deep social connections, have tips to help. (Trowels optional.)

Look for things in common, but don’t avoid differences.

Most of us have plenty of people around. The next step to building strong friendships, Zhao says, is to find the “why”—the thing that draws you and another person together and keeps you coming back. Consider the seven pillars of friendship—similarities that predispose people to become friends. They include having similar educational and career experiences, sharing a hobby, having similar spiritual viewpoints, and enjoying the same kind of music. Shared activities can help cement a friendship bond. That’s part of the reason work can be a good place to develop deeper connections.

But we can, and probably should, also look for friendships with those who differ from us. “A lot of us are suffering from an overly homogenous community,” Zaki says. “I think that’s bad, not just for us as individuals or for us as professionals, but for our broader community and even our democracy.” People who think differently from us are all around us, but Zaki says we need to be open and curious if we’re to truly engage with them. “It’s more about finding people [who are] probably in your life already, and just being more curious about the divergence between your opinions,” he says.

There’s another kind of diversity that matters in relationships—having friends in different spheres. It is better to have relationships with people from childhood, college, your workplace, and your neighborhood—Zhao calls it a “diverse social portfolio”—than to have the same number of connections stacked up all in one place. Zhao recalls assigning students to “close an empathy gap.” One undergrad chose to focus on age gap—and by talking with women who were older than she was, found she learned from them and gained new perspectives.

Ask for help.

Today we can use a food delivery app to summon a meal when we feel under the weather or call a rideshare when we need to get to the airport. Next time that’s the case, consider asking a friend for help. “It creates a genuine moment of soulful connection,” says Zhao, whose research suggests that people regularly underestimate others’ willingness to help. “We all want to make a difference. We all want to matter, and we all want to feel that we are helpful people.”

The biggest barrier isn’t a lack of kindness, but a lack of willingness to be vulnerable. “There are probably more friends than we realize who are willing to go the extra mile,” Zaki says. Research suggests that we worry about asking for favors. We think that it will be a burden on others. But when you ask somebody for help, “you’re actually giving them an opportunity to express and affirm some of their strongest values,” Zaki says. “It turns out that people are shocked by the percentage of folks who not just comply when you ask for help but are very glad to do so.”

Figure out whether your location is helping or hurting.

Some physical places are better ecosystems than others for finding and maintaining deep friendships. Ryan Frederick, MBA ’05, learned that fact when he settled in San Francisco’s Presidio after business school and found an idyllic community, where residents spent time outside—in part due to relatively small homes—and interacted spontaneously. That experience, and stints working in and developing senior living communities, prompted him to write Right Place, Right Time: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Home for the Second Half of Life.

Certain types of communities make friend finding easier at any life stage:

  • Apartment buildings with tenants who tend to stay longer. (On average, renters in multi-family buildings stay about 27.5 months.)
  • Multiunit buildings, which often have intentional common spaces for community building.
  • Larger communities, which might be more diverse and offer more opportunities to get involved.
  • Walkable areas, which increase the chance that you’ll make serendipitous connections.
  • Front porches, which invite you to sit outside and engage with your neighbors.
  • Smaller living spaces, which can encourage people to spend time outside.
  • Anywhere newcomers are welcomed.


Neighborhoods can differ from block to block, and not everyone has the same idea of what fit is “right.” If you’re considering a move, Frederick recommends that you hang out in the area and, if possible, ask people what they think about living there. If you don’t fit in where you are but don’t have plans to relocate, make creative adjustments. “Plenty of times you don’t necessarily have to change places, but you have to reorient yourself to a place,” says Frederick. For example, Frederick found a trail-running group outside his neighborhood but close enough to be worth the effort.

Don’t forget to notice the relationships around you. Research done in Stanford dorms showed that a positive social microclimate—seeing others with their friends—can make you healthier, even if it doesn’t directly add to your friend count.

Don’t be afraid to go deep.

The experts say that real community happens best when you connect over deep values. In-person friendships are vital, but Zhao points out that online friendships can be powerful, too, including communities that build up around shared challenges, such as facing a rare medical condition.

For most efforts at building relationships, Zaki’s prescription is to be brave and go all in on the real stuff: “The reason that we feel like not being brave is demonstrably misguided. We think that people are just not as friendly as they really are.” He says that having a smaller number of true friends—those with whom you would share bad news—is more important than having a larger number of acquaintances.

There does not seem to be a magic amount of time spent together that results in friendship, the experts say. A study back in the 1960s kept men confined together and found that they reached a best friend–like level of intimacy in about 300 hours. It can happen much faster, though. For example, using psychologist Arthur Aron’s “36 questions,” two people can gradually disclose more about themselves, becoming closer to each other in a single conversation.

Zaki recommends keeping in mind that friendship and community exist everywhere. We just need to give people time and an opening to express their friendliness and warmth. “I think a lot of people feel lonely and are unwilling to give more than an hour a week to finding new relationships,” he says. “That’s just not how it works. Relationships are all around us, so it’s not that we have to go hunting for them. But we do have to invest in them.”


Christine Foster is a writer in Connecticut. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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