Many of us think of socializing as a fun downtime activity, something to wedge in between work, chores, family commitments, and those myriad activities that keep our lives and households running. But social interaction has real mental and physical health benefits, whether that's grabbing lunch or an after-work glass of wine with a friend, scheduling a mommy-and-me playdate or going to a party or networking event. "As a species, we are social animals, which means we need social interactions for feeling we belong," explains Matthias Mehl, PhD, he director of the Naturalistic Observation of Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of Arizona. His research covers the impact of socializing on health and coping with life. "A feeling of social inclusion and belonging has strong positive effects on health, even mortality," he says.
Of course, in our busy world, penciling in social time may seem easier said than done — especially for introverts or those with social anxiety. Luckily, several experts have devised tried-and-true methods to teach even the shyest among us how to be more social.
Socializing can help us live longer, happier lives
Hanging out with friends and family might be the most welcome prescription you've ever received. Multiple studies have shown that being more social doesn't just make your life more pleasant, it can also lower your stress levels, help relieve pain, improve memory, and decrease the risk of diabetes and even delay death. "The effect of having a good social life on health is empirically proven as strong as the effect of smoking on health, exercise on health, sleep on health and eating well on health," Mehl explains. "'Socializing well' should be one of the key health behaviors that any doctor recommends."
And when experts talk about socializing, they mean good old-fashioned, face-to-face contact. While checking in on your friend list on social media may feel like it fits the bill, at least one study has shown that doing so can actually make you more lonely than before. So consider logging off and getting out there — especially if you're not naturally inclined to do so.
It makes us feel more connected
Spending time with other people in the flesh makes us all feel like we're participating in society, in a way that connecting through a screen just can't do. It also makes life more interesting to encounter fresh perspectives, points out author and personal life coach Barrie Davenport, who came up with 99 ways (and counting!) to boost your social life. "Being social can expand your thinking," Davenport says. "It can help you broaden your opinions and your mindset, just being around other people who might have different ways of thinking or being or acting than you do."
If you're still not convinced, face time with others in your field can also help boost your career. There's a reason many industries host conferences and networking events. Even introverts or those who are well established in their chosen field can benefit from stepping outside your cube. "You have to force yourself to get out there and network with other professionals and learn new skills, expose yourself to possible career opportunities," Davenport says. "Other people are your connections to improving your life and finding your new path forward."
So how can I be more social?
To get chatting, start with curiosity
Both Mehl and Davenport believe in the power of a curious mind, when you're looking to improve your social connections. "Curiosity and empathy are two catalysts for meaningful social interactions," Mehl says. "If I think 'I have my life and you have your life,' then I won’t cultivate curiosity about and empathy with others." To get started, ask your conversation partner questions that dive a little deeper than the weather or whether they like the cocktail shrimp.
Try asking how they got involved in their current field, what their childhood was like, or to share a funny story from when they were kids. Asking questions that have more than a simple, "yes or no" answer opens the door for meaningful connection and can help drive the conversation forward. In general though, stick to topics that are as non-controversial as possible. Talking about how you both ended up at an event, how you know the host, or whether you tend to enjoy social gatherings can bring you and your new conversation buddy closer together. Steer clear of potential hotspots like politics.
Practice inviting body language
When you're engaged in conversation with someone, keep an eye on your body language. Make regular eye contact to signal that you're listening and don't keep looking around to see if someone better might come along. Nod along with what they're saying to show you're engaged, even if the room is loud or you're not naturally interested. "You can sort of draw a bubble around yourself," Davenport advises. "Say, I’m with this person right now. And I'm going to get something from this interaction."
If you need to extract yourself from the discussion — say the two of you just aren't jiving or you feel the conversation coming to a natural end — excusing yourself to refresh your drink or visit the restroom are both surefire exit strategies. Don't necessarily write people off if you don't click right away, either. Davenport points out that some people act more reserved in business settings but might be perfectly lovely outside of work. And we all have a bad day, once in awhile. Unless a person's personality completely clashes with yours, it's worth giving each other a second chance.
Consider your social style
Becoming more social doesn't have to mean hitting the club scene every night. Introverts and extroverts may do better in different types of social settings, and it might take some trial and error to determine what's best for you. Introverts often do better in smaller groups, like meeting a couple of friends for dinner or hosting an intimate get-together. By contrast, extroverts might thrive in large, boisterous gatherings and feel right at home as the center of a raging party.
"Both introverts and extroverts are going to find themselves in situations where they feel less comfortable," Davenport points out. "And so you're going to have to do a little extra work to try to manage that and think in advance about what you feel comfortable with and how you can squeeze the most socializing juice out of whatever situation you happen to be in."
And while you're figuring it out, there's something to be said for faking it 'til you make it. Researcher William Fleeson and his colleagues found that people who acted “talkative” and “assertive”—even if they were introverts—reported feeling more positive emotions such as excitement and enthusiasm than those who withdrew.
If you shiver at the very idea of getting out of your comfort zone, don't despair. Socializing can be like a muscle that gets stronger the more you work at it. In time, you'll be the life of the party, even if it's a party of two.
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