We know that having strong, supportive social relationships positively affects our health and well-being, and that both the quantity and quality of our relationships matter. Yet for many, maintaining our relationships remains a challenge. The idea of making new friends can seem like an impossible task.
As we grow older, life changes such as marriage and building a family may make it more difficult to meet new people. As adults, our preferences also tend to be more established, creating boundaries that prevent new people from entering our circle, or us from entering theirs.
There is nothing wrong with boundaries. In fact, setting boundaries—or better put, balancing social and personal time—is one sign of good social health. The problem occurs when we start to feel our current social network inadequate, whether from not having enough friends or feeling incapable of making new ones.
This can foster feelings of loneliness. When these feelings spill over into our day-to-day lives and prevent us from connecting with others, it can have detrimental effects on our mental and physical health, and even increase our mortality risk.
The good news? It is possible to nurture existing relationships and make new ones, even as an adult. It is never too late to work on our relationships and better our social health. Let’s talk about how to get started today.
What makes a socially healthy person?
In order to get where we want to go, it helps to first know where we are going. That in mind, let us look at some common characteristics of socially health people. In general, socially healthy people:
- Adopt assertive social skills, rather than passive. This does not mean you should be the dictator-type. Rather, telling someone how you feel in a calm, direct manner is an often more effective way of communicating than being passive-aggressive or beating around the bush. It grabs the attention of the person to whom you are talking and often leads to a mutual respect.
- Are true to themselves. In order to be direct and decisive with your words and actions, it helps to be comfortable with who you are as a person. Staying true to yourself in any social setting is a very important skill. It allows you to set those ever-important boundaries with people, while also allowing yourself to be open to new ideas and experiences.
- Treat others with respect. You have heard old adage before, but have you stopped to think about what it looks like? Actively listening to someone as they speak to you, showing genuine interest in what others are saying and building people up rather than bringing them down are all ways we show respect to another person.
- Are able to develop and maintain friendships and networks. This may seem obvious, but it is often the hardest one on the list, and part of the reason for this article. How many times have you met someone only to never speak to them again? What about that friend we have grown distant with for one reason or another? If we are serious about our social health, we must take a proactive role in our relationships. This means following-up with people we meet and want to get to know better, and reaching out to that friend we haven’t talked to in a while.
Why we struggle to make new friends
According to a 2018 national survey of 20,000 participants, nearly half reported feeling lonely at least some of the time. In another study, 45% of adults found it difficult to make new friends.
Evidence shows that those who have poor social connections suffer more from health problems like heart disease and other chronic conditions. They also have an increased chance of depression and other mental health concerns, as well as increased mortality.
So, why do so many people report feeling lonely or finding it difficult to meet new people? The reasons are numerous and complex.
A global pandemic that quite forcibly separated people from one another did not help. We are still reeling from these events, but many people reported feeling lonely even before the pandemic. For some, it is shyness or lack of confidence. Others may have recently started a family or feel that other peoples’ social circles have already formed.
While these reasons may be justified, the feelings that accompany them often are not. When we feel lonely, we often perpetuate those feelings by focusing on the negative aspects of our personality or lifestyle that make it seem impossible to meet new people.
You may think to yourself, “there’s no way this person will like me. I’m too shy!” or “Oh, they look like they have enough friends already; they wouldn’t be interested in meeting me.”
Many times, the opposite is true. One of the quickest ways to open yourself up socially to others is to assume that people already like you. You may be feeling lonely and wish for more connection in your life, but remember, there are others wishing for the same!
There are people out there waiting to meet you. If we can work on changing our perception of not only others, but also of ourselves, we may find it easier to connect with people.
3 ways to expand your social network
This is not an “it’s all in your head” type of message. While self-talk and perception are powerful motivators, there are some practical ways we can combat loneliness and expand our social network. Let us look at three.
Research shows that those who attribute the success of their relationships to the effort (or intention) they put in are less lonely than those who base it off luck.
Think back to when you were a kid. Chances are, it was easy to make friends based on the environment; here you were, surrounded by other children your age, all experiencing life and being vulnerable together. As we get older, those scenarios that make it easy to form connections organically become fewer, so it is up to us to create them. Check out this list of ideas to get you started.
Take the first step
Taking the first step to connect with someone new is vital. Think about it from a professional sense. You interview for the position of your dreams and the one thing you are sure to do afterwards is follow-up!
The same goes for our social lives. Taking initiative shows someone you are genuinely interested in getting to know them. This makes that person feel valued, and people love to feel valued. Make it a goal at least once a week to contact an old friend or schedule time with someone new.
Practice self-care (and do not give up)
Taking care of every aspect of your well-being will put you in the best position to meet and form connection with others. Remember that socially healthy people treat others with respect. That is often because they start by treating themselves with respect.
When we respect ourselves, we are best able to reciprocate that respect on to others. Make sure you tend to all aspects of your well-being: physically, emotionally, socially, financially and professionally.
Making new friends as an adult is hard. It takes time, patience and perseverance. Do not get discouraged. Keep going. While it may not get any easier, we come out stronger and more resilient in the end.
Bottom line: We need each other
We are all different and unique individuals. Yet, one thing that binds us as humans is the need to interact and form connections with others. Just as we work to improve our physical and mental well-being, it is important to focus on the social aspect as well.
If you have a desire to meet new people and expand your social network, the chances are high there is someone out there who feels the same way! With that in mind, a connection is already present—it is up to you make it happen.
About the author
Eric Bilder, CHES®, is a wellness advisor and certified wellness coach at Baylor Scott & White Health. He received his degree in Health Studies in 2016 and has since been working in the corporate wellness world. Eric is passionate about health and wellness and believes preventive care is a powerful tool to staying productive, active and healthy throughout life. Eric loves the outdoors and in his free time, you can find him hiking or camping. He is an avid believer that with the right mindset and some hard work, anything is possible.