How many friends do you have? Is your voicemail box empty and your lunch dates few and far between? Good friendships—ones where there is mutual respect and support—are essential to human happiness, but like a good man or woman, a good friend is hard to find.

"I'm terrible at making new friends," says Sarah Thomas*, 32, a newly divorced lawyer and mother who looked around one day to discover that her friends who once seemed so close have all but disappeared. "As you get older your peer group is not as important as your core family. So it makes going out to make friends difficult because most people have a core family and friends and don't really have time for more."

"Busyness is the biggest obstacle to making new friends as an adult," says Marla Paul, syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of The Friendship Crisis, a book on the importance of women's friendships. "Women juggle so many balls that friendship is often the one they drop. Some feel they barely have time to see the friends they have let alone open their lives to new friends."

As an adult though, the act of going out and making new friends can be as awkward as looking for love. "We are never through making friends," advises Paul. "We need to stay open to new people, but making new friends is definitely an art." Friendship gathering takes some skills, so here are a few tips from the experts:

The oldest friendships are the ones Paul recommends women try to maintain first, even if the connections have faded. "If a woman still cares for her friends, I'd encourage her to try to rekindle the old friendships, perhaps by explaining that she is sorry that she's been out of touch, but would love to catch up."

An old friend on the fringes of your circle might have more to offer than you once thought. A few years ago, a college friend of Terry's from twenty years previous called her out of the blue when he found out she lived nearby and enjoyed biking. "I jumped at going cycling with Jim which was the start of a new friendship even though I'd know him for twenty years," she says.

Many women find that their school environment created the optimum setting for lifelong friendships. "I have many grade school and high school friends," says registered nurse Jean Taylor, 53. "We don't talk often, but when we do it is as if no time has passed. We laugh now at how we are becoming our mothers!"

Paul believes women should start with a clean slate and treat the old chums with the same level of interest as her shiny new pals. "Stay in touch and don't quibble about whose turn it is to call," advises Paul. "Women who hold on to their pals cut their friends some slack; nobody's perfect."

"I had a class in college and sat next to this woman who seemed very cool," remembers painter Brianne Miller, 24. "She always said interesting things when called upon by the professor and I was impressed. I wanted to be her friend so bad! But I could never bring myself to talk to her."

For those of us who have trouble talking to new people, making new friends can seem impossible. "You need to force yourself out of the house and into classes, clubs or organizations you are passionate about," Paul urges. These types of environments give you common ground and ensure you will have at least one thing to talk about with prospective pals. "Even if you don't feel comfortable at first, keep showing up," she encourages friend-seekers.

If this all sounds like the kind of advice usually given to singles, you're not far off. Most of the same principals apply when creating platonic and love relationships. "I believe that in love and in friendship if you are really drawn to someone it is almost always true that they are to you and visa versa," says Terry. "So it is usually easy to figure out who would be receptive."

A bit of flirting also can't hurt, writes Tracy Cox, in her book, Superflirt. "Flirting can dramatically enhance all of your relationships," she writes. "A good flirt makes people feel good and lets others know they find them interesting."

In that first tentative chat with your new acquaintance, it might help to remember a few icebreakers, and "Some weather we're having?" doesn't count. Instead, remember what psychologists call the F.O.R.E. topics: Friends (Do you know Mary?), Occupation (What do you do?), Recreation (I love karaoke. Have you ever tried it?), and Education (Where did you go to high school?)—are all neutral questions that can lead to more conversation.

This tip is a bit simplistic, but in order to cultivate your friendships, you have to be the kind of friend you want. "Women who hold on to their pals pay attention to the details of their lives, support them when they are having problems and cheer their victories," Paul explains. It may be helpful to think of what your perfect friendship might be like and then imagine how you can treat your friends in the same manner.

When friendships are new, it is easy to get in too deep too fast. "It's a delicate balance between encouraging a beginning friendship without trying to push it along too fast," says Paul. "It's having patience for the process," that she says is the key.

For Brianne, she finally met the cool girl at a friend's cocktail party and discovered they shared the same major and even lived in the same neighborhood. "I wanted to ask her out to coffee, but I thought it might be weird. I told her I worked at a bar and she came in a few nights later. That's how I knew she wanted to be friends with me too."

Finding and cultivating new friendships, as daunting as it might seem, has endless rewards. As Emerson wrote, "A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud." Now that's what friends are for.

*Names of respondents have been changed.

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