How you can forge friendships while boosting your health
It's nice to have alone time every now and then, but too much isolation isn’t healthy—particularly as you get older. There’s growing evidence that shows that your brain and body perceive frequent loneliness as a sign of danger: The body responds by churning out excess stress hormones, which, in turn, raises blood pressure, decreases blood flow to vital organs, and dampens your immune system’s ability to fight infections. Studies also show that loneliness speeds up the natural aging process and is comparable to other risk factors for mortality, including obesity and substance abuse.
There’s a strong case to be made for the power of friendship. If you’re the type of person who’s always struggled to get past small talk to form deeper connections, we’ve gathered a handful of practical strategies to help you expand your friendships.
- Get out of the house and do what you love. When you pursue your passions—whether that’s ballroom dancing, mah-jongg, or hiking—you’ll meet others who have shared interests. The activity brings commonality, so conversation feels more natural. Look for groups that meet regularly and have at least a loose structure—that takes the pressure off having to make plans yourself. Another great way to meet people (and improve your health at the same time): group fitness classes.
- Smile and say hi. As part of her research for “The Happiness Project,” author Gretchen Rubin challenged herself to simply smile and exchange pleasantries with people she met throughout her day. You probably won’t become best friends with the person in line behind you at the grocery store, but this exercise gets you more comfortable with small talk. Try to do your errands on the same days and times each week, to build a rapport with the pharmacist, coffee barista, and other people you see on a regular basis.
- Set small goals. New runners don’t usually sign up for a marathon their first day; they build up their miles and work their way up the race ladder, beginning with something more manageable. The same approach can work for friendships. Start small by pledging to strike up a short conversation with two or three new people this week. Repeat this challenge for a few weeks until you’ve gathered the confidence to invite someone to meet you for coffee or join you on an outing. Once you’ve made it past the initial “Hi, how are you?” ask the person what they have planned for the rest of the day. Then take the opportunity to listen to their response and show compassion. Bonus: While you’re busy listening, you won’t have to worry about what you’ll say next.
The first step is usually the hardest, so just take the leap to talk to someone new. And no matter how you choose to expand your social circle, you’ll be better off for it.